F Scott Fitzgerald wrote the following words in This Side of Paradise approximately a hundred years ago.
“He fancied that in a hundred years he would like having young people speculate on whether his eyes were brown or blue.”
While speculation on the eye color of Amory Blaine, Fitzgerald’s protagonist, may not currently be top of mind, the author himself, as well as his debut novel, most assuredly are. Recently, I led a discussion of the book in the leafy summer Reading Room of Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library. Mr Fitzgerald, what a shame that you died at 44, believing you were a failure, with copies of The Great Gatsby moldering in a warehouse and less than $1000 in the bank. Today, that iconic 1925 novel sells more than a half-million copies every year, and remains both a staple on school reading list and a cash cow for its publisher, Scribner’s. Approximately 25,000,000 copies of the novel have been sold worldwide—apart from the 100,000-plus e-books grabbed up annually. By the last count, there were translations into 42 languages.
The tentacles of Fitz-mania extend far beyond Gatsby. The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald’s unfinished final novel, for example, enjoyed a recent run as an Amazon television limited series, as did a series based on Zelda Fitzgerald. If you set a Google alert for F. Scott Fitzgerald, every day you will get a hit along these lines, in this case, from Bloomberg News: “The Summer of Gin” may sound like the name of an obscure F. Scott Fitzgerald story, but the truth is, The Great Gatsby author’s favorite liquor is enjoying a popularity not seen since those Prohibition days.”
Not bad for a college dropout.
It’s Fitzgerald—ahem, Amory Blaine’s—college years at Princeton—“the pleasantest country club in America”—that are immortalized in This Side of Paradise, the book that catapulted the author to fame in 1920 at the age of only 23. Within three days, 3000 copies of the slim novel were sold—no extra charge for typos, since Mr. Fitzgerald could have benefited from Spellcheck. While This Side of Paradise did not prove to be Fitzgerald’s most praised book, it was his best seller. In its first year, “Paradise” was reprinted eight times. By the end of 1921, almost 50,000 copies were sold, and Fitzgerald’s income ballooned from only $879 in 1919 to $18,850—nearly $250,000 in today’s dollars. While critics didn’t celebrate the novel with unilateral praise, and some found it insufferably puerile, adjectives like “honest,” “clever” and “astonishing” nonetheless cropped up in most reviews. At the very least, next to other potboilers of the day—every one by authors forgotten by today’s readers—This Side of Paradise displayed originality.
The novel’s freshness may have sprung from a combination of desperation and chutzpah.
The novel’s freshness may have sprung from a combination of desperation and chutzpah. Fitzgerald submitted his manuscript twice before it was accepted, thanks to the championing by Scribner’s youngest editor, Maxwell Perkins, who encouraged Fitzgerald to revise considerably. Not only did the author switch from first-person to third-person, but he also retitled the manuscript from The Romantic Egotist, picking “This Side of Paradise” from a Rupert Brooke poem. In addition, he laced it with his own poetry, portions of a play he’d written at Princeton, and passages from love letters sent to him by Zelda Sayre, a flirtatious flapper he’d met in Montgomery, Alabama. Fitzgerald’s efforts paid off both professionally and personally. Not only did he sell the book, he got the girl. With success pending, Zelda, who’d broken off with her suitor because she doubted his ability to support her, accepted his proposal. The young lovers were married in the rectory of Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral on April 3, 1919, a week after Scribner’s said “yes.”
Zelda’s literary stunt double appears twice in This Side of Paradise, as Rosalind (“dull men are usually afraid of her cleverness and intellectual men are usually afraid of her beauty” with “a voice musical as a waterfall”) and Eleanor (“I’m too bright for most men, and yet have to descend to their level and let them patronize my intellect…”). But just as Amory becomes disenchanted with Princeton, he walks away from love—always when his dream-girls start to display irritating signs of individuality.
A prescient early reviewer, Burton Roscoe, observed that “ten years from now, Fitzgerald could not have written this book . . . At 35, caution would have killed its disarming frankness.” That proved to be true, with Fitzgerald’s later books strategically plotted, dissecting people far more complex and well-formed. This Side of Paradise is a consummate coming-of-age novel that accurately reflects its era. If you want the complete Fitzgerald experience, do not miss the novel that launched an iconic career.
Feature image: “This Side of Paradise dust jacket” by W. E. Hill, published by Scribners. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.