This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This Side of Paradise

This Side of Paradise is Fitzgerald’s first novel. He wrote it in his early 20s. Actually, I think he wrote the bulk of it even before that, but did the rewrites and revisions necessary to get it published in his early 20s. It is a semi-autobiographical coming of age story of roughly the World War I period of American history.

It reads like the work of a young person to me. It has the arrogance of youth about it, the tendency to assume that one’s very limited experiences can be safely generalized from to provide vastly more insight into human nature and how the world works than they really can, to assume that one’s loves are more extraordinary, one’s struggles more difficult, and one’s genius more certain than such things might seem with the greater evidence provided by a longer and fuller life.

I don’t know that I got all that much out of this book. I think what value it had to me–and I’m indebted here to the introduction provided in the edition I happened to read in guiding me in this direction–is in enabling me to better understand what it was like to live in a certain class during a certain historical period (which can then be analogized with varying degrees of confidence to provide an understanding of people shaped by somewhat similar circumstances).

It is a book about growing up white, male, and wealthy to very wealthy, in an eastern elite world of fancy prep schools and Ivy League universities. Which is to say growing up with a sense of entitlement, knowing before you could even consciously articulate it that it’s your destiny to run the major institutions of your society and the world–to be tomorrow’s high government officials, large business owners, university presidents, military officers, major newspaper publishers, etc., or even stylish and noble failures and eccentrics.

It’s a status, or at least a mindset, that is difficult to ever really lose. You can make ten blunders to every one that a striving outsider to that world makes, and you’ll still have a leg up on him. No matter how moral or unscrupulous you are, no matter how intelligent or moronic you are, you’re still somehow the type of person expected to call the shots, to exercise considerable autonomy in your life choices, and to not have to worry about the material necessities of life.

Eventually the protagonist pretty much runs out of money. His family was only moderately well-to-do to begin with, much of the family fortune is lost in bad investments, and he and they have spent what money there was in an undisciplined fashion. He’s not completely broke–he owns a little property that he’s not inclined to sell and that would probably be difficult to sell at present–but his liquidity is close to zero. Yet there’s really no panic to speak of. He muses about living abroad as some sort of artist or adventurer, and goes on about his mostly idle life.

So really his financial status is not much different from some black sharecropper in Alabama, or a Polish factory worker in Detroit scraping by paycheck to paycheck–no different except that they actually have some sort of job skills–but of neither of them could one say:

He pictured himself in an adobe house in Mexico, half-reclining on a rug-covered couch, his slender, artistic fingers closed on a cigarette while he listened to guitars strumming melancholy undertones to an age-old dirge of Castile and an olive-skinned, carmine-lipped girl caressed his hair.

Because people like him always have options like that. There’s always someone to give them a break, loan them some money, get some scrape of theirs with the law overlooked, offer them a (non-physical labor) job or position of some kind–recognize that they’re “one of us” and not “one of them.”

There are certainly more cracks, more exceptions, more fluidity in that class system today than there were a century ago, but it’s far from gone. There are still many people who from birth have almost no way they can screw up enough to not have things work out at least reasonably well for them, and a much greater number of people with basically the opposite prospects.

In addition to providing a look at the class system of its time, the book also treats of the relations between the sexes, and the changing behavior of women in that historical period. (In the leisure class, anyway.)

It is the time of the emergence of the “flapper,” the short-haired young woman pursuing a somewhat more liberated, hedonistic lifestyle.

What’s interesting though is that even if in some sense the women of this book are more rebellious, less obedient to men, more apt to think for themselves, more open about wanting to party and enjoy life than were their Victorian mothers and grandmothers, it still reads like a very limited, oppressed existence.

They get to exercise a little more control in teasing, tormenting, matching wits with, and playing off against each other their suitors, but when all is said and done, there’s little they can really do with their lives except try to marry well. Which is not to say that zero of them can earn their own living as writers or whatever–just as a handful of people born poor will end up with lives of considerable autonomy and material comforts–but those are the exceptions. The white males of the time who go to the “right” schools and such remain the only ones who can go through life knowing they’re destined to lead.

As I say, the women still lead mostly stunted lives. Which is perhaps why I had trouble buying how the protagonist could see so much in the ones with whom he has his youthful romantic relationships. I just don’t see a lot of substance, a lot of maturity, a lot of admirable traits in them, partly because they’re so young, and partly because they’re not really allowed or encouraged to develop such characteristics. They mostly come across as self-absorbed, gold digging bores with highly affected, phony verbal styles. Maybe these are the marks of good breeding and high dating market value, the sorts of things to intrigue the men of that era, but more often than not I just found them annoying.

Relatedly, the book chronicles the changing dating and sex habits of the time, but I’m not sure how much of that it’s dancing around because the actual facts couldn’t be published. That is, it sounds like there’s at most only a little more actual sex than before, but that there are substantial differences in such things as how much kissing and petting is allowed before marriage, to what extent women can engage in such practices in multiple relationships without destroying their reputation, to what extent women can take more initiative and exercise more control over their dating, etc. But it’s possible Fitzgerald is hinting that there’s a lot more going on in the backseats of cars with those flappers than he’s allowed to say directly.

Actually the most appealing of the protagonist’s love interests is probably the last one, because she’s the one most unsatisfied (to the point of being suicidal) over just how limited her life must be due to her gender. She gets it. So I could best sympathize with her.

Anyway, there are things like that about the social world depicted in the book that I found at least somewhat informative or thought-provoking, but mostly I just wasn’t all that interested in the protagonist or the narrative of his life.

I didn’t like him particularly. Toward the end he pats himself on the back for his honesty in admitting that he finds poor people unappealing and prefers an evil rich person to a virtuous poor person, and then shortly thereafter he gives a know-it-all lecture to a rich person in the back of a limousine about the desirability of socialism that sounds like 99% idle theorizing from books and 1% anything he’s thought through and based on extensive research and life experience. In both cases it comes across as the arrogant gum-flapping of someone who likes to hear himself talk and wants to be taken as a genius or someone special. If this is the wisdom he’s gained through the experiences chronicled in the book, if this is the indication he’s come of age and developed a philosophy of life, I’m not impressed.

I’d say also that a fair amount of the book is over my head. I don’t know how much is a matter of not being fully in tune with highly “literary” writing, and how much is a matter of needing to have lived during that time to appreciate the various references and such (the edition I have provides a lot of useful footnotes as far as that goes, but there’s a lot more to understanding an era and picking up on the nuances of what’s said than just knowing certain facts), but there’s plenty that I’m sure I didn’t fully appreciate.

Here’s an example:

Probably more than any concrete vice or failing Amory despised his own personality–he loathed knowing that to-morrow and the thousand days after he would swell pompously at a compliment and sulk at an ill word like a third-rate musician or a first-class actor.

OK, it’s not that I have no clue what that means. He recognizes in himself–and dislikes–the fact that his self-esteem is too dependent on the approval of others. (And whether intended by the author or not, I also glean from this passage a vague sense that he’s unappealingly self-absorbed and egotistical in analyzing himself like that and coming to that conclusion. It reads more like a prideful pseudo-self-criticism than a sincere one.)

But what I mean is, why is it a third-rate musician, and a first-class actor? Is that somehow different from if we transposed “third-rate” and “first-class” in that passage? Obviously it is, or Fitzgerald wouldn’t have written it the way he wrote it, but my point is the distinction is lost on me. I’ll assume it is a delightful and learned turn of phrase, but it’s not one that I can appreciate.

And the book is full of such things, where I have to assume it’s “good writing” conveying something of import or wit to a discerning reader, but I just plain don’t get it.

(I’ve got a theory though that a lot of smart people are bluffing about such things anyway. I’d like to run an experiment with a certain number of intellectuals who pride themselves on their acumen about literary things but who happen not yet to have read this particular book. I’d have half of them read the passage as Fitzgerald originally wrote it, and half read it exactly the same except that it ends with “like a first-class musician or a third-rate actor.” My guess is 90% of the first group would nod knowingly at Fitzgerald’s use of such a witty and apt comparison, and at least 70% of the second group would do the same, in spite of the fact that if the first version truly makes sense, then the second version presumably is the equivalent of “like a relief pitcher who cost his team the Super Bowl, or a quarterback whose interception led to his team losing the World Series.”

That is, I’ll bet a lot of other people don’t get this stuff either, but they pretend–or convince themselves–that they do.)

Anyway, I experienced this book as a mildly boring read, with enough worthwhile elements to give it some value to me.

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