Half past ten. Going out for a run in the rain. Have been simultaneously writing F. Scott Fitzgerald/This Side of Paradise essay, proofing Meatheads (it was a year ago that I wrote this entire novel in one week--among other things--and I have now probably read it through twenty-five times; and even with where I am at, the pain I feel constantly, the daily crying, vomiting, the total aloneness, the complete lack of hope, the complete lack of hope I have that the industry will do anything but make sure this book is buried and people never know about it and never see it, it actually makes me laugh out loud, still, right now, like it's impossible to help laughing out loud with this book; it is quite literally the funniest thing I have ever seen; and I don't even think that's really its main point), fixing "Skip Shack."
Excerpt from the Fitzgerald essay, which is called "Big Man on Campus Who Wasn't: F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise and the liberal arts novel in the post-liberal arts age."
Until the very end of his life, when he died, aged forty-four, in 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald would send diagrams of football plays to the Princeton head coach, aiming to to facilitate gridiron glory. You’d not be amiss in stating that Fitzgerald never got over college. He was, as history rarely seems to remember, a college dropout, one who, shiftless and broken-hearted, spent most of the summer of 1919 back home and drunk in St. Paul, Minnesota, mulling his university life, desperate for it to play some role, still, in getting him what he wanted.
Fitzgerald had a habit of writing less well on what he called, in his letters, “stimulants,” but his pain over his break-up with socialite Zelda Sayre was not insubstantial, in part because Fitzgerald viewed her rejection of him as a denouncing of his very identity, more than a bad fit, as history, with clearer eyes, revealed them to be.
But he had a plan: to take the eighty or so pages he had of a fragment of a book called The Romantic Egoist, thread it through with scraps of doggerel, short story sketches that were never going to be completed anyway, fictionalized autobiography from his Princeton days, and some stream of consciousness prose to pave over the gaps, sell it to a publisher, become a big hit, win Zelda’s love.
That book, a pasted-together jam-job of seemingly everything Fitzgerald had written to date, would be called This Side of Paradise, and for a long time, it has masqueraded as novelistic celebrant of the liberal arts life. Fitzgerald, of course, was unpublished, but he had a friend who knew Max Perkins, an editor at Scribner. On September 4, Fitzgerald’s contact gave Perkins the book. No one at Scribner wanted to publish it. Perkins insisted, because the go-between was a good friend, and on September 16, he wrote Fitzgerald saying they’d publish the book in spring 1920. His brass balls and sense of entitlement intact, despite the crazily fast turnaround, Fitzgerald insisted on an autumn publication date, thus to win Zelda all the faster, but he had to wait a few months.
Four days upon the release of this novel by an unknown, unpublished writer who was just trying to win a girl, the first printing had sold out, this being a time in our period when there were readers in America keen to discover something new, something exciting, even if it wasn’t at the masterpiece level, or anywhere close to it—and say what you will about This Side of Paradise, it was new and exciting, and, perhaps despite Fitzgerald’s own desires, it took a stand against the kind of person and the kind of thinker he almost became. Which would not have been very good for people who care about his art.
In almost every aspect of his life—his letters, his conversations, his memories, his sports fandom—Fitzgerald romanticized college. It was, to him, like that gridiron glory or being a war hero—things he pined for which he never realized—representing proofs that the kind of ideals he valued, that made a person valuable, existed within him, attested that he was good enough to merit respect and, more importantly, self-respect. As he once said to have believed—before shedding the belief: life was something you dominated if you were any good. For Fitzgerald, for a spell, that meant being the big man on the Princeton campus he never was; or, having failed thusly, doing his bit to publicize the lofty, but reachable, ideal.
Fitzgerald, though, for all of his self-imposed temptations, for all of his faulty judgement in life, possessed an artistic conscience, a guiding, almost-infallible rudder, that rarely swerved him even a degree off the course of truth, despite his choices in other areas, his conduct, the illusions he turned to again and again. But not when he wrote. He must have known this, because he returned to the rudder again and again when he needed the direction it provided, be that with the Crack-Up essays following his nervous breakdown in 1936, or the self-described confession of faith that was his best novel, 1934’s Tender is the Night, or right from the jump, with This Side of Paradise, a satirical blood-letting—and damn good piece of advice—that argues that when it comes to thinking critically and discovering who you are as a person, academia is a lot more like bailing wire than a mirror. You might even say that the ultimate college novel is decidedly anti-college, whatever Fitzgerald may have intended. The rudder, as it always would, had a big role.
This Side of Paradise is satire that might not see itself as such, lacking the gimlet-focus of Swift or Voltaire, artists Fitzgerald couldn’t yet touch. His good fortune—well, flat out huge dumb luck—that landed him the book deal provided him with an opportunity and an audience. He’d make good on the former and do right by the latter via working his tail off to get better at his art, and as we will see, within mere months he was a different level of writer. But first, Paradise, and the (saving) fall from…
Real-life Fitzgerald had a crush on a rich Lake Forest, Illinois girl named Ginevra King. My family lives in the area, and when I used to visit them, I’d take a drive by the house where King had lived and Fitzgerald tried to woo her as Paul Whiteman-type airs played on the gramophone. He later made a remark that he used to think Lake Forest was the most wonderful place on earth, and maybe it was—a statement of lament meaning, essentially, “what a fool I have been at times in my life”—that the Lake Forest tourist board stuck into their literature. The home is not as large as one would think for a mansion, but that’s fitting, given how we tend to distort reality in moments of purpled-prose emotionalism—part of the reason our culture devolves as feelings are elevated above truth, which is now normally bastardized by the possessive, as in “my truth.”
King becomes the model for Isabelle Borgé in the novel, the first love interest of the protagonist Amory Blaine. The name will tell you something of his character—all good names in all good literature do. This is not a grounded individual. He’s someone whom Booth Tarkington—a writer esteemed by Fitzgerald—would single out for comeuppance. The name is sourced in part from that of Princeton legend Hobart Amory Hare Baker—Hobey Baker, to his buddies—best known these days for the award in his name given out annually to the best men’s college hockey player in the country.