It’s safe to say that most people have heard of F. Scott Fitzgerald as one of the most notable literary figures of the 20th century and American history in general. His famous 1925 novel, “The Great Gatsby” headlines required reading lists for high schools everywhere. Film portrayals featuring Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Leonardo DiCaprio have only served to elevate both the book and author’s fame.
However, the Minnesota-born writer also had a number of other novels, and although they may have been best-sellers upon their release, they’ve paled in comparison to the fame of “Gatsby.” In order to better acquaint myself with this literary legend, I recently read his first novel, “This Side of Paradise.” A semi-autobiographical tale of a privileged young man’s life experiences, the 1920 book is predictive of many of the features, both positive and negative, that would characterize Fitzgerald's later works.
The protagonist of the novel is Amory Blaine, and he is an easy character to dislike. From the beginning, he is spoiled and emotional, so critically drawn that the reader can’t help but wonder if it isn’t Fitzgerald harshly cataloging his own flaws. Blaine’s life moves geographically, featuring St. Paul, Minnesota, a private New England boarding school, Princeton University and finally New York City.
At all stages of his journey, he’s surrounded by an elite class of society who are as generally boring as they are stuffy. Just when a secondary character begins to grow interesting, they’re dropped from Amory’s life or moved to the periphery. Though this lack of regard for others underscores Amory’s substantial ego, it also makes the plot feel fragmented and uncompelling.
It is well-known that Fitzgerald used aspects of his life in creating this tale. Amory’s privileged childhood in St. Paul, his service in World War I and his relationship with Rosalind Connage (a character based heavily upon Zelda Sayre, Fitzgerald’s notorious wife) all have varying degrees of similarity to Fitzgerald’s own experiences.
Despite the flaws of character and plot, Fitzgerald’s undeniable skill as a writer still manages to display itself throughout the novel. He creates an unforgettable picture of the Jazz Age, and when the writing is not slow, it’s marked by wit and a critical eye that are telling of the author’s oncoming fame.
Following his rise to stardom, Fitzgerald’s later life was marked by marriage troubles, alcoholism and his death at the age of 44. Possibly due to this, the text is saturated with doom. Amory’s progression of disenchantment feels prophetic of Fitzgerald’s own troubled life. While this book was not as polished or engaging as “The Great Gatsby” or “The Beautiful and the Damned,” it is still an artifact of American literature, the first work of a great talent.
Madeline Peterson is a literature columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of her work, click here.