Fitzgerald in his carefree Princeton days.
|1920: Fitzgerald's Own 'Paradise'|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|
|A first edition of Fitzgerald's first novel.|
|Princeton is in the flat midlands of New Jersey, rising, a green Phoenix, out of the ugliest country in the world. Sordid Trenton sweats and festers a few miles south; northward are Elizabeth and the Erie Railroad and the suburban slums of New York ...
But around Princeton, shielding her, is a ring of silence - certified milk dairies, great estates with peacocks and deer parks, pleasant farms and woodlands...
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1927
From its earliest years as a training ground for the Presbyterian clergy, up to the early 20th century when Woodrow Wilson sent it "in the nation's service," the shady, Gothic-spired university seemed like the most stable and serene of American institutions - hardly the place where social revolution could be brewing.
Then, in 1920, a 23-year-old alumnus named F. Scott Fitzgerald published his first novel, "This Side of Paradise."
He made the hero a vain, fun-loving, but deeply philosophical student who parties his way through Princeton. He described how boozing, social climbing and sex were an accepted part of the college scene. And he refused to draw any moral conclusions, instead letting the protagonist
grow up "to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken."
It was a heady, hedonistic story, and it struck a chord with young readers disillusioned by World War I and fed up with the old Victorian respectability.
The Roaring Twenties had begun.
"'This Side of Paradise' dropped like a bombshell on the American scene," said J. T. Miller, a historical consultant at Princeton University and a Fitzgerald fan. "It was this strange, complex mixture of cynicism and idealism. It was questioning the past and giving voice for the first time to the youth of the 20th century."
The book would bring flappers, flaming youth and fast living into the American consciousness. In time, Fitzgerald would coin a name for the hectic era -- The Jazz Age.
But for the older generation, Fitzgerald's writings were cause for horror. That was especially true in Princeton, where college President John Grier Hibben took exception to Fitzgerald calling the university "the pleasantest country club in America."
"I cannot bear to think that our young men are merely living for four years in a country club and spending their lives wholly in a spirit of calculation and snobbishness," Hibben wrote.
In a way, however, Hibben missed the point, since no one had a deeper attachment to the Ivy League school than Fitzgerald did. Fitzgerald idealized Princeton football, Princeton braininess, and Princeton scenery - right up to his dying day.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was an unlikely candidate to shine at Princeton, then dominated by rich WASPs from the East. Born in 1896 in St. Paul, Minn., Fitzgerald descended on his father's side
from potato-famine Irish, on his mother's side from a poor family related to Francis Scott Key, the
man who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner."
His upbringing, he later recalled, gave him "a two-cylinder inferiority complex." It also made him -- even when he became world-famous -- an outsider who "peered through the window at the rich," as Miller put it.
Fitzgerald had a modest inheritance from his grandfather which let him to go to a prep school in Hackensack. Terribly conceited - but also blessed by ambition, good looks and glibness - he passed the entrance exam for Princeton in 1913.
"Admitted, send football pads and shoes immediately," Fitzgerald wired his mom. However, he got cut from the freshman football team on his first day in college. So he compensated by joining the theatrical Triangle Club, the prestigious Cottage Club and earning popularity with the big men on campus.
From his dorm at 12 University Place, Fitzgerald soaked in the atmosphere of lazy affluence. He was a true "slicker," as he later described one: "The slicker was good-looking or clean-looking; he had brains, social brains, that is, and he used all means on the broad path of honesty to get ahead, be popular, admired, and never in trouble."
Fitzgerald had a deeper purpose than just being popular. He engaged in intellectual bull sessions with his friends, wrote poems and dabbled in socialism.
His surroundings held him in awe. "The silent stretches of green, the quiet halls with an occasional late-burning scholastic light held his imagination in a strong grasp," he wrote of himself.
However, Fitzgerald also took a careless attitude toward academics and cut as many classes as he could. In the fall of 1915, he caught malaria and dropped out. He half-heartedly returned to Princeton for his junior year, but washed out of all his classes.
Instead of graduating with the class of '17, Fitzgerald joined Army officer training school for World War I, all the while trying to complete a novel. After a brief, boring spell as an ad writer in New York City, he sold the manuscript to Scribner's.
The working title was "The Romantic Egotist." An editor changed it to "This Side of Paradise." It told the story of Amory Blaine, a young man who flunks out of Princeton but has a gloriously fun time doing so.
Amory becomes an ad man, a society adventurer and goes through torrid love affairs. It all ends on an unresolved note, with Amory gazing over Princeton's spires and mulling over "a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success..."
What really caught the public's attention, however, was Blaine's unashamed sex life. "None of the Victorian mothers ... had any idea how casually their daughters were accustomed to be kissed," he wrote.
It didn't matter that Fitzgerald depicted kissing only. Parents were horrified.
"It was incredible," social historian Frederick Lewis Allen wrote about the book's impact. "It was abominable. What did it all mean? Was every decent standard being thrown over? Mothers read the scarlet words and wondered if they themselves 'had any idea how often their daughters were accustomed to be kissed.' But no, this must be the exaggerated account of the misconduct of some especially depraved group."
Predictably, "This Side of Paradise" was a best-seller. On the day of its publication, March 26, 1920, the Princeton bookstores sold out their copies. Franklin P. Adams called it "sloppy and cocky," but H. L. Mencken praised it as "original in structure, extremely sophisticated in manner, and adorned with brilliancy."
Fitzgerald now had money, fame and success. But he also had two burdens. One was booze; the other was his unstable wife, Zelda.
Drinking had been a part of Fitzgerald's life since his Princeton years, when gin was a social lubricant. During Prohibition, it was excitingly naughty to drink like there was no tomorrow. Fitzgerald went on
binges that left him a physical wreck and prompted a friend, Sara Mayfield, to say he was "committing suicide on the installment plan."
Fitzgerald's self-destructive behavior was encouraged by Zelda, whom he married the week after his first book was published.
The duo threw wild parties for their rich friends in New York. They rode atop
taxicab roofs and disrupt plays by laughing during the sad parts. "I don't know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels," Fitzgerald said.
Despite this crazed lifestyle, Fitzgerald managed to crank out a masterful volume of work in the '20s. He penned "The Great Gatsby," often considered the last word on the death of the American dream; "Tales of the Jazz Age," a collection of short stories; and "Tender Is the Night," which described the crack-up of socialites.
Fitzgerald's works took on a sense of foreboding and doom as his own life broke apart. Derided as a loser from a bygone era, he was reduced to writing scripts without credit in Hollywood.
On Dec. 21, 1940, the 44-year-old Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at his Los Angeles home. He had been reading an alumni magazine article about Princeton football and was scribbling notes in the margin
Eight years later, Zelda died too, in a fire that swept through a mental institution where she was being kept.
Fitzgerald had once said: "There are no second acts in American life." He was wrong.
After his death, critics began to rescue his reputation and call him one of the greatest writers of the century.
"He saw, with considerable accuracy, the excesses and gaudiness of American society in the modern era," said James L. W. West, a Fitzgerald scholar at Penn State. "But he saw the great willingness of the heart that's also deeply American."