In a recent episode of the popular television show "Ed," a high school English teacher attempts to enlighten her indifferent class about a perennial curriculum staple. "How many of you have read The Great Gatsby?" she asks. A show of hands eventually drops down to none after she presses them several times for honesty. Referring to conventional student thinking that literature equals boring, she admits that she felt the same until she went back the previous night to the novel as a reader rather than as a teacher. Since the experience revitalized her opinion of the book, she offers the class a free hour to do whatever they wish, though she hopes that they decide to "spend time with The Great Gatsby" as she plans to herself. Inspired, the kids pick up the book as she smiles, her own copy in hand, into the fade out. And we laugh complacently along, for we have had our unit on F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby and we know the beauty and power of the green light, that elusive yet "orgastic future that year by year recedes before us," and we know what surprise lies in wait for those students.
Substitute This Side of Paradise for Gatsby in the above set-up and the joke falls flat on its face.
Enthusiastically welcomed by reviewers and readers upon publication in 1920, Paradise has been roundly dismissed in recent years. Retrospectives of Fitzgerald's work don't usually give his first novel more than a cursory glance, casting it aside in favor of the ambitious Tender is the Night or the elegant masterpiece Gatsby. Prevailing literati opinion holds that Paradise amounts to little more than a flawed, if engaging, trifle that founded the career of a great talent, useful only for clever puns about Fitzgerald or his wife Zelda. (Though if you can't beat "Fitzgerald Knocks Officer This Side of Paradise," don't try.) The same goes for his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned; better to read Gatsby, Tender, or even the unfinished gem The Love of the Last Tycoon. Period.
Yet, for all the youthful faults amid its charms, This Side of Paradise did more than just announce the presence of a new author. Though few acknowledge it, the book occupies a quietly singular position as a turning point in both America's literary and cultural history, bringing a breath of fresh air to its letters and lifestyle.
Paradise had its beginnings at an army training camp in 1917. Convinced that he would die in the war, Fitzgerald started writing a novel entitled The Romantic Egotist while stationed at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. A record of American youth, the heavily autobiographical picaresque followed the young Stephen Palms from his San Francisco childhood to his training at a Princeton aviation school on the cusp of World War I. Fitzgerald sent the handwritten draft to a friend for typing, but the typescript and original were lost in the post, forcing the author to rewrite from memory. Following that inglorious beginning, the conservative Charles Scribner's Sons twice rejected the novel despite objections from Maxwell Perkins, newly promoted from the advertising to editorial departments. Just over a year later, Perkins fought for Fitzgerald's heavily revised Egotist, now titled This Side of Paradise after the final lines of Rupert Brooke's "Tiare Tahiti," telling his colleagues that "if we're going to turn down the likes of Fitzgerald, I will lose all interest in publishing books." The Scribner editors reconsidered and accepted the manuscript. Though they had low expectations for this first novel (even Perkins tactfully offered the opinion that "it is hard to prophesy how it will sell"), the author himself confidently anticipated great success: "I know I'll wake some morning and find that the debutantes have made me famous over night. I really believe that no one else could have written so searchingly the story of the youth of our generation."
As he predicted, Paradise proved an instant bestseller; the first print run of 3,000 copies sold out in three days and Scribners moved to print more until, as Fitzgerald recalled, "the presses were pounding out This Side of Paradise like they pound out extras in the movies." Critics praised its creativity and vitality; H.L. Mencken declared it the "best American novel that I have seen of late," while Chicago Daily News's Harry Hansen gushed, "My, how that boy Fitzgerald can write!" The public responded to the dual attraction of the book's realistic depictions of their generation and of the photogenic good looks and glamour of its young author. With that, F. Scott Fitzgerald had undergone that significant "metamorphosis of amateur into professional", one that would give rise to some of the greatest books in American literature.
In "Early Success," a 1937 look back at his first triumph, Fitzgerald wrote that "[n]o decent career was ever founded on a public" and that "one learned to go ahead without precedents and without fear." While The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night secured his lasting literary legacy, This Side of Paradise, easily his most financially successful novel, laid the groundwork for his reputation as a lyrical and clever innovator. The very stylistic elements deplored by modern critics--episodic narrative, wavering point of view, stream-of-consciousness, the almost confused mixture of prose, verse, and drama--were lauded by their precursors as a thrilling breakthrough. Its experimental quality defiantly and joyously struck back at the staid works of Victorian- and Edwardian-era authors. Robert Benchley welcomed the imminent promise that overran Paradise: "In these days when any one can (and does) turn out a book which has been done hundreds of times before and bids fair to be done hundreds of times again, simply by following Stevenson's advice and playing 'the sedulous ape' to successful predecessors, I should be inclined to hail as a genius any twenty-three-year-old author who can think up something new and say it in a new way so that it will be interesting to a great many people." Of the young man himself, Benchley concluded, "Mr. Fitzgerald deserves a crown of something expensive."
Poised at the ready for what Fitzgerald characterized as the "greatest, gaudiest spree in history", readers shared the reviewers' admiration for the "only adequate study that we have had of the contemporary American in adolescence and young manhood." The writer John O'Hara, later a friend of Fitzgerald's, remarked that he, "along with half a million other men and women between fifteen and thirty, fell in love" with This Side of Paradise. Indeed, the turbulent young generation emerging from the shadows of war responded to the book's outright rejection of outmoded social tenets as well as the shifting mood of disillusionment and hope twining the soul of hero Amory Blaine. Having lost his love, his reputation, and his ideals by the close of the novel, the young romantic egotist has nothing left but himself and the knowledge gained from his experiences. Returning to Princeton, a hermeneutic signifier of paradise comparable to Brooke's tropical Tahiti, Amory revives the quest of the "hero [who] set off in life armed with the best weapons" in order to fulfill his unique destiny. In breaking away from the old barren "fear of poverty and the worship of success" that collapsed his world, Amory and his Romanticism, as reviewer Burton Rascoe observed, proved "definitely that, whatever the teachings of our elders, the Victorian checks, taboos, and reticences are no longer in force among the flappers, the debutantes, and collegians of the present generation." Paradise touched a chord in American youth, providing the necessary touchstone for their anarchic dance into the Jazz Age.
Advertised, at Fitzgerald's behest, as a "novel about flappers written for philosophers," Paradise reputedly became a handbook of sorts for the collegiate set. Christened the representative of his generation, the twenty-four-year-old Fitzgerald found his colorful marriage with the wholly original Zelda Sayre closely followed by his admiring contemporaries. Their lifestyle became an indelible cultural blueprint for American life, a casting off of the Puritanical for a wholehearted embracing of the hedonistic. Artist Eleanor Lanahan, granddaughter of the Fitzgeralds, points out that the couple "invented a kind of American self-image of fun and irresponsibility. People still like that. They established that as an American identity. I don't know that we had one before." Scott and Zelda still remain a significant reference point for the twentieth century, their enduring legacy in the American consciousness born from the success of This Side of Paradise.
Fitzgerald championed the Lost Generation from their romping youth, focusing and refocusing throughout his career the ever-darkening lens through which they glimpsed the world. In This Side of Paradise, that lens shone at its brightest--a brightness even then slightly clouded--and most chaotic. As he grew older, Fitzgerald developed as a writer, his talent reaching its zenith in the exquisite perfection of The Great Gatsby. In that book, as in Paradise, he depicted the sanguinity and failure that dangerously mingle in the American dream. Yet This Side of Paradise still has the innocence to look ahead, to hope, to dream; it remains that golden, sparkling moment before the fall--for Amory Blaine, for F. Scott Fitzgerald, and for America.
-- Kelley Kawano
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