Let's begin with the Christian names. Fitzgerald's—Francis Scott Key—constitute a program, point a direction. Not the first name for the father, nor the second for the mother, as is so often the case in the United States, but a jump three generations back for three indissociable names designating the patron under whose aegis the child was to be placed: Francis Scott Key, first cousin of a paternal great-grandmother, Eliza Key Scott. Fitzgerald did not choose them, but he accepted them, assumed and bore them like a flag. And this patronage really was a matter of flags and plumes, as though, the Christian name given, he had then to conquer a last name. Francis Scott Key: four strongly rhythmic syllables, rich in connotations, a prelude after the repetition of the opening F to the pyramidal symmetry of the final, still meaningless, trisyllable with its strongly accented middle measure: Fitz-ge-rald.
The connection with Francis Scott Key and “The Star-Spangled Banner” would be merely anecdotal if it did not shed light on certain themes and attitudes in both the parents and the son who, we must not forget, would make a lifelong point of his relationship with Key. Perhaps because in his distant ancestor he recognized the admirably symbolic situation, the basic motivation that carried him, too, toward literature: frustrated in his desire to become a man of action, to take an active part in the struggles of his time (he would never cease to regret that he could not fight in the Great War), he in turn found himself, like Key watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry from the deck of a British warship, relegated to the role of spectator and, in a sense, in the losers' camp. And writing seemed, as we shall see, a tempting way to compensate for this feeling of frustration. But Key represented something else as well; his name recalls a culture, a life-style, a survival of ancestral virtues, a way of being that was rapidly disappearing from the business-minded America of the late nineteenth century. Perhaps there was a touch of snobbery in this return to the family's origins, but most of all it betokened a deep nostalgia for values threatened by the mercantilism triumphant when Fitzgerald was born.
Francis Scott Key belonged to a patrician, resolutely Catholic family that had settled in Maryland in 1720. Its members had sat in America's assembliesand advised its governors both before and after the War of Independence. The career of Philip Barton Key, the father of Fitzgerald's paternal great-grandmother, Eliza Key, clearly illustrates the importance and influence of a family that prospered despite the vicissitudes of politics. The son of a rich planter, he had read for law at the universities of Edinburgh and London. A British loyalist during the Revolutionary War, he was wounded in action and pensioned by George III. This did not prevent him from making amends to America after the war, winning his pardon and assuming his place in the community as an American citizen. After marrying the daughter of the governor of Maryland in 1790, he served in Congress before making a career as a talented and successful lawyer specializing in Supreme Court cases. Among the most prominent members of his Washington firm was his nephew, Francis Scott Key.
One of Philip's daughters, Eliza, married John Scott, a Baltimore judge who left no trace in American history, but whose lack of luster was compensated by the distinguished origins ascribed to him in the family's annals: one of his ancestors, twenty-seven generations earlier, was no less a personage than Roger Bigot (1150-1221), Earl of Suffolk and Norfolk, himself a descendant of King Sveid of the Vikings. Bigot married a Plantagenet and was one of the nobles assigned to enforce the Magna Charta.
Around 1850 one of Scott's daughters, Cecilia—Scott Fitzgerald's grandmother—wed a gentleman farmer, Captain Michael Fitzgerald, who soon left her a widow with three children, Eliza, John and Edward, the writer's father. Here again, an ancestor's obscurity is made up for by the fabulous lineage attributed to him: legend has the Fitzgeralds descending from the Geraldini family of Tuscany, from an Earl Fitzgerald who ruled over Ireland in the fifteenth century and from the first Catholic landowners to colonize Maryland in the middle of the seventeenth century, after the British crown ceded the territory to Lord Baltimore in 1632. During Cromwell's dictatorship, Maryland was a haven for Catholics persecuted in England and became a royal colony after the Stuart restoration.
Hardly anything is known of Michael Fitzgerald himself except that his family had lived for generations on Glenmary Farm near Rockville, Montgomery County, some twenty miles from Washington. It was here that Scott's father, Edward Fitzgerald, was born in 1853 “in his grandfather's great-grandfather's house” two years before Michael Fitzgerald's death. With his brother, John, and his sister, Eliza, Edward was raised by his mother and his maternal grandmother, Eliza Key Scott, Francis Scott Key's cousin.
In a piece written on his father's death, echoes of which are found in Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald paid tribute in his fashion to the ethical training those two women gave his father: “What he knew he had learned from his mother and grandmother, the latter a bore to me—'If your grandmother Scott heard that she would turn over in her grave.' … He had agood heart that came from another America—he was much too sure of what he was, much too sure of the deep pride of the two proud women who brought him up to doubt for a moment that his own instincts were good.”
The writer ended his essay by noting that his father had always been a stranger to his generation—the generation of victors who had distinguished themselves in the Civil War—and remained an eighteenth-century man: “he was of the generation of the colony and the revolution.” In 1940, when his aunt Eliza (or Elise, as she called herself) died, he wrote to her daughter, his cousin “Ceci” (Cecilia), the Clara of This Side of Paradise, who was sixteen years his senior: “With Father, Uncle John and Aunt Elise a generation goes. I wonder how deep the Civil War was in them—that odd childhood on the border between the states with Grandmother and old Mrs. Scott and the shadow of Mrs. Surratt. What a sense of honor and duty— almost eighteenth-century rather than Victorian. How lost they seemed in the changing world.”
During the Civil War Edward had witnessed the Confederate struggles to capture Washington and liberate Maryland, Southern in sympathies but isolated behind the Union lines. He joined in his neighbors' efforts to aid the Confederacy, guiding spies across the Potomac, helping a sniper with Mosby's guerrillas to escape, watching General Jubal Early's troops march past on their final attempt to seize the Federal capital. With the armistice in 1865, tragedy struck the family: the mother-in-law of one of Edward's first cousins, Mary Surratt, was implicated in Lincoln's assassination. Convicted as an accomplice of John Wilkes Booth, she was condemned and hanged. Edward Fitzgerald was to remember that feverish time all his life, and he would enthrall young Scott with stories of those legendary events. In a foreword he wrote to a book on the historic homes of Maryland, Fitzgerald recalled his childhood enchantment with those tales: “the vistas and glories of Maryland followed many a young man West after the Civil War and my father was of that number. Much of my early childhood in Minnesota was spent in asking him such questions as: 'and how long did it take Early's columns to pass Glenmary that day?' (that was a farm in Montgomery County) and 'what would have happened if Jeb Stuart's cavalry had joined Lee instead of coming all the way to Rockville?' and 'tell me again about how you used to ride through the woods with a spy up behind you on the horse,' and 'why wouldn't they let Francis Scott Key off the British Frigate?'”
One of his first short stories, written when he was only fourteen, was called “The Room with the Green Blinds” (published by his school, the St. Paul Academy, in its magazine, Now and Then, in June 1911); it gives young Scott's version of the story of Lincoln's assassin. The last long story published in his lifetime was “The End of Hate,” based on one of his father's tales (“… he had only a few, the story of the Spy, the one about the Man Hung by his Thumbs, the one about Early's March”). The Civil War also inspired “The Night at Chancellorsville,” an account of the beginning of the battle as seen by a prostitute aboard a train that was briefly held by Confederate soldiers.
The influence of his ancestors' native region is felt in a more diffuse but nevertheless more conclusive way—it is less dependent on picturesque details of local lore and color—in a philosophy of life of which we shall see the importance later on. These patrician forebears' moral heritage, reviewed and revised by a romantic imagination, can be summed up as an idealistic attitude contrasting with America's postwar materialism—the Southern aristocracy's traditional panache, inherited from the English Cavaliers and sharply different from the down-to-earth mercantilism of the Puritans' descendants.
To Fitzgerald, what his father embodied was as much a life-style as a romantic past. In a booming Middle West reaching out toward the future, toward progress, and prizing energy and success above all virtues, he displayed an elegantly courtly nonchalance, exquisite courtesy and a singular capacity for failing in everything he undertook. True, like most of the young men of his generation, he had heard the call of the West. He sought his fortune first in Chicago, then in St. Paul. At the time of his marriage in 1890, he headed a small firm there producing wicker furniture under the pompous name of The American Rattan and Willow Works. His wife bore him two daughters, who were carried off in an epidemic in 1896; a few months after they died, she produced a son, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. Ruined by the economic crisis then gripping the country, the family business failed in 1898. Procter and Gamble hired Edward Fitzgerald as a salesman in Buffalo. That didn't last long. In 1901 the family turned up in Syracuse, where it stayed for nearly three years, changing its residence every year. A daughter, Annabel, was born a few months after the Fitzgeralds arrived there. In September 1903 they were back in Buffalo. The elder Fitzgerald really had no talent for business. In March 1908, at the age of fifty-five, he was fired from his job. This was disaster for the Fitzgeralds. Scott, then eleven years old, was deeply affected. When his father telephoned the news, panic filled him. “Dear God, please don't let us go to the poorhouse; please don't let us go to the poorhouse.” He returned the quarter his mother had just given him to go swimming.
His father had toppled from his pedestal; he was finished now, and his family's affection for him would henceforth be cruelly mixed with pity: “That morning he had gone out a comparatively young man, a man full of strength, full of confidence. He came home that evening an old man, a completely broken man. He had lost his essential drive, his immaculateness of purpose. He was a failure the rest of his days.”
Yet Scott was thinking of his own father when he endowed the fathers ofNick Carraway in The Great Gatsby and Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night with human and moral qualities that made them the oracles to whom their sons turn at moments of uncertainty and crisis. Reverend Diver, especially, is painted directly from life. This is clear if we compare a few phrases—among others that are equally meaningful—from the passage in the novel describing Dick's feelings and reminiscences with almost identical lines in the essay Fitzgerald wrote after Edward Fitzgerald's death in 1931: “Dick loved his father—again and again he referred judgments to what his father would probably have thought or done. Dick was born several months after the death of two young sisters and his father, guessing what would be the effect on Dick's mother, had saved him from a spoiling by becoming his moral guide. He was of tired stock yet he raised himself to that effort.”
Here is the corresponding passage in the essay: “I loved my father—always deep in my subconscious I have referred judgments back to him, what he would have thought, or done. He loved me—and felt a deep responsibility for me. I was born several months after the sudden death of my two elder sisters and he felt what the effect of this would be on my mother, that he would be my only guide. He became that to the best of his ability.”
Despite his failures, perhaps because of them, Edward Fitzgerald long remained a symbol for his son of a concept of life, a moral code that had vanished from post-World War I urban civilization. His public disgrace, however, would have been irremediable had his wife, Mary, not been helped by her family. After the disaster the Fitzgeralds returned to St. Paul and found refuge in the big house owned by her mother, Louisa McQuillan.
In the McQuillan tribe we find the second determining influence in the formation of young Scott's mind and imagination. He was torn between his loyalty to a father who had failed and his admiration for the memory of an energetic grandfather who had carved out a solid fortune in the greedy, brutal years that followed the War of Secession. In 1933, in a period of doubt and introspection, the adult Scott wrote in a letter to John O'Hara of the conflicting influences that marked his childhood: “I am half black Irish and half old American stock with the usual exaggerated ancestral pretensions. The black Irish half of the family had the money and looked down upon the Maryland side of the family who had, and really had, that … series of reticences and obligations that go under the poor old shattered word 'breeding.'”
Philip Francis McQuillan was a very model of the self-made man characteristic of the second half of the American nineteenth century. Fleeing the poverty then prevailing in Ireland, his parents had emigrated to the United States in 1842 and settled in Galena, Illinois, a small town on the Mississippi. It was from there that he set out on his progress to prosperity. At twenty-three he started as a bookkeeper for Beaupre & Temple, a wholesale grocery firm in St. Paul; in 1872 he took over the business and by 1875 he owned afive-story store, then the city's biggest building. By age forty he had made his fortune. But his health was precarious: he suffered from Bright's disease and his lungs were affected. In vain he sought relief in Havana, where he remained for several months; he died in 1877 at the age of forty-three, leaving a widow and four children (a fifth was born after his death), the oldest of whom, Mary—“Molly”—was seventeen. But he also left a fortune the newspapers estimated at $400,000 and a thriving business.
Although they never fully joined in a social life in which they would have felt ill at ease, the McQuillans nevertheless always suitably maintained their rank in St. Paul society. As many as five hundred guests sometimes gathered at receptions in the huge Victorian house at 397 East Tenth Street. Annabel, one of McQuillan's three daughters, was maid of honor at the marriage of the daughter of Northwestern railroad magnate James J. Hill. When McQuillan died, the local papers sang the praises of this “pioneer of wholesale grocery”: “He came here a poor boy with but a few dollars in his pocket, depending solely on a clear head, sound judgment, good habits, strict honesty and willing hands, with strict integrity his guiding motive. How these qualities have aided him is shown in the immense business he has built up, the acquisition of large property outside, and the universal respect felt for him by the businessmen of the county, among whom probably no man was better known or stood higher.”
Clearly, grandfather McQuillan's rapid rise to fortune lent itself to hyperbole; it fit nicely in the mold in which, since the days of Benjamin Franklin, the models were cast that set American imaginations to dreaming. It even recalls the beginnings of his contemporary Andrew Carnegie, who left his native Scotland to seek work in America and founded a kingdom in steel. If McQuillan's success was less resounding, it was because he died prematurely, in full ascension. What he might have achieved is suggested by the career of one of his St. Paul friends who, like Carnegie, founded an empire: James Jerome Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railroad, which linked the Great Lakes with the Pacific Coast. Fitzgerald would allude several times in his work to the Hill legend. In “Absolution,” Carl Miller, father of the future Gatsby, works in one of Hill's transport companies, “growing old in Hill's gigantic shadow. For twenty years he had lived alone with Hill's name and God.” At Gatsby's funeral we hear the father use Hill's name to evoke the great future that had awaited his son: “If he'd lived, he'd of been a great man. A man like James J. Hill. He'd of helped build up the country.”
Fitzgerald, who belonged to a generation of idol smashers and who knew his history, was implicitly condemning the myth as he did explicitly in Tender Is the Night in discussing the origins and rapacity of the Warren family of Chicago—a “ducal family without a title,” a feudal clan on a par with the Armours, Swifts and McCormicks. In the book it is not the colorless Henry Gatz (alias Carl Miller) whom Fitzgerald contrasts with the legendof the empire builders, but the noble figure of Reverend Diver, repository of America's moral virtues. Behind the relationships of the “obscure” and the “titans” we discern Fitzgerald's own attitudes toward the two branches of his family—toward his father's economic failure and his grandfather's spectacular success.
This dichotomy affected his depiction in the novel of America's geographic space. But the East-West opposition on which The Great Gatsby is based ultimately comes down to a deeper and more radical opposition between the great urban centers and the provincial cities where the old traditions survived. During the 1930s Fitzgerald would point out the even sharper differences between the North (including the industrial and commercial West) and the South. He would renounce the McQuillans' moral heritage in favor of that bequeathed him by his father, by another region more cultural than geographic, more mythical than historical: the South. Not Faulkner's violent and bloody Deep South, but the more cultivated and cosmopolitan, more delicate and romantic land of Poe, the moderate South of Maryland, in its origins a royal land, a Catholic land. In a sense he associated the North with the masculine spirit of conquest, the South with the feminine spirit of a quest for happiness, more intuitive, closer to things, to the elements.
The marked partiality in so many of his works did not mean, however, that Fitzgerald idealized his South. We have seen how much on his guard he was against the “exaggerated ancestral pretensions” that seemed one of the characteristics of this land turned toward the past. Ever watchful, he could be ironic about some of his compatriots. Yet through his years of trial, Maryland and especially Baltimore were to remain havens midway between reality and myth, present and past, life and death. In September 1935, during one of his most acute moral crises, he felt a certain comfort in gazing from his hotel-room window at Mount Vernon Place in the heart of Baltimore, where stood a statue of Francis Scott Key: “it is nice to look up the street and see the statue of my great uncle and to know Poe is buried here and that many ancestors of mine have walked in the old town by the bay. I belong here, where everything is civilized and gay and rotted and polite.”
After her husband's death Louisa McQuillan sold the big family house, but continued to live on the hills overlooking the Mississippi, near Summit Avenue, in the middle of the city's most exclusive residential district. She gave her children a strict Catholic upbringing and contributed generously to religious charities. The McQuillan family was considered among the most devout in St. Paul, as attests this passage in a letter from the city's archbishop written to obtain a papal audience for Scott in 1921: “I know his family well, none have merited more of the Church in this city than they have through several generations—staunch, devout, generous.”
Sometimes the whole family would sail for Europe, chiefly to visit Romeand the Vatican. Mary McQuillan made four such trips before her marriage. She married late for her time and circle; she was thirty and did not want to remain a spinster. She wasn't pretty, but she was gentle and romantic. Edward Fitzgerald, seven years her senior, waged a long courtship; he was Catholic, and though he lacked social stature, he had illustrious forebears and gentlemanly manners. They were married in 1890 in Louisa McQuillan's winter home in Washington and spent their honeymoon on the French Riviera, of which Mary retained an enchanted memory. The future, as we have seen, would not be kind to her; first there was the death of her two daughters, then her pride was deeply wounded when her husband lost his job and the family had to ask her mother for asylum. Fitzgerald would later note her remark at the time: “Well, if it wasn't for him [grandfather] now where would we be?” Leaving Buffalo forever, the Fitzgeralds took refuge in the family home at 294 Laurel Avenue; they stayed there a year, with Scott's grandmother and his two unmarried aunts, stern Annabel and pretty, weak-lunged Clara, who had only a few years to live and who spent her winters in Arizona. All three ladies were strictly dressed in black and steeped in piety. Adrift once more, the Fitzgeralds briefly changed addresses: as in the past, they moved frequently, never inhabiting the same house more than three years, always on the edge of the residential district and never very far from its center on Summit Avenue. It was in the attic atop the narrow, vine-covered facade of a red-sandstone two-family house at 599 Summit Avenue that Fitzgerald was to write the final version of This Side of Paradise in 1919:
In a house below the average
Of a street above the average
In a room below the roof.
St. Paul then was a middle-class city with well-seated traditions. On several occasions Fitzgerald made a point of emphasizing that its leading families had been established there for three generations, while other Middle Western cities could at best boast a two-generation past—“just remember,” says the hero of the story “The Ice Palace,” vaunting his city's antiquity to his Southern fiancee, “that this is a three-generation town. Everybody has a father, and about half of us have grandfathers.”
With its residential districts perched atop a rocky cliff rising some three hundred feet above the Mississippi Valley, it dominated its plebeian rival, Minneapolis, a more dynamic, fast-developing city, which tried in vain to acquire the tone and the reserve that made St. Paul the Boston of the Middle West. St. Paul had also grown quickly, but too-sudden acquisition of wealth seemed to have depleted its vitality and changed its former pioneers into coupon clippers straining toward worldliness and the Victorian virtues. This was current at the turn of the century. The McQuillans' sudden fortune and slow decline were typical not only of St. Paul at the end of thenineteenth century but also of those other rich American families, too prompt to deny their origins, whose decadence would be described by Booth Tarkington in The Magnificent Ambersons.
Encouraged by his parents, young Scott, fascinated by the mystery surrounding these social circles, burned to enter them and, if he could, shine in them. Later he would keep his distance, would analyze the workings of the social machine and perceive all the maneuvering and snobbery that fixed each member's place. In 1923, in an account of Grace Flandrau's novel Being Respectable, he recalled how the social life in St. Paul around the middle of the nineteenth century was stimulated by the arrival of wealthy people with sick lungs who were attracted by the supposed benefits of the city's climate: “These Easterners mingled with the rising German and Irish stock whose second generation left the cobbler's last, forgot the steerage, and became passionately ‘swell’ on its own account. But the pace was set by the tubercular Easterners.”
What is notable in this is the distinction bestowed by tuberculosis, a romantic ailment if ever there was one. (Grandfather McQuillan would be ennobled this way and so, later on, would his daughter Clara. Fitzgerald would never fail to make use of that distinction in portraying victims of this dark disease.) Note also the spirit of emulation that drove immigrants' children to ape the civilized manners of persons of rank. The older of McQuillan's sons, Allen, an excellent dancer, was to distinguish himself in society; even Annabel gloried in having been maid of honor to one of J. J. Hill's daughters. We can see what compensatory profit Edward Fitzgerald could make from the fact that he was an authentic Easterner descended from a long line of patricians.
St. Paul's growth was doubtless as rapid as that of most Midwestern cities after the Civil War. Around 1845 it was still just a hamlet peopled by a mere dozen French Canadian pioneers; twenty years later it was a booming city where steamboats arrived daily loaded with immigrants. Two men specially contributed to the city's particular identity: Archbishop John Ireland and railroad baron Hill. In less than a generation the prelate's tireless efforts made St. Paul a bastion of Roman Catholicism in the United States, a rallying point for thousands of Irish and German Catholics driven from their countries by famine or political upheaval. Such a builder was Archbishop Ireland that local residents gave the name Vatican City to the cluster of schools, religious houses and seminaries around the cathedral built from 1906 to 1915, while Fitzgerald was growing up there.
At about the same time Hill, who in 1873 had been, like Philip McQuillan, simply one more of the town's leading citizens, launched his railroad operations. In 1879 he began building the Great Northern Railroad, which in three decades earned $400 million in profits. St. Paul, where many New England businessmen settled before World War I, became a major financial and trading center, the true capital of the great Northwest that Hill's rail-road opened to settlement and cultivation. At the fringe of these growing empires the Fitzgeralds tried as best they could to soften their rancor as people who had missed every train. Edward Fitzgerald was notably lacking in the two qualities, energy and luck, that brought men into step with this march toward expansion. Prosperity's discards, the first victims of depressions that came in series, he and his family lived meagerly, as poor relations do, on crumbs from the feast. True, they lacked for nothing; their children were the best dressed, they went to the best schools, their mother traveled frequently, their father's wardrobe was impeccable, but they owed everything to P. F. McQuillan's estate. Molly had found a husband, but she remained under the tutelage of her mother and her two sisters. Humiliated by this dependence, she renounced any claims to social prominence, gave up trying to preserve appearances. Clumsily, incoherently, overpossessively, she tried to pamper her son, protect him, make him shine, fashion him into a winner whose success would wipe out her disappointment.
But in this too she failed. Scott took his father's side. Edward Fitzgerald, facing up to his situation with the poise of the weak, subscribed to values other than those governing the world that had defeated him. With the materialistic heritage of which he was a dependent he contrasted the cultural heritage of his origins. The vulgar, mercantile present and its shrewd practitioners were confronted with a past of dignity and breeding. This unsuccessful traveling salesman saw himself as representing a higher order, raising his good manners and slightly restrained elegance to the status of rules for living. And the choice of his son's three Christian names was a way of recalling his background, of affirming to the world the permanence of an ideal based not on a quest for riches but on America's old virtues, those of humanistic, idealistic America at the end of the eighteenth century. He probably believed in this deeply, but it was also an effective strategy that saved him from losing face completely. Didn't Molly make a point of telling her son's friends that he was descended from the famous Francis Scott Key? And didn't Scott himself boast of it, at least until he reached his teens?
In St. Paul his father maintained appearances by pretending to be a wholesale grocery broker, but he fooled no one. He didn't even have an office in which to receive his hypothetical customers; he stored his meager stock of samples in a desk in the office of brother-in-law Philip McQuillan's real estate agency. When he bought stamps, he didn't pay for them; he had them chalked up to his wife's account.
Scott's mother, her ambitions disappointed, her emotions lacerated, made a cult of her son. She spoiled him all the more for his fragile health, his susceptibility to colds; she feared he would fall prey to the tuberculosis that afflicted her father and her sister Clara. At the age of one Scott was already a bronchitis sufferer, and his mother took him to spend the winter of 1898 in a Washington hotel, far from the harsh Buffalo climate. But his coughpersisted after their return in June, to her alarm. He would be taken on many similar trips away from Buffalo and, later on, from St. Paul.
For several consecutive years he spent long spells in early spring in Maryland, with his grandmother Cecilia in Rockville or his aunt Elise in Randolph. In 1903 he was a page at the wedding of his cousin Cecilia in Rockville; when he returned there two years later, he learned with horror that the other boy who had carried the train of the bride's gown had just died. In July 1905 he spent some time with his aunt Clara in the Cats-kills. Concerned for his health, she made him swallow a raw egg every morning and then rewarded him with a quarter; every day he used the money to buy another of G. A. Henty's countless historical novels. At age nine he stopped believing in Santa Claus and noted in his diary his suspicion that he was not his parents' son, but a foundling of more exalted origins. That was also the period when he fell in love for the first time, with one of his partners at the Van Arnum dancing school, and he noted her name for posterity: Nancy Gardiner. A year later, in January 1907, he was overcome with admiration for the melancholy grace of a basketball player: “He fell madly into admiration for a dark-haired boy who played with a melancholy defiance.” The idea would be picked up, as was often the case with influential events—for example, his notion that he was not his parents' child—in the first version of This Side of Paradise, entitled The Romantic Egotist: “The Captain of the losing side was a dark, slender youth of perhaps fourteen, who played with a fierce but facile abandon… Oh he was fine, really one of the finest things I ever saw… After I saw him all athletes were dark and devilish and despairing and enthusiastic.”
Scott was already drawing the kind of man he would have wanted to be, the one he described briefly in a diary entry in March 1915: “Perfection: black hair, olive skin and tenor voice.” Boyish yet masculine grace, but marked, etched by defeat. It was then that his father began to lose prestige. After Scott's evocation of the romantic young athlete, we feel the pathos of a lapidary remark two paragraphs higher in his diary: “His father used to drink too much and then play baseball in the back yard.” We can imagine the incongruous spectacle of a drunken old man flailing with a baseball bat at balls pitched to him by a ten-year-old son with sharp and knowing eyes.
Scott had long since distanced himself from his mother by then. Her solicitude exasperated him. She acceded to his whims, while his father already dealt with him man to man, appealing to his pride and dignity. For example, when at age ten he was separated from his family, for the first time, at a boys' camp in Canada and treated rudely by the other boys, he felt desperately unhappy and told his parents how miserable he was. Mrs. Fitzgerald immediately offered to join him. His father sent him some reading matter and a dollar bill along with a few moral admonitions that, however outrageously parodic they may be, appealed to a child's sense of responsibility: “Spend it liberally, generously, carefully, judiciously, sensibly. Get fromit pleasure, wisdom, health, experience.” Scott understood the lesson, thanked his father and tried as tactfully as he could to dissuade his mother from coming; he reversed the situation, forgetting his own troubles to implicitly present things from Molly's point of view, knowing her to be too concerned with her physical comfort not to regret her decision: “Though I would like very much to have you up here I don't think you would like it as you know no one here. … I don't think you would like the accommodation as it is only a small town and no good hotels. There are some very nice boarding houses but about the only fare is lamb and beef.” By way of compensation, however, he extorted a dollar from her for pocket money: “Please send me a dollar because there are a lot of little odds and ends I need. I will spend it cautiously. All the other boys have pocket money besides their regular allowance.”
From the allusion to “the other boys” and the camp norm, we can guess Scott's real motives for writing his letter: to avoid being made to look ridiculous in the eyes of boys already hostile to him by appearing as a mama's boy. Scott, it must be said, was a little contemptuous of his mother's weakness; she encouraged his vanity, pushed him in among people wealthier than his family, always took his side against everyone else, especially against Aunt Annabel, who was firmer and who was scandalized by the deplorable training he was getting. And he was also a little ashamed of this eccentric chatterbox of a woman whose strange airs made her the laughingstock of the neighborhood: she went around with her hair awry, wearing an old hat with tired plumes; inevitably flanked by her umbrella, she thought nothing of going visiting in shoes that didn't match or weren't laced. He resented her living in a childish fantasy world and spending most of her time reading novels borrowed from the public library instead of attending to her household.
Conversely, he had great respect for Annabel, who did not spoil him. He saw in her “the real matriarch of my family, a dried-up old maid, but with character and culture.” He paid tribute to her and to his father's sister, Elise, in a letter to his cousin Ceci: “I was fond of Aunt Annabel and Aunt Elise, who gave me almost my first tastes of discipline, in a peculiar way in which I wasn't fond of my mother, who spoiled me. You were a great exception among mothers—managing by some magic of your own to preserve both your children's love and their respect. Too often one of the two things is sacrificed.”
Even after he became famous and independent, Fitzgerald would lack the courage to accept his mother as she was. When she visited him in France some years after the success of The Great Gatsby, he warned his friends about her, describing her as a kind of shrew; they were thoroughly surprised to meet a perfectly normal person. It wasn't until her death in 1936, when an accident prevented him from being at her bedside and when a bequest—McQuillan money again—had righted a desperate financial situation, that he paid tribute, in a letter to a friend, to the old woman's unselfishness: “By an irony which quite fits into the picture, the legacy which I received from my mother's death (after being too ill to go to her death bed or her funeral) is the luckiest event of some time. She was a defiant old woman, defiant in her love for me in spite of my neglect of her, and it would have been quite within her character to have died that I might live.”
In his heart, however, Fitzgerald was never very close to his parents. The qualities he lent them were cited after their deaths, out of a kind of filial piety, perhaps of remorse at having so little known and loved them. During their lifetimes, once he had shed the illusions of childhood, he held them responsible for his botched education and, too, for the weaknesses—similar to theirs—he found in himself. In a moment of depression he would even write: “Why shouldn't I go crazy? My father is a moron and my mother a neurotic, half insane with pathological nervous worry. Between them, they haven't and never have had the brains of Calvin Coolidge.”
In September 1908 he entered St. Paul Academy, a private high school he was to attend for three years. Still, it was not until the following year, when his first stories were published, that he really took part in the activities that fascinated him. It was also in 1909 that he made friends with a group of boys and girls he met at the dancing lessons his mother made him take at Ramaley Hall, for she knew that there he would consort with the children of the city's leading families. There he saw some of his friends' liveried chauffeurs arrive in limousines adorned with monograms and bogus crests. Gladys Van Schellinger was one of these familiar yet inaccessible people Fitzgerald would later present in one of his stories, “A Night at the Fair”: “A tranquil, carefully nurtured girl who, so local tradition had it, was being brought up to marry in the East. She had a governess and always played with a certain few girls at her house or theirs, and was not allowed the casual freedom of children in a Midwestern city. She was never present at such rendezvous as the Whartons' yard, where the others played games in the afternoons.”
Twenty years later the writer would remember his first intrigues and adventures in that small circle. He recalled in that and the other stories devoted to his alter ego, Basil Duke Lee, the warm dusks filled with shouts and laughter, the childhood games, the anxieties and conflicts of adolescence. In these stories we find the sudden gusts of imagination, the doubts and ambitions of a boy teetering on the line between two stages of life: “Fifteen is of all ages the most difficult to locate—to put one's finger on and say, 'That's the way I was.' The melancholy Jacques does not select it for mention, and all one can know is that somewhere between thirteen, boyhood's majority, and seventeen, when one is a sort of counterfeit young man, there is a time when youth fluctuates hourly between one world and another—pushed ceaselessly forward into unprecedented experiences and vainly trying to struggle back to the days when nothing had to be paid.”
Basil is unquestionably a portrait of the artist as a young man. A few thinly veiled biographical details confirm what the character's psychological makeup suggests: “Basil's father had been an unsuccessful young Kentuckian of good family and his mother, Alice Reilly, the daughter of a 'pioneer' wholesale grocer. As Tarkington says, American children belong to their mother's families, and Basil was 'Alice Reilly's son.’”
Indeed, his friends and playmates immediately recognized themselves in the figures peopling Basil's little world.
The group prefigured the circles in which Fitzgerald would travel later, and his reactions to the Summit Avenue microcosm were more or less typical of those he would feel throughout his life. He was then a thirteen-year-old who had been raised by women, subjected to contradictory influences through which he had learned to thread his way. Notable among these were the incomprehensible demands of his grandmother and his aunt Annabel, pious old women on whom his material satisfactions depended, and the tantrum-shot indulgence with which his mother encouraged his weaknesses. In the background was the faded image of a father whose son was his only consolation and his sole ambition, who took the boy's part against the prevailing matriarchal forces and jealously supervised the smallest details of his grooming and public behavior. But his concept of educating a son was limited to this fashionable gentility; when his responsibilities became too burdensome for him, Edward Fitzgerald took refuge in alcohol.
So when Scott ventured outside this warm family enclave into the larger republic of the children of Summit Avenue, he was painfully surprised to learn that there were other people in the world, an outer world ruled by immutable laws against which he savaged his egotism. Gradually he learned the workings of the rigid, ineluctable machinery of others' psychological reactions to him. Repeatedly he confirmed the continuity of causes and effects, passed through the same stages with the same dismayed and impotent indignation; he had an intolerable desire to impress others, to be the center of attention, to win in an indifferent world (its very indifference made it desirable) the privileged position—now emptied of prestige—he held in his family. Sometimes this imperious desire connected with reality, bringing triumph—whether in schoolwork, sports or romance was unimportant—and the admiration of a nucleus of faithful friends. But Basil/Fitzgerald's smugness and condescension soon made him insupportable; then came the wounded pride, the offended looks, desertion, conspiracy, persecution, rending loneliness, true humility, the intolerable yearning to be recognized as the best of them all—the infernal cycle renewed. And, like Mademoiselle de Scudery's trembling lovers, Scott would set out again along the familiar route across a landscape not of Tenderness but of Vanity toward his unhappy love affairs with the world.
The Basil Duke Lee stories, revealing as they are of the adolescent Scott, were obviously conceived by a man who had surveyed himself and who had known discouragement and success, the extremes of adulation and abandonment. They partly express the Fitzgerald of 1928-29 who, after the success of The Great Gatsby and its promises of glory and fortune, saw thesituation as it really was: idle, sterile, dissipated. His mind plunged back into a past of simpler problems and unequivocal promises, seeking in the boy he had been potentialities, truths that he had since lost. His attitude was a bit like Gatsby's, who wanted to reverse the past, to set apart and annihilate five “wasted” years, reweld the present to a past rich with possibilities and begin life over again, starting from a magical point from which circumstances had forced him to deviate.
We understand with what interest, what detached and yet passionate curiosity Fitzgerald, like a biologist examining a culture medium, inspected the closed world of a bittersweet adolescence; this was a miniature theater in which eagerness to succeed was transposed and purified in a drama without disasters or lasting penalties, as poignant and unreal as a Marivaux fantasy.
Like Gatsby thinking of the crucial moment when he saw in the frail figure he held in his arms all his dreams of grandeur and beauty, Fitzgerald tried to understand the failure of his own dreams by analyzing the role girls played in Basil's formation. Here there is nothing of that sensual awakening, that churning sexual instinct that sent Joyce's Stephen Dedalus through the hot streets of Dublin. Other imperatives dictated Basil's relations with the opposite sex, even with girls he picked up at a fun fair. A girl's heart and lips were mere symbols for him: more than rewards, they were the tangible signs of a victory over his rivals, even, sometimes, over himself. Will, not the senses, was the motor. Fitzgerald's young heroes had to try to seduce out of duty to themselves. We recall Amory's existential repugnance after he had assigned himself the chore of kissing Myra St. Claire in This Side of Paradise: “Sudden revulsion seized Amory, disgust, loathing for the whole incident. He desired frantically to be away, never to see Myra again, never to kiss anyone; he became conscious of his face and hers, of their clinging hands, and he wanted to creep out of his body and hide somewhere safe out of sight, up in the corner of his mind.”
From this particular notion of love's adventure stemmed the requirement that amatory conquest be as difficult as possible. Only a girl in whom were joined the superlatives of beauty and social position—or, failing these, the prestige conferred by having a number of suitors—was worth the attention of this buccaneer as chaste as he was Machiavellian. We find these concerns expressed in regard to a first skirmish that had occurred two years earlier, while he was still in Syracuse. The Thoughtbook of Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald of Saint Paul, Minn., U.S.A. includes a section entitled “My Girls,” which begins with a victory communique. Passing rapidly over his first infatuation with Nancy Gardiner (“I was about nine years old, Nancy about eight, and we were quite infatuated with each other”), the diarist soon reaches the important matter, the first conquest worth the name: “Kitty William is much plainer to my memory: I met her first at dancing school and as Mr. Van Arnam [sic] (our dancing teacher) chose me tolead the march I asked her to be my pardner [sic]. The next day she told Marie Louty and Marie repeated it to Dorothy Knox who in turn passed it on to Earl, that I was third in her affections. … I then and there resolved that I should gain first place.” The moment of triumph remained sharply etched on his mind: “it was there that my eventful day was. We played postoffice, pillow, clap-in-and-clap-out and other foolish but interesting games. It was impossible to count the number of times I kissed Kitty that afternoon. At any rate when we went home I had secured the coveted first place.”
The true American Eve, who refuses to be prey, who turns huntress and defeats men on their own ground, appears in the guise of a Southern girl, Violet Stockton of Atlanta, who spent a summer vacation in St. Paul. She occupies the major part of the Thoughtbook and figures in the Basil cycle under the name of Erminie Gilbert Labouisse Bibble of New Orleans; Erminie is the heroine of “He Thinks He's Wonderful,” “Forging Ahead” and, especially, “Basil and Cleopatra.” In the last-mentioned story the girl's attitude was probably partly inspired by another model, Ginevra King, whom we will soon meet and who was to inspire both the Josephine cycle and the character of Isabelle in This Side of Paradise.
How instinctively Fitzgerald understood her heart and motives, how keenly he perceived her game and how cautiously he handled her! For Narcissus sees himself in her, his inaccessible feminine image. She fascinates him as Amory is fascinated by his mirror. In drag, this blond, slender, graceful boy with the long lashes could easily pass for a girl, could understand women with an intuition generally reserved to other women. He was more comfortable with them than with boys his own age; his true rivalries were with girls rather than with those who sought to steal their hearts away from him. The meeting of Isabelle and Amory is a masterpiece of its land. In the calm ceremoniousness that precedes ritual combat, they observe and gauge each other, estimating their mutual chances like adversaries soon to do battle: “Isabelle had walked with an artificial gait at nine and a half, and when her eyes, wide and starry, proclaimed the ingenue most. Amory was proportionately less deceived. He waited for the mask to drop off, but at the same time he did not question her right to wear it. She, on her part, was not impressed by his studied air of blase sophistication… But she accepted his pose—it was one of the dozen little conventions of this kind of affair. So they proceeded with an infinite guile that would have horrified her parents.”
This was not mere fooling; “amateur standing had very little value in the game they were playing…” The game was a challenge to reputations. Amory breaks with Isabelle when he realizes that she has gained the upper hand: “It wasn't dignified to come off second best, pleading, with a doughty warrior like Isabelle.”
In Fitzgerald's passionate interest in women, in the affinities of taste andtemperament that drew him to them, we discern a curious detour around the tumultuous battle of the sexes to reach a kind of fulfilled peace, a comradeship in love, a reconciliation with the world that might restore the confident warmth and security of his family nest. But until he met Zelda Sayre, he would seek in vain the true sister soul, the ally he needed. He would emerge from most of his escapades hurt, dissatisfied with himself and others. Luckily, he had other means by which to assert himself in the lover's quarrel he waged with the world.
He was particularly anxious to shine in sports. His reading had taught him how popular a good player is at college. He knew the vogue professional athletes enjoyed. Although he had little appetite for rough games—he preferred reading and dreaming—here again he forced himself to violate his instincts. During his second year at the St. Paul Academy he played basketball and football. But he was too short to succeed in the first and too light for the second. His yen to stand out, plus his repugnance at facing opponents more violent and brutal than he, weakened the team. Still, he did derive some prestige from a broken rib suffered in a game. In May 1911, against all logic, he was named captain of the academy's basketball team.
He did better on terrain better suited to his talents and imagination and his penchant for fine phrasing. The first of his stories to appear in print, “The Mystery of the Raymond Mortgage,” ran in the school magazine, Now and Then, in October 1909; the tale reflects his taste for the mystery stories he devoured then. Three more stories would appear in the magazine. “Reade, Substitute Right Half” is one of those familiar daydreams in which Scott soothed his wounded pride by casting himself as the hero: during a game in which the school's honor is gravely imperiled, a young second-string player, called in when all seems lost, covers himself with glory by bringing home a victory. “A Debt of Honor” again relates a brilliant exploit, this time in a sacred setting in Scott's reveries, the Civil War: a soldier who disgraces himself by falling asleep at his post regains his honor by dying gloriously at Chancellorsville. We have already mentioned “The Room with the Green Blinds”; in it Scott imagines the flight of John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated Lincoln and his life in hiding until he is found and killed. An entry in the author's diary for 1911 notes that he was becoming “an inveterate author and a successful, not to say brilliant, debater and writer.”
Winters went by in sleighing parties, bobsledding, skiing. In summertime he was sometimes invited to stay with friends whose parents owned homes on the cool shores of White Bear Lake. He learned to ride and won a first prize dancing the cakewalk with his girl friend of the moment, Marie Hersey. The rest of the year, weather permitting, his crowd gathered in the big, shady gardens that stretched before their houses. Boys and girls played in tree houses, vied at gymnastics, chased each other across the lawns or bicycled along the paths, flirting and falling in love. In bad weather theboys met in each other's homes, but preferably in the attic of Cecil Reed, the Ripley Buckner of Fitzgerald's fiction. It was an ideal place for organizing secret societies; lists were drawn up of real or imaginary people's weaknesses and transgressions and plots laid to dispose of them. The unsuccessful kidnapping of Hubert Blair in “The Scandal Detectives” is based on a real event noted in Scott's diary in April 1911: the victim was his rival Reuben Warner, guilty of having stolen Marie Hersey from him. Usually, however, the attic was a perfect setting in which to relive the action in the stories the boys read. There they could safely impersonate heroes of fiction and of history, cross swords with the three musketeers or play at being men of the world with Arsene Lupin.
Scott's reading, vastly more voluminous and varied than his friends', his always lively imagination and his love of history made him the natural and resourceful leader at these gatherings. Since childhood he had delighted in slipping into the skins of heroic and glorious characters. His Ledger reports how, at the age of seven, he came home from a play about the Revolutionary War, wrapped himself in a red scarf and, alone, acted his hero of the moment, Paul Revere. At the home of a friend, Tubby Washington, he was excited by a miniature theater peopled with cardboard cutouts; while Tubby moved the actors around the tiny stage, Scott improvised a scenario.
The stage was his passion; he never missed any of the Saturday vaudeville shows and operettas at the local theater, the Orpheum. But he was not satisfied with the passive role of spectator; he mimed whole scenes for his friends and family, reciting the most dramatic speeches from memory. When, in the summer of 1911, he was given a part in an amateur production mounted at his school by a spinster named Elizabeth Magoffin, he saw in it a way to show off his talent for imitation and invention. He set to work at once and turned out a one-act melodrama called The Girl from the Lazy J, which was put on with himself as author, leading man (Jack Darcy of Frisco), director and producer. The company, in honor of its founder, took the name of the Elizabethan Dramatic Club. Every summer for four years, Fitzgerald would write and act in a play for the company, with growing success. Later he would apply his skills at playwriting to the operettas produced by the Triangle Club at Princeton. The stage gave him his first public triumphs and wakened him to the hold his talent gave him on the outside world. In this small, sheltered world of limitless potential where each day brought a new discovery, he lived the happiest years of his youth. It is moving to read in the entry in his Ledger, at the foot of page 164, devoted to his fourteenth year, a note added by the writer in 1940, the year of his death: “would begin thirty years ago (1940).”
In that same summer of 1911, Scott was preparing to go East; his parents, disappointed in his grades at the academy, had enrolled him in the NewmanSchool, a Catholic institution where, they hoped, being a boarder would force him to study harder. They thought of it a little as a disciplinary measure; he saw it as a highly promising promotion. He felt he was no longer a child; he demanded long pants, began smoking in secret. With Tubby Washington he began trying to pick up the docile young girls at the fun fairs. If we believe the version he gives of the expedition in “A Night at the Fair,” self-affirmation was his only reason for letting himself be dragged into these escapades; the kiss Basil implants on the cheek of the homely little girl with him on the Ferris wheel gives him no more pleasure than the one Amory steals from Myra St. Claire.
So it was with no regret that he left St. Paul Academy. He had begun to find the ultraprovincial Summit Avenue circle too small for him. His imagination was no longer satisfied with forays into the cosmopolitan settings of his favorite novels; it sought new theaters in which to operate.
To Scott the Newman School, a prep school located less than an hour from New York, represented the fabulous East of his reading and his dreams, the splendor of the great metropolis, proximity to Broadway's dazzling theaters. Newman was also the kind of small community of males, far removed from women's supervision, that Scott had imagined in reading the classics of college life in those days: Tom Brown's School Days, of course, as well as the more specifically American books by H. R. Barbour, C. M. Flandrau, W. J. Lynch. He longed to be there, to star there, to become the hero, like Reade, who saves the school's honor during a dramatic game. Here again, Basil's feelings tell us what Scott felt as the time neared to leave his parents: “Basil … had lived with such intensity on so many stories of boarding-school life that, far from being homesick, he had a glad feeling a recognition and familiarity.”
He was, therefore, unprepared for the reality he found. Newman School was small; a kind of good-natured anarchy reigned there, an unbridled whimsicality that upended all the new boy's preconceived notions. He brought to it a starchy self-importance and seriousness of mind that soon irritated his schoolmates. So he prepared himself to become the Tom Brown of Newman. Within weeks he was ostracized by everyone. He tried to command attention with an insolent ingenuousness that quickly made him detested by the other new boys as well as their seniors. His lack of courage at football was the last straw, damning him in minds already exasperated by his boasting. His dream became a nightmare; his first term at school seemed a never-ending calvary. Two pages in This Side of Paradise evoke his beginnings at boarding school. Only a few lines are needed to set the tone: “He went all wrong at the start, was generally considered both conceited and arrogant, and universally detested… He was unbearably lonely, desperately unhappy… Miserable, confined to bounds, unpopular with both faculty and students—that was Amory's first term.”
More than fifteen years later, when writing “The Freshest Boy,” he would still remember his unhappiness at Newman. For one thing he was made piercingly aware that the world judged him by his actions, not his intentions, that plans are useless without the will to convert them into action. But he also perceived that public failures can be turned into private victories through art. One incident among others showed him the unsuspected power of poetry. He had been accused, wrongly this time, of cowardice on the football field. Bitterly, he wrote a thirty-six-stanza poem in the Kipling manner that more or less duplicated the theme of “Reade, Substitute Right Half,” a breathless celebration of a lone hero who wins for his side. The poem, entitled Football, was published in the school magazine, the Newman News. A sample stanza:
Look, he's clear. Oh, gee! don't stumble.
Faster, faster, for the school.
There's the goal, now, right before you,
Ten yards, five yards, bless your name!
Oh, you Newman, 1911,
You know how to play the game.
The incident, he would write, “inspired me to write a poem for the school paper which made me as big a hit with my father as if I had become a football hero. So when I went home that Christmas vacation it was in my mind that if you weren't able to function in action, you might at least be able to tell about it, because you felt the same intensity. It was a back-door way out of facing reality.”
Scott's second term was hard-going. He was often kept after class because his grades were still poor, but he had learned humility and the value of steady effort. He no longer thought he had only to appear on the scene to win people's admiration and affection. He squelched his imagination and accepted the stern realities that govern the outside world.
His only radiant memories of that melancholy year were of all-too-rare excursions to the theater when his schoolwork won him an evening's leave. He discovered the magic of nighttime New York and the enchantment of Broadway musicals. He admired the stars of that sequined world: George M. Cohan in The Little Millionaire, Ina Claire in The Quaker Girl and Gertrude Bryan in Little Boy Blue. He fell in love with both actresses, who merged in his mind into an ethereal image of femininity. And he couldn't wait to be admired, famous, worthy of such splendid creatures. Riding the train back to St. Paul, he wrote an act directly inspired by a whodunit, Alias Jimmy Valentine, that he had just seen played. Two months later his play The Captured Shadow was put on by the Elizabethan Dramatic Club before a packed and appreciative house. Scott recovered his faith in his destiny, received a photo of Elizabeth Magoffin with a flattering dedication and proudly presented the sum of sixty dollars to the charity on whose behalf the performance was given.
After a consoling Easter vacation with his cousin Cecilia in Norfolk, he finished the school year less ignominiously. His grades were better, he shone in ancient history, to his teacher's surprise, and was the big winner in a track-and-field meet. Meanwhile, he made friends with Charles Donahoe, one of the leading boys at the school, whose erudition had won him the nickname Sap (for Homo sapiens). Sap was from Seattle and, though small, was a football hero at Newman. He and Scott got to know each other better on their long transcontinental trips homeward from New York. Sap's friendliness toward Fitzgerald constituted a general pardon. Scott's errors forgotten, he was accepted by the little community. His second year at Newman went better, but it by no means fulfilled all his hopes. Only by sheer force of will did he overcome the handicap of the previous year.
Still, he did manage to stand out in several sports events, even occasionally replacing the captain of the football team. At the end of the year he again won at track and field. In March he gave a convincing performance as a magnanimous king in a short play written by one of the teachers. And three of his stories were published in the Newman News: “A Luckless Santa Claus,” telling of the misadventures of a man whose wish to help others brings him nothing but trouble; “Pain and the Scientist,” an ironic criticism of Christian Science; and “The Trail of the Duke,” on a theme—a millionaire's life—borrowed from such favorite authors as Robert William Chambers, E. Phillips Oppenheim and David Graham Phillips. For Scott read voraciously, but had no patience for what bored him. He still spent little time with the poets. His father had enchanted his childhood by reading aloud the best-known bits by Poe and Byron, but, except for the Allegro, which charmed him, only Tennyson's suave cadences and Kipling's stoic couplets held his attention. Among the novelists, aside from the three mentioned above, he was particularly fond of Booth Tarkington, who was to become his favorite at Princeton, and especially of his book The Gentleman from Indiana, a satire on Middle Western political customs. Scott kept Owen Johnson's famous Stover at Yale at his bedside; from it he learned the science of succeeding as a student that, he thought, would help him avoid at Princeton the mistakes he made at Newman.
At the start of his second school year he met his spiritual guide, the man whose influence over him would be the deepest during the succeeding seven years: Father Sigourney Webster Fay. The attraction was mutual and instantaneous: “He and Amory took to each other at first sight—the jovial, impressive prelate who could dazzle an embassy ball, and the green-eyed, intent youth, in his first long trousers, accepted in their own minds a relation of father and son within a half-hour's conversation.”
Sigourney Fay, just turned thirty-seven, was a member of the Newman board and soon to become the school's director. A recent convert to RomanCatholicism, ordained a priest two years earlier, he had a neophyte's zeal, but his was an intelligent zeal that presented religion not as an arduous road to eternity but as an end in itself, a way of living to the fullest as an individual here on earth. Fay's religion could inspire the most tumultuous feelings as it could the most exalting meditation. Stout, jovial, of a contagious gaiety, his ruddy face haloed with very pale blond hair, he might at first have been taken for Pickwick in a cassock. But behind this heart of gold and child's soul was a man of the world, a polished esthete, friend of Cardinal Gibbons and of Henry Adams, with entree in Washington through such men as British Ambassador Spring Rice, whose confidant he was. Fay was always about to leave on some special mission, on “trips to all parts of the Roman Catholic world, rather like an exiled Stuart king awaiting to be called to the rule of his land.” In 1918 Pope Benedict XV made him a prelate. “Do you know that the holy Father has made me a Prelate, so that I am the Right Reverend Mgr. now,” he wrote in an amusing letter to Fitzgerald, “and my clothes are too gorgeous for words. I look like a Turner sunset when I am in full regalia.” (Fitzgerald would use the comparison almost verbatim in This Side of Paradise.) He was all charm, spontaneity, curiosity; he could listen to anything, understand anything, was sure enough of his own faith to speak of it with wit and detachment. Romantic and enthusiastic, he struck a responsive chord in young Fitzgerald, whom he soon made one of his favorites. Fay later appeared under the name Monsignor Darcy in This Side of Paradise: “Children adored him because he was like a child; youth reveled in his company because he was still a youth, and couldn't be shocked. In the proper land and century he might have been a Richelieu—at present he was a very moral, very religious (if not particularly pious) clergyman, making a great mystery about pulling rusty wires, and appreciating life to the fullest, if not entirely enjoying it.”
Scott was delighted by so much warmth and understanding. For the first time an adult outside the family circle listened to him attentively and took him seriously. In his visits to Fay's house he discovered a world of refinement that eclipsed anything his reading might have led him to imagine. He was judged worthy of introduction to the Catholic aristocracy: Margaret Winthrop Chanler received him with his mentor in her magnificent Hudson River mansion. Better yet, he was made to feel he was accepted by this prestigious elite, recognized as a peer, a young Shelley whose future was assured. The feelings of inferiority he nourished concerning his Irish ancestry and his religion were senseless given the respect bestowed in such circles on the Roman Church and the Celtic mind.
The indisputable authority Fay enjoyed in Scott's eyes led the boy to re-evaluate the Catholicism that had been identified in his imagination with the narrow bigotry of the black-clad women of St. Paul. His feelings about his Irish blood also changed: Fay, whose mother was of Irish ancestry, and hisfriend Shane Leslie, a young writer, son of an Irish baronet and newly come down from King's College, Cambridge, insistently proclaimed the superiority of Irish Catholicism over Anglo-Saxon Protestantism.
Five years later, in a review of Leslie's novel The Oppidan, Fitzgerald recognized how strong the two men's influence had been: they “made of that Church a dazzling, golden thing, dispelling its oppressive mugginess and giving the succession of days upon gray days, passing under its plaintive ritual, the romantic glamour of an adolescent dream.” Leslie would confirm this in an article that appeared in 1958: “To him Catholicism meant all that was middle class, dull, unpoetical and fettering in the Middle West. It was with a shock that he realized how romantic and exciting Catholicism could seem to a convert… We encouraged him to believe that he could write the unwritten great Catholic novel—the John Inglesant—of the United States.”
When Fitzgerald doubted himself most, then, when his child's dreams broke against fact and the adolescent sought desperately for a new way, Fay opened wide to him the doors to a glittering world. The priest brought him comfort and hope, restored his confidence in his destiny, transposed his naive ambitions to a higher plane and gave him the feeling of belonging to an elite group that expected much of him. Finally, and most important, Fay vivified Scott's wobbling faith, setting it on new foundations, blending it with his philosophic anxieties and his poetic effusions. Even when, in his last years at Princeton, after Fay's death, Fitzgerald strayed from the Church, the flexibility and breadth of his spiritual father's religious concepts enabled him to hang on to what was essential in Fay's message while giving himself over to a fashionable literary paganism. For the rest of his life he would preserve a latent religiosity, would always feel a need to transmute the phenomena of the material world to a higher plane. His way would be a sort of confused Neoplatonism; behind the century's chaotic semblance he would try to find not so much a moral as a luminous oneness, the glittering, lost paradise that haunts the fabric of his great works like a memory.
The dissociation of the sacred and the profane, of spirit and body, seems to have been revealed to Scott at a tender age when, to a boy with a strict Catholic upbringing, it was self-evident that the wonders of the universe could only be of divine origin. The experience we are going to examine seems not to have left any visible trace in his conscious mind. Only through the recurrence in his work of the theme of light can we measure the reverberations of a childhood episode mentioned in a line in his Ledger for August 1901: “He attended the Buffalo Exposition, the Pan-American.”
Two other details, noted down the same year, can help us understand the effect of contrast produced on his childish imagination by the exposition's marvels. One is the birth in January of his sister Annabel: “His first certain memory is the sight of her howling on a bed.” The other is the discoverythat certain parts of his body—specifically, his feet—caused him a sort of shame and repulsion. Writing of a visit to Atlantic City, he told of how he avoided showing his bare feet by refusing to go into the water: “Some Freudian complex refused to let him display his feet, so he refused to swim, concealing the real reason. They thought he feared the water. In reality he craved it.”
Here was a coddled child going on five, the center of his parents' world, who in the space of a few months made two traumatizing discoveries, the second probably precipitated by the first: to start with, that he was no longer the only child, the one whose whims were law, and that he would have to share his parents' affection with the howling object named Annabel; next, that he was not pure spirit, that he also had a body the feet of which sum up the situation's full horror. We recall that it was Amory's glance at the apparition's feet in This Side of Paradise that told him he had to do with a demon.
His visit to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo probably helped unveil an extraordinary world to him in which human weakness was reduced to its proper proportion. No event, however tragic, could have dimmed the brilliance of that fair. In fact, its inauguration was marked by the assassination of President William McKinley, which could only have fixed the memory in the child's mind, even if that memory seems not to have recurred to the adult who in 1922 transcribed the jottings from his Ledger.
The exposition—“The Rainbow City”—occupied a square mile in south Buffalo. In a city still a decade away from providing electric light for its inhabitants (the Fitzgeralds had used oil lamps in their two years in a lower-middle-class neighborhood there), visitors to the exposition were dazzled by a glitter of lights like a vision from The Thousand and One Nights, dominated by a Goddess of Light whose glow could be seen as far away as Niagara Falls. It was all wheeling searchlights and phosphorescent spouts, cascades of fire, gardens haloed by clusters of colored lights, and fountains glimmering in the summer nights.
Exposition brochures, preserved in the Buffalo Historical Museum, were lavish in their descriptions of visitors' wonder at this riot of light. Could Scott Fitzgerald, who summoned equally enchanting visions in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” and so many other stories, have been indifferent to the magical glare in Buffalo?
Especially in “Absolution”: Father Schwartz's mystical vision of a brilliant light that captivates the joyous crowds, a light he compares with that of an amusement park sparkling in the night, was obviously inspired by the Buffalo exposition.
Another event, this one much more personal and domestic, was soon to establish a symbolic bond between two hitherto distinct happenings we have mentioned in connection with the exposition: McKinley's murder and the appearance of the Goddess of Light. The event itself seems trivial but,as much as his father's tragic dismissal from his job, was to leave a lasting trace in young Scott's imagination. This was the round spanking he received from his father just before the fireworks display one July Fourth evening. “I ran away when I was seven on the Fourth of July. I spent the day with a friend in a pear orchard and the police were informed that I was missing and on my return my father thrashed me according to the customs of the nineties—on the bottom—and then let me come out and watch the night fireworks from the balcony with my pants still down and my behind smarting and knowing in my heart that he was absolutely right. Afterwards, seeing in his face his regret that it had to happen, I asked him to tell me a story.” This close connivance, this mutual compassion, is the product of a harsh but necessary action, one that establishes recognized and accepted limits. It was thus that Roman farmers stamped indelible traces of their hereditary limits on their children's memories.
The relationship of corporal punishment and a fairy vision echoed in Scott's mind two years later in the twinning of the President's assassination and the boy's discovery of a world of splendor. This pairing of the ineffable and the disastrous certainly has something to do with the sensitivity Fitzgerald would show in his work to the beauty of lights in the darkness. It was a moral as well as an aesthetic sensitivity; the appearance of lights is often linked to a feeling of anxiety, a premonition of disaster.
In “Absolution” the festival of lights follows the stern punishment little Rudolph receives from his father and is immediately followed by the death of another, spiritual father, the priest. The festival's brilliance is associated with the boy's rejection—in a sense the murder—of his father and remains a symbol of his resultant guilt. This Oedipal metaphor, this key to Fitzgerald's imaginative process of generalizing from particulars, may explain to us why Fitzgerald's role was so important in forming the sensibility of his time. It may signify the general refusal of daily constraints, the sense of radical liberation from the grip of the past that Americans manifested in the twenties. Fitzgerald identified himself with this rejection of tradition, gave it a voice, a style. He became his generation's spokesman, he raced passionately toward the mirage of festival lights; at the same time he felt remorse at having transgressed his limits, having violated quasi-divine laws—an orphan awaiting his punishment and accepting it.
Newly emerged from a harsh period in his life, a particularly vulnerable Fitzgerald, thanks to Sigourney Fay, acquired the balance and self-confidence he had lost as a small child. He found a second family, the elective one he had dreamed of when he denied his own parents. He thought of himself as a foundling, mysteriously designated as a descendant of the Stuarts, and he would compare Fay to “an exiled Stuart king awaiting to be called to the rule of the land.” In Fay he found his mother's attentive solicitude without her importunity, and his father's advice and behavior, but with vastly more breadth and imagination. With Fay, morality became anadventure, and religion, poetry, the joy of writing became the most honorable of ambitions. For the first time the profane blended with the sacred, the will to win with the assurance of fulfilling a mission. These were precarious moments of faith and certitude that would recur only fleetingly, while he was writing The Great Gatsby. But by the time he left Newman School, he had undergone a change that henceforth made him a stranger to St. Paul provincialism and the narrowness of family life. He was ready to confront his first great adventure: the conquest of Princeton.
By the time he was ready to enter university in 1913, then, Fitzgerald had weathered the crisis that had almost ended his studies in the East. His grandmother had just died and left a large estate ($125,000), which gave the Fitzgeralds long-term financial security. Now he could attend any university he chose; he no longer had to go to the University of Minnesota, which would have been cheaper but utterly without prestige. And he could turn down Aunt Annabel's offer to pay for his studies if he would enroll in the Catholic Georgetown University where his father had been a student. He gave several reasons for his choice of Princeton, the most decisive apparently being that his talents would find an ideal outlet in the Triangle Club's theatricals: “Near the end of my last year at school I came across a new musical-comedy score lying on top of the piano. It was a show called His Honor the Sultan, and the title furnished the information that it had been presented by the Triangle Club of Princeton University. That was enough for me. From then on, the university question was settled. I was bound for Princeton.”
We will see later that his old dream of becoming a football hero also entered into his decision. He was much impressed by the annual Princeton-Harvard game he watched in November 1911, in which Princeton's fullback Sam White sent him wild with a heroic eighty-five-yard run to score the winning touchdown. His preference for the Princeton eleven is analyzed in The Romantic Egotist in a way that recalls the melancholy grace of the basketball captain he once noted: “I think what started my Princeton sympathy was that they always just lost the football championship. … I imagine the Princeton man as slender and keen and romantic, and the Yale man as brawny and brutal and powerful.” Sports and theatricals were the areas in which he wanted to shine at St. Paul and Newman, and it was through them that he would try to stand out at Princeton.
But he still had to pass the entrance exams, and he was a long way from ready for them. He would later admit that he cheated and that he had never forgiven himself. Even so, he failed the written test. He made up for it in an oral exam that allowed him to plead his cause eloquently, and the jury, perhaps more impressed with his possibilities than with his knowledge,gave him the benefit of the doubt. That day was his seventeenth birthday. He immediately telegraphed his mother, asking her to send on his football gear.
The various portraits he drew of Amory coincide with what the photos pasted in his album tell us of his physical appearance around 1913: a boy with blond hair, long lashes and finely chiseled features, slightly shorter than the average American, dressed with studied elegance. He noted several times that he had a lot of charm and that he was not unaware of it. His state of mind was more complex than those fairly conventional photos might suggest, and he showed a self-knowledge that was unusual in a boy of his age. Scott's Catholic education probably fostered his characteristic introspection. He overlooked none of his weaknesses. Having learned the lessons to be drawn from his mistakes at Newman and St. Paul, he could now judge himself with some objectivity. Here is the balance sheet he drew up about himself in The Romantic Egotist in a passage that would later be condensed and carried over, with the detachment that the third-person singular confers, to This Side of Paradise. First, the good points: “I considered that I was a fortunate youth capable of expansion to any extent for good or evil. I based this, not on latent strength, but upon facility and superior mentality.” Physically: “I marked myself handsome; of great athletic possibilities, and an extremely good dancer.” Intellectually: “Here I had a free hand, I was vain of having so much, of being so talented, ingenious and quick to learn.” [“Ingenuous” in the original, which is obviously inappropriate here. Such confusion was typical of a young Fitzgerald more concerned with the sound of a word than its meaning. (A.L.V.)]
He clear-mindedly contrasted his social graces with the gaps in his morality: “I was convinced that I had personality, charm, magnetism, poise and ability to dominate others. Also I was sure that I exercised a subtle fascination over women.” To balance this, “I had several things on the other side. First: morally I thought I was rather worse than most boys, due to latent unscrupulousness and the desire to influence people in some way, even for evil. … I had a curious cross-section of weakness running through my character. I was liable to be swept off my poise into a timid stupidity… I knew I was completely the slave of my own moods, and often dropped into a surly sensitiveness most unprepossessing to others. … I knew that at bottom I lacked the essential.”
In conclusion: “There seemed to have been a conspiracy to spoil me and all my inordinate vanity was absorbed from that. At the last crisis, I knew that I had no real courage, perseverance or self-respect. … If I may push it farther still, I should say that, underneath the whole thing lay a sense of infinite possibilities that was always with me whether vanity or shame was my mood.”
The only remark that does not figure in the novel's first version is oneabout sex, an unknown quantity in the equation, “a puzzled, furtive interest in everything concerning sex.” This was the moral baggage with which he had passed through the storms at Newman and which he now readied to confront college life.
When he entered Princeton, the university, although considered one of the “big three” of American higher education after its elders, Harvard and Yale, had only 1,500 students. But it was in the process of growing and changing. For a generation new buildings had been sprouting everywhere. Fitzgerald's Princeton witnessed the final years of what Dean Christian Gauss would call “the Indian summer of the 'College Customs' era in our campus life.”
Although founded nearly two centuries earlier, Princeton on the eve of World War I was an almost new university. Except for half a dozen buildings, the campus, with its great trees and ivy-shrouded Gothic towers celebrated in This Side of Paradise, was no more than a quarter of a century old.
It is interesting to watch Fitzgerald's imagination at work, bestirring itself to ripen, improve, detach itself in a temporal mist from a too obviously contemporary group of buildings. His desire to re-create a palace worthy of his dreams, to cover Princeton with a venerable and romantic patina, is easily detected simply by checking the construction dates of the halls whose mystery and antiquity he extolls in a descriptive page in his novel. In the following passage the dates are given in brackets: “… he wanted to ramble through the shadowy scented lanes, where Witherspoon  brooded like a dark mother over Whig  and Clio , her Attic children, where the black Gothic snake of Little  curled down to Cuyler  and Patton , these in turn flinging the mystery out over the placid slope rolling to the lake.
“Princeton of the daytime filtered into his consciousness—West  and Reunion , redolent of the sixties, Seventy-nine Hall , brick-red and arrogant, Upper and Lower Pyne , aristocratic Elizabethan ladies not quite content to live among shopkeepers, and, topping all, climbing with clean blue aspiration, the great dreaming spires of Holder  and Cleveland  towers.”
We see that of the twelve buildings cited, only one, West, dates from before the Civil War; one of the two towers whose spires symbolize the poetry of his campus had been standing for three years at the time of Amory / Fitzgerald's song to them, the other only a few months. In 1927, ten years after he left Princeton, Fitzgerald saw it with the same eye:
“Two tall spires and then suddenly all around you spreads out the loveliest riot of Gothic architecture in America, battlement linked to battlement, hall to hall, arch-broken, vine-covered, luxuriant and lovely over two square miles of green grass. Here is no monotony, no feeling thatit was all built yesterday at the whim of last week's millionaire; Nassau Hall was already thirty years old when Hessian bullets pierced its sides.”
Despite the allusion to the Hessian mercenaries who fought against Washington, it is clear that Fitzgerald always saw Princeton through a lover's eyes. Here the university is approached from the south, seen from a train window, and it was on the southern side of the campus that the most recent buildings stood. Nassau Hall—cited at the end of the paragraph as though to authenticate the whole setting—is located on a rise that slopes gently toward Nassau Street, the main thoroughfare bordering the campus on the north, and cannot be seen from the train or the station. Besides, whatever Fitzgerald may have thought, most of the buildings owe their existence to the generosity of millionaires whose influence was strongly felt in the university's development.
It is to be noted that Fitzgerald was more receptive to turn-of-the-century neo-Gothic architecture than he was to the severely ordered vestiges of the eighteenth century. It was neo-Gothic that provided the matter of his reverie, and this was extended by the reading of his favorite poets, especially Dowson and Swinburne. Princeton was bemisted in decadent fin-de-siecle poetry, in the mysterious colors of Pre-Raphaelite painting. Its forms were bathed in a religiosity that wholly conformed to the vision Sigourney Fay would have had of the world. And this medieval decor enabled Fitzgerald to identify himself completely with Compton Mackenzie's hero Michael Fane, whose sensual education at Oxford (in the third book, “Dreaming Spires,” of Sinister Street) gave Scott a cultural model, a lifestyle, a series of poses he would have sought in vain in the American tradition. These stereotypes could only have been authenticated at a Princeton that resembled as closely as possible the Oxford described in Mackenzie's novel, published in 1913, Fitzgerald's freshman year. That he was aware of all this is certain; he saw Princeton as Amory saw it: “The world became pale and interesting, and he tried hard to look at Princeton through the satiated eyes of Oscar Wilde and Swinburne.”
We must not, however, neglect the historical factor, the true Princeton legend that combined with the Fitzgerald family's legendary past to confirm a teenaged Scott in his feeling of being different from the friends he had left in the West, of being made of nobler fiber. His arrival at Princeton was, in a way, a return to a lost motherland. The certainty of belonging to an elite, of being heir to a great tradition, the accent he placed on charm, courtesy and courage—all these were, in varying degrees, formative elements in his personality development. He would find illustrations at Princeton for, especially, his concept of a “gentleman,” in examples from the past as well as in present reality. Despite his slightly theatrical preference for neo-Gothic architecture, the real spirit of the place lived for him in its vestiges and memories of the Revolutionary period. He skipped over the intervening generations to find men after his own heart, contemporaries of his illustrious Maryland ancestors.
This takes us back to the school's origins. It was founded by Presbyterian ministers in 1746, over a century after Harvard (1636) and nearly a half century after Yale (1701). The College of New Jersey, located first in Elizabeth and then in Newark, moved to its permanent home in Princeton ten years later, after Nassau Hall was built to house it. It would not take its present name of Princeton University, however, until its 150th anniversary in 1896, the year of Fitzgerald's birth. During the Revolutionary War, Nassau Hall was used as a barracks and hospital by the British and American armies, and it was at Princeton, on January 3, 1777, that Washington won his first battle. Nine Princetonians, the largest delegation from any American college, sat in the Constitutional Convention in 1787. In those days the College of New Jersey shared its Southern-aristocracy clientele with William and Mary College in Williamsburg and with the Philadelphia Academy. In founding the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1819, Jefferson gave the South the cultural center it needed, but, by tradition, Princeton would remain the university most popular with students from states south of New York.
The major building program ended the year Fitzgerald entered, when a residential graduate school devoted to research, the first such institution in the United States, was solemnly inaugurated. The decisive influence of an energetic university president, Woodrow Wilson (1902-10), was making itself felt.
Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister and himself a devout Presbyterian, was the first president of the school who was not a churchman. The board of trustees that hired him saw in him an exceptional man, enthusiastic, resolute and objective, who would accomplish at Princeton what other dynamic college presidents—Daniel Gilman at Johns Hopkins, Andrew White at Cornell and, especially, Charles W. Eliot at Harvard-had done for their schools: transform it into a cultural center adapted to the new demands of an America that was beginning to play a part in international affairs. He was young—forty-six—and had come to know Princeton's particular problems as a professor of constitutional law there for a dozen years.
As soon as he took office, he envisaged far-reaching structural changes, but he began by attacking the most pressing problems: to rouse university life from the torpor into which it had fallen, to effect a transfusion of new blood before subjecting the organism to major surgery. His most original achievement was the formation of a corps of some fifty “preceptors” who were to transform teaching methods. Until then, instruction had been by lectures only. Wilson's innovation, inspired by British methods, aimed to supplement professorial lectures by a seminar system in which small groups —five or six students—would work under the direction of an assistant, or preceptor.
For Wilson, however, these changes were merely the prelude to a more radical transformation of Princetonian life. Again borrowing from the British, he set about altering the arrangement of the campus by basing it around quadrangles that would unify Princeton as they did Oxford and Cambridge. Each square would be surrounded by buildings containing classrooms, dining halls and dormitories grouping students in a given branch of studies, their preceptors and perhaps some of their professors. Wilson believed that the quad system would establish organic, homogeneous, harmonious groupings in place of the anarchy that scattered students haphazardly through dormitories and classrooms all over the campus.
Before Wilson's time students' only meeting places were highly selective clubs to which only three out of four students were elected at the end of their sophomore year. It was a time-honored system, though considered undemocratic by students excluded from the clubs. Wilson was shrewd enough to interlace the negative and positive aspects of his reform, eliminating the clubs while instituting the quad system. Obviously, his plan required a sweeping, and costly, building program. And the luxurious clubhouses that lined Prospect Avenue, one of Princeton's noblest thoroughfares, represented considerable capital. Was Wilson, in the name of the school's morale, going to play Henry VIII to Princeton's England, despoiling institutions whose only sin was to own valuable real estate? In his defense it should be noted that a number of student movements aimed at suppressing the clubs had already arisen. During Fitzgerald's last year at Princeton—Wilson was in the White House by then—a rebellion by sophomore students threatened the clubs' existence and divided the campus into enemy factions. It took America's entry into the war to restore peace to the school.
The main charge against the clubs was that they perpetuated the social barriers erected by the students' backgrounds, fostering a debasing snobbery and systematically consolidating distinctions that a properly conceived university community should abolish. For a decade admission to his favorite club had been an undisputed sign of a student's success, and it had become students' prime preoccupation during their first two years at the university. The criteria by which club members chose new pledges were as vague but categorical in their exclusiveness as those governing elections in any nonuniversity club—America's big country clubs, for example; they were designed to maintain a certain tone and an esprit de corps within a given circle. As a system, it had its defenders. “The clubs have been called undemocratic,” said Fitzgerald's friend John Peale Bishop, “as if a goosestep method should be applied to choosing one's friends. They have been assailed as snobbish when many a poor but honest student has found that neither poverty nor honesty could keep visitations of upperclassmen and election committees from his door… The trouble with the clubs is that, once in them they matter so little after having seemed to matter so much. During the first two years even quite sane students look upon these formidable buildings onProspect Street as having the awesomeness ofthe College of Cardinals and as having the hereditary privileges of the stalls of the Knights of the Garter.”
Rivalry was keen among freshmen and sophomores anxious to be noticed by the influential upperclassmen on whom depended their entrance into the prestigious world of Ivy Club, noted for its aristocratic refinement; Cottage, worldy and stamped with Southern elegance; Tiger Inn of studied, churlish simplicity, the athletes' Olympus; or the unctuous, evangelizing Cap and Gown. Although there were nine clubs extant in the period around 1910—their number would double in the succeeding twenty years—the system's iniquity lay in the fact that one out of four sophomores was refused by all of them and so was exposed to the humiliation of being rejected by the little communities on Prospect Avenue.
This was the situation that Wilson tackled and that subsisted throughout Fitzgerald's college career, to the great prejudice of his studies. Criticized on all sides, the university's new president saw his costly project of replacing the club system by a quad system rejected by donors who lined up behind the no less costly plan to establish a graduate school. Defeated by an influx of massive donations to the moneymen's favorite project, Wilson resigned in 1910 to run—with relief—for the New Jersey governorship. Two years later he was elected President.
Such was the rather sordid little war that ended with the completion in 1913 of the Graduate College on the site where Washington had beaten George Ill's troops. For the Newman boy who entered that year, its noble architecture, especially the spaciousness of Procter Hall and the tall spire of Cleveland Tower, would symbolize the thrust and fervor of his aspirations. Its program of intensifying and broadening scholarship to give it new dignity would begin bearing fruit even during Fitzgerald's time at Princeton. So did the newly developed preceptor system. And the foreign languages department was growing fast under the direction of Christian Gauss, the most remarkable of the teachers Wilson hired.
If the war generation at Princeton includes so many distinguished names —such as Edmund Wilson, John Bishop, T. K. Whipple, G. R. Stewart and Fitzgerald—the credit belongs largely to the work of this professor of French and Italian language and literature. Gauss began teaching at Princeton in 1905 and was soon entrusted by Wilson with expansion of the embryonic modern languages department. When Edmund Wilson entered the university in 1912, he noted the department's excellence and its popularity with the students. “By the time I came to Princeton, in the class of 1916,” he later wrote, “the Modern Language Department was one of the best in the country and had become very much in the fashion with the more intellectual students. This was one of the results of Wilson's administration, but entirely the creation of Gauss, who had not always found it easy to get Wilson to accept his proposals.” Edmund Wilson compared the situation in 1912 with what it had been a generation earlier: “My father, of the class of 1885, was drilled in French with more force than finesse by an exiled Polish general who swore at his students as though they were troops.”
Gauss was certainly one of the very few Princeton professors to capture Fitzgerald's attention and esteem. He first influenced those students whose minds were already open to the world of ideas, such young men as Bishop and especially Edmund Wilson. Wilson's picture of Gauss's culture and method might very well describe his own critical work: “… extreme flexibility and enormous range were, of course, a feature of his lectures. He was able to explain and appreciate almost any kind of work of literature from almost any period. He would show you what the author was aiming at and the method he had adopted to achieve his ends.” As Wilson remarked, however, Gauss also reached more frivolous minds, notably Fitzgerald's: “Less directly, perhaps, but no less certainly, the development of F. Scott Fitzgerald from This Side of Paradise to The Great Gatsby, from a loose and subjective conception of the novel to an organized impersonal one, was also due to Christian's influence. He made us all want to write something in which every word, every cadence, every detail, should perform a definite function in producing an intense effect.”
Gauss was austere and shy, seldom outgoing, but always receptive, generous with his time when students came to him with problems. An admirer of Flaubert and Dante, but equally capable of remembering his conversations with Oscar Wilde in Paris and of stressing the importance of Spengler's The Decline of the West, he brought more than flawless competence to his courses; he also invested them with a conviction and an enthusiasm that carried his message across to his audience. The long, warm essay Wilson devoted to him nicely conveys how much esteem and gratitude he inspired in his most demanding students: “In his role of the least didactic of sages, the most accessible of talkers, he seemed a part of that good eighteenth-century Princeton which had always managed to flourish between the pressures of a narrow Presbyterianism and a rich man's suburbanism.”
The secret of his success was probably that he could make the authors he talked about contemporary with his audience, alive and necessary, not mere subjects for academic exercise. Wilson's most telling tribute to Gauss's flexibility and intelligence was that a man teaching at Princeton during World War I “admirably prepared us for Joyce and Proust.” In that atmosphere of absorption in struggles for prestige, in which all that seemed to matter were the tumultuous glories of the stadium, the frippery of the Triangle's operettas and the smug vanity of the big men on campus, this retiring little man quietly affirmed the unarguable superiority of the life of the mind, ushering the best of those young men into a higher culture and igniting their literary ambitions.
Fitzgerald, quick to spot the inadequacies in his English professors, had tobe deeply impressed by Gauss's solid teaching, by his tranquil certainty that great writers were the salt of the earth. For the first time in an institutional setting, he saw Sigourney Fay's convictions—of the primacy of the mind and of art—confirmed with incontestable authority. He watched a new code of values take shape, one that ignored hollow textbook formulas to express the conviction of a man he could not help but respect and admire. Had Gauss done nothing more for Fitzgerald than to instill in him a lasting belief in the superiority of the artistic and intellectual ideal over the codes then prevalent on the campus, his achievement would already have been considerable. That influence was extended and reinforced, however, by the efforts of a friendly but merciless and vigilant Wilson. Through many vicissitudes, it would develop what Fitzgerald called his “intellectual conscience,” a painful awareness of the struggle between a demanding ideal and the allure of facility. But it raised his best work to the level of excellence Gauss preached. The professor's courses, which Fitzgerald did not follow until near the end of his school career, remained an isolated phenomenon for him, the exception that proved the rule.
It seems that only one other teacher succeeded in interesting him, in a course on the English Romantic poets. But, as he remarked in his article on Princeton, the effect of this professor's lectures was nullified by the assistants assigned to his exercises: “a surprisingly pallid English department, top-heavy, undistinguished and with an uncanny knack of making literature distasteful to young men. Dr. Spaeth … aroused interest and even enthusiasm for the Romantic poets, an interest later killed in the preceptorial rooms where mildly poetic gentlemen resented any warmth of discussion and called the prominent men of the class by their first names…”
Fitzgerald's lack of interest and application gave some of his English teachers the impression that he was poor in the subject. One of them, who became head of the department, was so convinced of the young man's weakness in English that he was never to believe that Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby. Scott also irritated another member of the department, Jesse Lynch Williams, who might have seemed just the man to understand him. Cofounder with Tarkington of the Triangle Club, Williams had published Princeton Stories in 1895, a collection of the kind of tales of student life Fitzgerald loved. In 1917 his play Why Marry? won a Pulitzer Prize and became a Broadway hit. Fitzgerald went to see it. Then, in a discussion with Williams, he reversed the student-teacher relationship and analyzed for the author his play's technical weaknesses and structural flaws. Hadn't Fitzgerald, after all, written four plays and three operettas of his own?
Scott found his true mentors in classmate John Bishop and in Edmund Wilson, who was a year ahead of them. These were his elders in age as well as maturity of mind and breadth of culture. It was their example, their encouragement and, often, their frank and unsparing criticism that led him to the education that Princeton, except for Gauss, could not give him. He hadalways been a voracious reader, indiscriminatingly devouring everything that came to hand. At the age of twelve, he noted in his Ledger, he had formed the habit of reading in bed before going to sleep, “a life habit.” He might have added that the habit created difficulties for him. He read quickly, assimilated what he read even faster, which meant that he knew infinitely more than his classmates in the various schools he attended. He already knew some of the things his teachers told him, considered the rest uninteresting and was impatient with the torpor of his schoolmates' minds. Hence his dislike for formal schooling. It wasn't until he reached Princeton that he found boys his own age to whom he could talk and whom he could emulate. Scott's first meeting with Bishop in the spring of 1914 is described in This Side of Paradise: “They sallied into a discussion of poetry, in the course of which they introduced themselves, and Amory's companion proved to be none other than 'that awful highbrow, Thomas Parke d'Invilliers,' who signed the passionate love-poems in the Lit. He was, perhaps, nineteen, with stooped shoulders, pale blue eyes, and, as Amory could tell from his general appearance, without much conception of social competition and such phenomena of absorbing interest. Still, he liked books, and it seemed forever since Amory had met anyone who did… So he let himself go, discussed books by the dozens—books he had read, read about, books he had never heard of, rattling off lists of titles with the facility of a Brentano's clerk. D'Invilliers was partially taken in and wholly delighted. In a good-natured way he had almost decided that Princeton was one part deadly Philistines … and to find a person who could mention Keats without stammering … was rather a treat.”
Bishop told of the meeting in similar terms: “We talked about books: those I had read, which were not many, those Fitzgerald had read, which were even less; those he said he had read, which were many, many more.” This was written over twenty years later, and Bishop placed the meeting in September, a few days after his arrival at Princeton, in a place exquisitely named for such an encounter, the Peacock Inn. He slyly stressed the connection: “The lights came on against the paper walls, where tiny peacocks strode and trailed their tails among the gayer foliations.”
Stimulated by the exchange, conscious of his inadequacies, Fitzgerald devoted his nights to discovering a whole realm of poetry that, until then, had been closed to him. His friendship with Bishop had its crises, but it would remain warm and sincere. Bishop, four years older than Fitzgerald (illness had delayed his schooling—tuberculosis again, it has been suggested), belonged to an old Virginia family. With more cause than Fitzgerald, he was proud of his lineage, which went back to the Scottish aristocracy. Passionate about poetry, sensuous and a bon vivant, making no secret of his love affairs, he cut a figure on campus of a graceful aesthete with the blase air of a young libertine.
Fitzgerald knew that Bishop had a secret that was denied his professors: afervor for literature that they lacked. It was Bishop who taught him the essence of poetry; it was his example and his criticism that opened the doors of writing to his younger friend. When Fitzgerald tried in 1940 to teach his daughter to love poetry, he used Bishop as his example: “It isn't something easy to get started on by yourself. You need, at the beginning, some enthusiast who also knows his way around—John Peale Bishop performed that office for me at Princeton… He made me see … the difference between poetry and non-poetry. After that one of my first discoveries was that some of the professors who were teaching poetry really hated it and didn't know what it was about. I got in a series of endless scraps with them so that finally I dropped English altogether.”
Among the poets Bishop loved, Keats was the favorite. The student's sensuality chimed with the carnal sense of life and death the poet expressed in his sonnets and odes; he saw his own sensitivity in Keats's desperate love of the world, a love intensely shared by this young man who felt himself dying and who affirmed his precarious presence in the world in sumptuous and musical language. Bishop transmitted his veneration to Fitzgerald, for whom Keats would remain the most accomplished, the most moving of poets.
Fitzgerald did not find in Wilson the same community of temperaments and tastes, the same brotherly complicity and intuitive awareness of the other's resources and weaknesses that he so valued in his relationship with Bishop. To Bishop's indulgence, his amused tolerance of everything that was superficial and showy in Scott, succeeded Wilson's straightforward and sarcastic reproof. Wilson was the first to admire, perhaps even to envy, Fitzgerald's facility, but we feel in his comments the expert's irritation at seeing an ignoramus succeed by what seemed like luck, or pure intuition, where toil and knowledge failed. He seemed fascinated by Fitzgerald, with an incredulous fascination in a writer of raw talent who could make words evocative and phrases come alive even though his vocabulary was limited and his grammar shaky.
Fitzgerald, on the other hand, admired in Wilson the qualities he lacked in himself: his imperturbably objective judgment, his faculty for abstract reasoning, his easy honesty in handling concepts and a seemingly exhaustive knowledge of literature that was constantly nourished by well-planned reading. The two young men immediately established a master-disciple relationship: humility and submission from Fitzgerald and, from Wilson, haughty irony and biting comments. But there was a balm for the wounds: the admission that this barbarian had talent, that although he committed every imaginable literary sin, there was an unquestionable vital energy in what he wrote. Here is a brief example of Wilson's brand of peremptory criticism, taken from a study he wrote of Fitzgerald five years later. Slyly, he quoted poet Edna St. Vincent Millay: ” 'To meet F. Scott Fitzgerald is to think of a stupid old woman with whom someone has left a diamond; sheis extremely proud of the diamond and shows it to everyone who comes by, and everyone is surprised that such an ignorant old woman should possess so valuable a jewel; for in nothing does she appear so inept as in the remarks she makes about the diamond.'” Wilson hastened to add that Fitzgerald was far from stupid, that he had a lively, stimulating mind, but that the parable expressed a symbolic truth, and that it was a fact that “Fitzgerald has been left with a jewel which he doesn't quite know what to do with. For he has been given imagination without intellectual control of it; he has been given the desire for beauty without an aesthetic ideal; and he has been given a gift for expression without many ideas to express.”
Fitzgerald liked being whipsawed. He needed flogging more than praise, provided the strokes were well placed. He was grateful to whoever uncovered his weak points and hammered at them. We recall his respect for stern Aunt Annabel and his gratitude for his father's rare moments of firmness. He consented to be Wilson's whipping boy without a murmur, contritely. For he recognized a superiority in his friend, an authority he was never to question. He made Wilson his mentor, his “intellectual conscience.” Even when he was twenty years out of Princeton, Fitzgerald could still write to him after a brief reunion: “Believe me, Bunny, it meant more to me than it could possibly have meant to you to see you that evening. It seemed to renew old times learning about Franz Kafka and latter things that are going on in the world of poetry, because I am still the ignoramus that you and John Bishop wrote about at Princeton.”
When a wonder-struck Fitzgerald first entered Princeton's gilded bowers, early in the fall of 1913, the quad system, that dream of scholarly communities wholly consecrated to learning, was forgotten and the clubs were flourishing, stronger than ever. In the years immediately preceding America's entry into the World War, their primacy was unchallenged. It was by unconditional submission to their code of values, far more than by scholarship or respect for university rules, that Fitzgerald, his ambition rekindled, thought to carve out a reputation for himself on campus. Later, when John Grier Hibben, Woodrow Wilson's successor as president of Princeton, complained that Fitzgerald's first novel portrayed only the futile side of university life, the author wrote to him that he saw the school system as having been conceived uniquely for students without talent or imagination.
It is true that his efforts to maintain average grades, undemanding as these were, consisted mainly of cramming for exams. For he had a different notion of what a university was. Like St. Paul Academy, like Newman, Princeton to him was merely a social frame, a meeting place, a source of experience. But it was also an enchanted palace, a refined theater governed by rules as arbitrary as those of chess, where, for four years, the commedia dell'arte of his ambition was to be played out. For the canvas sketched at St. Paul's, enlarged at Newman, he would find the suitable setting, the talented actors and poetic atmosphere that would let him give free rein to his gift for improvisation and his rich imagination. In the dreary suburbia stretching from Trenton to New York, it was a secret and luminous place that seemed to have been imagined by the Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Fitzgerald's Princeton was a community—one is tempted when reading his stories to call it an order of chivalry—that was, of course, organized to fit the needs of a particular social class. But it really reflected only a stylized image of that class, fragmented and reconstituted according to a very special perspective. It lived by its own rules, which were not always those of the time. It had its heroes and its martyrs, its ceremonies and cults, its scalesof values and taboos. Lectures and academic exercises were queer, anachronistic survivals at best, concessions to the outside world's idea of the education of a gentleman. Fitzgerald's remarks to Hibben were corroborated by Bishop, whose article on Princeton showed that while he understood the social polish and worldly veneer the university could give its students in those days, he was skeptical of how much intellectual training a gifted youngster could receive there. “If I had a son who was an ordinarily healthy, not too intelligent youth,” he wrote, “I should certainly send him to Princeton. But if I ever find myself the father of an extraordinary youth, I shall not send him to college at all. I shall lock him up in a library until he is old enough to go to Paris.”
Princeton manifestly aspired to be something other than the seedbed of knowledge and culture that Harvard was, something other than a test site for success, like Yale. Its specialty, if we are to believe some of its most illustrious alumni, was to encourage its students—more systematically than its great rivals did—to cultivate a particular image of gentility that reached beyond the notion of a Victorian gentleman toward an older aristocratic ideal. To take purely intellectual pursuits too seriously was a breach of taste at Princeton. A love of books could not be openly paraded there as it could at Harvard, nor could competitiveness be flaunted, as at Yale. Both had to be tempered with blase nonchalance and a cool aestheticism. A young man seeking to get ahead at Princeton had first of all to be a man of the world who had learned to avoid excessiveness and zeal.
Princeton in those days, then, can be defined as a distinctive, homogeneous social grouping united by a community of feelings and principles rather than a consensus of interests and ideas. It seemed to have established ideal conditions for getting to know one's fellows, once the necessary initiation procedure was completed and certain obstacles overcome. What this produced was a society as closed and artificial as the court of Louis XIV, or, rather, to keep things in their proper proportion, as one of those late-eighteenth-century German principalities where even a Goethe could seriously play at being a chamberlain. Life at Princeton had very little to do with what was going on in the world outside; this enclave of lawns and bowers and monuments was a happy island in which the rumblings of the avid, feverish America of industrial trusts and social conflict were not heard. There, education in the sense of breeding, of manners, had priority over the dissemination of knowledge; its aim was worldliness in a very particular world: a princely education. Some minds that naturally tended toward study and reflection—Edmund Wilson's was one—were indignant at the presumptuousness and restrictiveness inherent in such a concept. But it is easy to see its appeal to students less curious about art and literature than about good manners and satisfied egos. Princeton's reputation in the early years of the century was summed up in Amory Blaine's explanation of whyit attracted him: “I think of Princeton as being lazy and goodlooking and aristocratic—you know, like a spring day.”
In a closed society the importance—indeed, the necessity—of clubs is obvious, as are the importance and necessity of those great group rituals, football games. Not to mention alumni gratitude, pride and generosity toward the shrine of their gilded youth, where they lived intensely their most impressionable years. Equally understandable is the insurmountable nostalgia that stalked them when they left the magic circle to face, alone, the material and psychological realities of a world that had been fashioned without them. Unless there was steel in their souls, they seemed condemned to wander in a vain search for a life as perfect as the one they left behind them, like Tom Buchanan in Gatsby, “one of those men who reach such an acute, limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anticlimax.” Such men outlive themselves, so to speak, finding no place for themselves in adult life. “Tom would drift on forever, seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.”
Football was a key element in this social system. The manly Princetonian ideal had long been symbolized, almost parodically, by the statue of D. C. French, the “Christian Student,” which stood facing a dormitory with its back to the library. The figure was in football uniform, the powerful torso encased in a jersey with its right sleeve rolled up to accentuate the muscular arm. The other arm, holding a pile of thick books, was half-shrouded in the folds of an academic gown tossed carelessly over the left shoulder like a musketeer's cloak. French's handsome, haughty face was stamped with male self-assurance as he stared blankly and, it seemed, myopically into the distance.
College football got under way with a Princeton-Rutgers game in 1869; by the turn of the century it had acquired an importance it would long hold in university life. (It still draws crowds to the stadia, of course, but it no longer has the sacred status it once enjoyed on American campuses.) Fitzgerald celebrated it at length, pondering its meaning:
“For at Princeton, as at Yale, football became, back in the nineties, a sort of symbol. Symbol of what? Of the eternal violence of American life? Of the eternal immaturity of the race? The failure of a culture within the walls? Who knows? It became something at first satisfactory, then essential and beautiful. It became … the most intense and dramatic spectacle since the Olympic games.”
In his first novel we see how much of a cult was devoted to members of the football team. They were the community's champions, in the medieval sense, defending its prestige and honor in perilous tournaments. One of the sights that most deeply struck Amory's imagination on his arrival at Princeton was that of a file of white-clad senior-class men singing in the twilight like a phalanx of demigods descended among mortals. At their head wasthe supreme hero, the captain of the football team. “He sighed eagerly. There at the head of the white platoon marched Allenby, the football captain, slim and defiant, as if aware that this year the hopes of the college rested on him, that his hundred-and-sixty pounds were expected to dodge to victory through the heavy blue and crimson lines.”
The passage clearly betrays the author's veneration of his model for Allenby, a boy named Hobey Baker, who was team captain in 1913; the feeling was heir to Fitzgerald's enthusiasm for Sam White's exploit against Harvard in 1911, and it announced a later surge of emotion when he saw “the romantic Buzz Law … one cold fall evening in 1915, kicking from behind his goal line with a bloody bandage round his head.” So deep was the thrill that the sight of his idol ten years later, when Fitzgerald was at the height of his fame, stirred the old feeling: “… on the Champs-Elysees, I passed a slender, dark-haired young man with an insolent, characteristic walk. Something stopped inside me; I turned and looked after him. It was the romantic Buzz Law…”
The team, having survived the grueling selection process, was considered the flower of Princeton's youth, its highest aristocracy, the august caste to which every freshman dreamed of belonging. Football was the surest and most obvious road to glory. Like most of the other boys, Fitzgerald tried his luck, foreshadowing Amory who, “having decided to be one of the gods of the class … reported for freshman football practice.” It was a foolish hope and soon dashed. Desire alone could no more compensate at Princeton than it had at St. Paul's or Newman for his inadequate physique and lack of real athletic ability. The intensity of his yearning to be a university sports star, and the bitterness of his disappointment when the miracle refused to happen, survived the trivia that bred them to live again in the adult Fitzgerald's daydreams. “As the twenties passed,” he wrote, “with my own twenties marching a little ahead of them, my two juvenile regrets—at not being big enough (or good enough) to play football in college and at not getting overseas during the war—resolved themselves into childish waking dreams of imaginary heroism that were good enough to go to sleep on in restless nights.”
Although he failed to enter the priesthood in the cult, he nonetheless remained an attentive and enthusiastic worshiper. Until the end of his life he would mingle with the crowds in the big university stadia. “I reveled in football as audience, amateur statistician and failed participant,” says the narrator of “The Bowl,” a short story about football at Princeton. The team's coach, Fritz Crisler, vividly recalled how Fitzgerald, long after leaving college, would phone him in the middle of the night from some distant city on the eve of a big game against Harvard or Yale to recommend unusual plays that he insisted were infallible winners.
To Fitzgerald, as to his fellow students, a game was far more than just a sports event. It was a chance to unashamedly proclaim his faith in, and lovefor, his college, to share with other clansmen in a feeling of communion. A football field was an extension of his conscience and the game a proxy for his private combat, a perpetual battle of the Horatii and the Curiatii, with Princeton most often playing the poignant and melancholy role of the losers. Even more than a collective ritual, however, despite the crowds and the cheering, the duel was intensely personal: Fitzgerald the spectator vibrated in unison with the rest of the congregation, but what happened on the field touched him personally in the deepest recesses of his heart:
“The eleven little men who ran out on the field at last were like bewitched figures in another world, strange and infinitely romantic, blurred by a throbbing mist of people and sound. One aches with them intolerably, trembles with their excitement, but they have no traffic with us now, they are beyond help; consecrated and unreachable—vaguely holy.” In fact, football's fascination for him was an accurate gauge of his longing to be a man of action. The games were a microcosm in which, with flexibility and clockwork precision, the ballet of his deepest desires transpired. In it he saw “a molding of the confusion of life into form.” He experienced the catharsis that Aristotle demanded of drama, and through it, for brief moments, he could exalt his eagerness for a life of action and glory, for the crowd's delirious approval. Football superimposed exalting images on that dark area that his choice of a writing career had left unconquered. It revived the triumphal imaginings of his boyhood, his dreams of a life of public acclaim and, at the same time, his bitterness at his inability to realize his vision of the complete man, an ideal blend of man of letters and man of action. He lost himself fervently in this ceremony, which, in a wholly satisfying way, dramatized the ideas dearest to his heart: winning personal glory in a team fight, fast and spectacular action supported by popular enthusiasm; spontaneous, coordinated use in moments of crisis of his finest qualities —intelligence, courage, decisiveness and a spirit of self-abnegation. As long as the game lasted, Fitzgerald was the man he wanted to be.
His dying thought was for his college's football team. He was annotating an article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly when he was struck dead by a heart attack. In his copy of the magazine, a pencil line still runs wildly down a page of a story about the current football season.
After football the fields of activity offering ambitious students the highest degree of self-satisfaction were the theater and journalism. Journalism primarily meant three organs: the Daily Frincetonian, in which university problems were debated; The Tiger, a humor magazine with a more specifically student tone and spirit; and the Nassau Literary Magazine, called the Lit by the faithful, which published the first poems, stories and essays of budding men of letters.
Fitzgerald chose the easiest of the three to break into, The Tiger, besieging it with brief reports, gossip, jokes. It was printing his contributions beforethe end of his first semester, without credit, to be sure. The theater was more demanding, but it also promised more tangible rewards. Fitzgerald had already savored the intoxication of success on the boards at St. Paul's. At Princeton he first enrolled in the English Dramatic Association, hoping to snare a part in the classic drama it staged every year. But he soon perceived that the company's prestige was pale in comparison with that of the Triangle Club, which offered a much broader scope for his eclectic range of talents. Founded twenty years earlier by Booth Tarkington, one of the literary figures Fitzgerald most admired at the time, Triangle put on an annual show, a musical comedy entirely conceived and acted by the students. This required a wide array of skills: scenario writer, songwriter, librettist, actors, singers, director, stage manager, and so forth. Chosen by a committee from among the manuscripts offered, the book often had to be revised, set to music and adapted before parts were assigned during the summer vacation. Rehearsals began in the fall and went on for three months. The work had to be good enough to be taken on tour by the company at Christmas to a dozen major cities including Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago, even New York.
Fitzgerald's stage experience with The Captured Shadow and The Coward seemed to him to legitimize his ambition. He plunged into the contest, feverishly rereading Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and Oscar Wilde's plays and submitting manuscript after manuscript. His perseverance, his brio and, of course, his talent made him a winner over some formidable rivals. In 1914 the Triangle president was named Walker Ellis. He was an elegant junior from New Orleans, nonchalant and witty, the type of man who personified for Fitzgerald—still fretting over St. Paul's provincialism—the brilliant and sophisticated world he hoped to live in. Scott's comedy, entitled Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi!, was accepted, revised and signed … by Ellis. The alliterative title was in the musical comedy tradition: it would become Ha Ha Hortense in This Side of Paradise. There had been an Oh! Oh! Delphine in 1912, and George Gershwin's first musical joined the parade with La, La Lucille in 1919. Vincent Youmans's 1925 musical No, No, Nanette was in the same mold. But Fitzgerald's play was generally viewed as different from its Princeton predecessors. It steered strictly away from the student tradition. For one thing it introduced a bold and boyish character, the Flapper, whose freedom of manner and language delighted audiences. For another, it made skillful use of the new ragtime rhythms: short, syncopated verses of heavily stressed comic rhymes. It was an instant hit, and Fitzgerald was asked to write the lyrics for the 1915 production, called The Evil Eye. Edmund Wilson had begun writing the book, but he was too intellectual to enjoy such amusements for long; when he grew bored with it, he asked Fitzgerald to help him. “I am sick of it myself,” he wrote in a letter to his friend. “Perhaps you can infuse into it some of the fresh effervescence of youth for which you are so justly celebrated.”
This took up, feverishly, the first half of 1914. No marchioness would have intrigued more ardently for a place at Louis XIV's feet than Fitzgerald schemed to fill the role that meant success at Princeton. He was always available, always eager, ready to prove his loyalty.
In February 1915 he began to harvest the fruit of his labor. He was elected secretary of the Triangle Club, a post that could provide a springboard to the presidency. His consecration as a Princetonian came a month later, when, along with his old friend Sap Donahoe, he was elected to one of the “big four” clubs, Cottage, of which Walker Ellis was then president. And he had been solicited by several others, including Cap and Gown and Quadrangle, which were chosen by Bishop and the other men of letters in his group. In May he was elected to the staff of The Tiger. Meanwhile, he proved he was able to write other things besides musical comedy lyrics and satirical squibs. Before the end of the school year two of his stories were accepted by Wilson, who was editing the Lit—“Shadow Laurels,” published in the April issue, and “The Ordeal,” run in June. The second story was good enough to persuade H. L. Mencken to run a revised version in The Smart Set five years later. Life was all smiles, all Fitzgerald's goals were fulfilled. He couldn't know that he was approaching the Tarpeian rock. As spring edged toward summer, his thoughts were all for the girl he was soon going to meet in New York.
For Scott's Princeton triumphs were matched by a romance that gave them their full value. The two enterprises were complementary and interdependent, each helping to promote the other. His certainty of belonging to the elite of his generation gave him the self-assurance he needed to attract and hold the attention of a Chicago society girl. At the same time, to shine in her eyes, he redoubled his efforts to become a Princeton celebrity.
Naturally, the girl he chose was the richest, the most popular in her set. Her reputation alone, the legend surrounding her, won him sight unseen. Ginevra King, sixteen, daughter of the fabulously wealthy Charles Garfield King, was bold and brilliant, uncontested queen of the fashionable places through which she gyrated with her cloud of admirers. She was only a name to Fitzgerald when, during the 1914 Christmas vacation, he decided to make a special trip to St. Paul to meet her. Marie Hersey, Ginevra's roommate at Westover and Scott's source for the fabulous rumors about her, told him she had invited Ginevra to spend the holidays in Minnesota. Here was game fit for the hunter. It pleased him to think she was destined for him, like a distant princess married by proxy to an unseen prince.
He did not meet her until January 4, 1915, the eve of his return to Princeton, at the Town and County Club. It was a memorable encounter; Fitzgerald would describe it in detail in “Babes in the Wood,” a story written two years later and in turn incorporated, with a little retouching, into This Side of Paradise. In a matter of hours the two youngsters measured,judged and accepted each other. Ginevra knew how much vanity there was in Scott's devotion. He was aware that Ginevra was flighty, forever seeking new adventures. This was confirmed in a letter from his old rival, Reuben Warner, who said she had cozied up to him after Scott left. Despite this, a love story began to unfold that was to go on for two years, a fiction maintained by countless letters from both Scott and Ginevra—an exercise in imagination, an almost perfect illustration of Stendhal's theories about the “crystallization” of love. For they seldom saw each other. Their meetings were always memorable; Fitzgerald would use them later in This Side of Paradise and in the Basil and Josephine stories. Their first reunion was in February in the Westover lounge, their second in June in New York, “one night when she made luminous the Ritz roof on a brief passage” before they separated for the long summer vacation, which Ginevra was to spend in Maine and he a continent away, on a ranch in Montana owned by Donahoe's parents. Each of these meetings uncorked a fresh flood of passionate letters—it was an epistolary novel—in which each of them inflated feelings exacerbated and idealized by distance, loneliness and regret to a point where each was really writing to a shadow, an idealized projection defined more by imagination than memory. To Fitzgerald, Ginevra was adorned with every feminine grace. She became a symbol—one that Daisy would embody for Gatsby—of the refined and luxurious elegance of blossoms that can bloom only if they are rooted in wealth. Instead of suggesting the temptations of profane love, her image blended naturally into a resurgence of the mystical movement to which Scott was introduced by Sigourney Fay; in his letters to Ginevra, Fitzgerald of course hinted that he might take Holy Orders.
But Ginevra would not have been all woman—the femme fatale, the Cleopatra who teaches Basil to suffer—had she allowed this love story to become mere polyphony in which each sang in joyful stanza of a disincarnate, purified love. The serene joys of a communion of hearts could not satisfy her for long. More than with any man, she was in love with love. And she had to worry the man she captivated, to make him feel how much her choice had cost her, be sure he knew when anyone else made a play for her. Ginevra thought of love as an auction, a never-ending conflict with an always uncertain outcome. Only recurrent crises, dramatic quarrels, betrayals and reconciliations could keep her restless heart ensnared. Against an adversary who thought he had won her, she used jealousy as a weapon, artfully, never losing control, maneuvering him into indefensible positions, pressing home her advantages until, his dignity utterly lost, he became a suppliant, to be disposed of with a last gesture of scorn. Each of her affairs was a campaign in which she played at being conquered, giving a little to take a lot, bewitching the enemy the better to deceive him. This is how Fitzgerald would portray Josephine, and the portrait bore Ginevra's features. Such women fascinated him; he knew they were forever out of reach despite alltheir promises and concessions. Ginevra later agreed that he had captured an excellent likeness of her:
“… at this time I was definitely out for quantity, not quality, in beaux, and, although Scott was top man, I still wasn't serious enough not to want plenty of other attention. … I was thoughtless in those days and too much in love with love to think of consequences. These things he has emphasized—and over-emphasized—in the Josephine stories, but it is only fair to say I asked for some of them.”
Ginevra King would remain for Fitzgerald his archetypal woman, the Cleopatra whose betrayals were cruelly wounding, and the distant, tenderly romantic princess. She is a cult figure in his books, ambiguous, served by strangely similar priestesses named Isabelle and Josephine, Judy Jones, Daisy Buchanan, Nicole Warren. All of them are rich and fickle, all products of his experience of a world offered and then withdrawn. It was as though in Fitzgerald's first love, in his intense passion for what was hardly more than a smile and a silhouette, the real Ginevra was as much enemy as pretext, the serpent as well as Eve.
She remained an image of hopeless temptation, not sexual—Fitzgerald was no sensualist—but romantic, an image of boyhood fantasies fulfilled. To win her would have been to enter a mysterious and splendid realm, to penetrate the secrets of a world he longed to inhabit, the Walker Ellises' world to which he laid siege at Princeton. Ginevra's personality does not count for much in all this. Yet, by revealing herself, by transforming an abstract passion into a personal attraction that jealousy soon deformed, she brought Gatsby/Fitzgerald face to face with himself and his limitations. This sudden insight coincided with Scott's disgrace at school.
During his first two years at Princeton, Fitzgerald had almost totally neglected his studies to devote himself to his musical comedies. Repeated warnings were ignored, exams squeaked through. In his freshman year he failed mathematics and hygiene, and Latin and chemistry as a sophomore. At the end of his sophomore year his average was too low for him to major in English, as he had wanted to. The English department had accepted him on probation, but in mid-November, after six weeks taken up entirely with rehearsals of his play, he failed his makeup exam miserably. He was banned from all extracurricular activities, including Triangle, which meant he could not join its cross-country tour at the end of the year. Scott had cast himself in the juiciest part, a show girl on whom the whole plot hinged. A photo of Fitzgerald in drag—bare shoulders, coy smile, blond wig and big sunbonnet—had already been sent to newspapers in the cities on the tour schedule. St. Paul, specially included in that year's tour, awaited the event with a curiosity kept lively by a stream of rumors and articles in the local press.
A Triangle delegation tried to persuade the dean to relent; some of theEnglish professors were asked to intercede in Fitzgerald's favor. Nothing doing. The ban was upheld. Fitzgerald was to spend the rest of the year pumping up his grades.
At that point he came down with a severe fever that put him in the infirmary. Malaria was endemic in the New Jersey swamps then, and this was the doctor's diagnosis. When the patient suffered a later relapse, however, he decided—in Fitzgerald's version, at any rate—that it was really tuberculosis. Whatever it was, the ailment put Fitzgerald out of condition to catch up on his studies. He went back to St. Paul to convalesce. When Triangle put on its long-awaited production of The Evil Eye, he was in bed. He hoped that, under the circumstances, the school authorities would indulgently allow him to make up his grades by doubling up in the following semester so that he could complete his junior year in the clear. His friends saw through the scheme. In cruelly ironic couplets that parodied Fitzgerald's songs, Bishop and Wilson jeered at him in the January 1916 issue of the Lit:
I was always clever enough
To make the clever upper classmen notice me …
No doubt by senior year,
I could have been on every committee in college,
But I made one slip:
I flunked out in the middle of junior year.
On his return to Princeton Fitzgerald was informed that he would not be allowed to complete his junior year until he made up his earlier failures, beginning in the following semester, and that because of his poor grades he was ineligible to run for any campus office. Good-bye Triangle presidency. To add to his woes, his pride was kicked in its most vulnerable spot: Triangle turned down the scenario he proposed for the following year in favor of one by a friend, John Biggs, called Safety First. Fitzgerald did write the song lyrics for it, however.
In March 1916 he learned that Ginevra had been expelled from West-over; she had been caught with a date in a compromising situation. Fitzgerald's lingering illusions about her collapsed, along with his dreams of a brilliant career at Princeton. Coming together, the disappointments coagulated into despair. Once, in March, he sought relief in what he thought of as a symbol of his degradation: the sins of the flesh. “It seemed, one March afternoon,” he later recalled, “that I had lost every single thing I wanted—and that night was the first time that I hunted down the spectre of womanhood that, for a little while, makes everything else seem unimportant.”
Fitzgerald's months of forced retirement in the Midwest healed his wounds. He reconsidered his position, examining more objectively the value of the honors he had gathered at school. There seems even to have been a fleeting thought of dropping out of Princeton and trying to make a careerwriting song lyrics, perhaps even becoming an actor. The press clippings in his scrapbook include rave reviews of Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi! The Baltimore Sun said that what made the show were Fitzgerald's lyrics. The Brooklyn Citizen compared “this delicious little vehicle” with Broadway musicals that had “less vivacity, less sparkling humor and less genuine music.” The Louisville Post seemed to point toward his future: “the lyrics of the songs were written by F. S. Fitzgerald, who could take his place right now with the brightest writers of witty lyrics in America.” His photo as a show girl ran in a number of newspapers—even the New York Times used it—and brought him floods of mail; a few legitimate offers were mixed in with the more inflamed propositions. Broadway impresario Charles Bornhoupt guaranteed him vaudeville bookings: “If you get in town in May I shall be very pleased to meet you, and secure an engagement for you immediately.”
At the end of his life Fitzgerald wrote a sad letter to his daughter from Hollywood, where he was turning out scripts that were every bit as lightweight as his college musicals: “Sometimes I wish I had gone along with that gang (Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart), but I guess I am too much a moralist at heart and really want to preach at people in some acceptable form rather than entertain them.”
That spring and summer of 1916 was a thoughtful time for Fitzgerald, a turning point in his college career. The tranquilizing atmosphere of his provincial home and family had its effect. As it had after his return from that first, disastrous term at Newman, his love of life revived. Those around him swallowed the fiction that his illness was to blame for his low grades, and he was received everywhere with solicitude and understanding. He basked in Princetonian prestige. To his friends he was still the local boy who had made good in the East, whose elegance and easy grace made him one of the city's most talked-about young men.
Fitzgerald cultivated his reputation, working hard at being a decadent dandy. He drank too much and he grandstanded, even if it created a scandal. He had a fine time tricking the students at the local college by attending a school ball, in company with his old friend Gus Schurmeier, dressed in his Princeton transvestite costume. The illusion was perfect. Young men crowded around the unknown belle, the daring and provocative beauty who shocked people by smoking in public and lifting her skirt to pluck a compact from her garter. Not until the following day did an indignant newspaper article expose the hoax, under a fat headline complaining that “Local College Men Have No Fear of Going Effeminate.” More conventionally rakish was his invitation to a pair of road-show actresses then performing in St. Paul to dine with him at the University Club, to the other members' disapproval—or envy. Not that he was attracted to loose women, as some of his fellow Princetonians were; in life, as in his books, he generally avoided sexual promiscuity except at times of crisis:
“The New York of undergraduate dissipation, of Bustanoby's, Shanley's, Jack's, had become a horror, and though I returned to it, alas, through many an alcoholic mist, I felt each time a betrayal of a persistent idealism. My participance was prurient rather than licentious and scarcely one pleasant memory of it remains from those days.”
When Fitzgerald returned to Princeton in September 1916, he doubled up on his junior year. He was now free of the twin handicap of a love affair he recognized was over and a stock of campus ambitions that he knew could never be realized. With nothing more to hope for in the way of social prominence, he lost almost all his interest in what had seemed, the year before, to be his reason for living. “Years later,” he would write, “I realized that my failure to be a big shot in college was all right—instead of serving on committees, I took a beating on English poetry; when I got the idea of what it was all about, I set about learning how to write. On Shaw's principle that 'if you don't get what you like, you better like what you get,' it was a lucky break—at the moment it was a harsh and bitter business to know that my career as a leader of men was over.”
He watched from the sidelines when some of his friends leagued with about a hundred sophomores in an attempt to end the club system. Among them were Alexander McKaig, editor of the Daily Princetonian; Richard Cleveland, former President Grover Cleveland's son; David Bruce, who would become the American ambassador to Paris, Bonn and London. Above all there was Henry Strater, a follower of Tolstoy and Thoreau and greatly admired by Fitzgerald (he appears in This Side of Paradise as Burne Holliday). They were no more successful than Woodrow Wilson had been; the only result—short-lived—of their revolt, which was interrupted by America's declaration of war on Germany, was to reduce by a fourth the number of sophomores joining clubs.
Fitzgerald shared a room in Little Hall with Paul Dickey, Triangle's first-string composer; they had once collaborated in writing a martial hymn to the glory of Princeton football. He thus continued to work unofficially for the club despite the official ban, contributing lyrics to Dickey's songs for Biggs's Safety First. Although he was still turning out items for The Tiger, Fitzgerald's interest was turning increasingly toward serious writing. He was eager to have his work accepted by Wilson for the Lit. His friendship with Bishop, Wilson and Biggs was fruitful. In December 1916 Fitzgerald and Biggs wrote almost the whole of one Lit issue as a parody of straitlaced Cosmopolitan magazine called the Chaopolitan Number. Bishop maintained his love of poetry throughout his college career, and this inspired Scott to cultivate his poetic vein. “I had decided,” he explained, “that poetry was the only thing worth while, so with my head ringing with the meters of Swinburne and the matters of Rupert Brooke, I spent the spring doing sonnets, ballads and rondels into the small hours. I had read somewhere that every great poet had written great poetry before he was twenty-one. I had only a year, and, besides, war was impending. I must publish a book of startling verse before I was engulfed.”
That year he had a total of four poems, six stories and five book reviews published. He plunged into the reading of the English aesthetes—Walter Pater, Ernest Dowson, Swinburne, Wilde—but he discovered that his deepest affinity was with the work of Rupert Brooke, who had been killed in the war two years earlier. After his break with Ginevra in January, he found in Brooke's work consolation and even enlightenment about the real nature of his feelings for her. He had made of Ginevra a symbol of the religiosity his wavering faith could no longer fully satisfy. He had made the mistake Gatsby would also make, of enclosing his highest aspirations in the frail vessel of a perishable creature who was subject to the law of her world of appearances. Fully aware of the limitations of human love, he would carry over into This Side of Paradise the solemn warning contained in a letter from Fay a year later: “You make a great mistake if you think you can be romantic without religion… Beware of losing yourself in the personality of another being, man or woman.”
Brooke's poems revealed to Fitzgerald, in a usable, assimilable form, an aspect of Platonism that supplied his current needs. Especially, the poem Tiare Tahiti—from which he took the title of This Side of Paradise—seems to have crystallized in him certain poetic notions of God and the universe that were confirmed by careful reading of Keats's poetry. The revelation served an immediate purpose: to conciliate quest and failure, to explain his disenchantment by the impossibility of attaining an absolute that could only be reached yonder, on the other side of paradise.
Along with his discovery of Brooke, who brought him a seductive system for interpreting his problems, Fitzgerald found Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, the great popularizers of socialism, who gave him a sense of evolution in history, only the anecdotal side of which had held his attention before. He perceived a new kind of hero in Strater, one of the promoters of the sophomores' revolt. Strater, like Edmund Wilson, was one of those individualists, so rare at Princeton, who were ready to defy the unwritten laws of the campus and to proclaim their personal beliefs. For Fitzgerald he set an example of moral force and unshakable integrity based on purely intellectual convictions.
So the spring of 1917 went by in a ferment of new ideas and poetic effusions. In June Fay proposed that Fitzgerald go with him to Russia at the head of a Red Cross delegation. Being very mysterious, the priest told his young friend what the mission's secret purpose was: to bring Russia back into the Roman Catholic Church now that the country's spiritual leader, the Czar, was deposed. Fitzgerald grasped joyfully at the unexpected chance to forget the present, to bring to real life the games he once played in the attics of St. Paul. He and Fay plotted happily, gravely discussing the cut ofthe uniform Scott would wear, exchanging letters heavy with double meanings. Then, in September, the Bolsheviks took power and the trip was called off. Fitzgerald, who had undergone officer training at Princeton, was now seriously thinking of enlisting in the army, as most of his friends had. He took a test in St. Paul and, early in September, was notified that he had passed it; this meant he could hope for a second lieutenant's commission when he turned twenty-one.
Meanwhile, he spent a month with Bishop's family in the mountains of West Virginia. Influenced by his recent contacts with Fay, he announced his plan, already mentioned in his letters to Ginevra, of becoming a priest. For a while Mrs. Bishop worried that he might convert her son to Catholicism. At the time John was busily preparing for the publication of a volume of his poems, to be entitled Green Fruit, before he went off to the army. His example prompted Scott to express his mystical impulses. The period was one of intense fervor; under the influence of Brooke and John Masefield, he wrote poem after poem, guided and criticized by young Bishop. One of these poems, The Way to Purgation, was the first to be accepted and paid for, but not published, by a poetry magazine called Poet Lore.
Fitzgerald returned to Princeton to await his army call-up. In Campbell Hall he shared a room with Biggs, who was no more interested than Scott in his college courses and who, like his friend, devoted most of his time to the Lit. Scott kept Wilson, who was about to sail for France, up to date on campus doings:
“The Lit is prosperous—Biggs and I do the prose—Creese and Keller (a junior who'll be chairman) and I the poetry… I'm rather bored here but I see Shane Leslie occasionally and read Wells and Rousseau.” In the same letter he hints at other possibilities suggested by Fay: “I can go to Italy if I like as private secretary of a man (a priest) who is going as Cardinal Gibbon's representative to discuss the war with the Pope (American Catholic point of view … forty per cent of Pershing's army are Irish Catholics).”
Six weeks later, at the end of October, he received his commission and left Princeton, without a diploma, for good.
Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography by Andre LeVot (French: Paris: Julliard, 1979; English: Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983 - translated by William Byron).