Though he was in dire financial straits and critically neglected when he died, F. Scott Fitzgerald is now considered one of the great American writers of fiction. That reputation rests largely on The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender Is the Night (1934), as well as a number of masterful short stories including “The Rich Boy” (1926), “May Day”(1920), and “Winter Dreams” (1922). Sometimes mistakenly viewed as a mere chronicler of the Roaring Twenties—an era evocative of flappers in bobbed hair and short skirts, easy Wall Street riches, and parties soaked with wild jazz and prohibited alcohol—Fitzgerald most rewards readers with graceful prose, psychological acumen, and a heartrending awareness of the fragility within American dreams. Critics also admire Fitzgerald’s fiction for its serious moral and philosophical insights.
His debut novel, This Side of Paradise launched Fitzgerald’s fame in the 1920’s. Widely reviewed, the book was praised by most critics for its fresh depiction of America’s youth, with the hard-to-impress H. L. Mencken going far and calling it “a truly amazing first novel.” Other reviewers, however, were disturbed by the characters’ seemingly dissolute behavior. A review in the Springfield, Massachusetts, Union complained that “the leading persons are of a nature disgusting to the average taste.” Matthew J. Bruccoli observes that, served well by his good looks and even by negative reviews, the twenty-three-year-old Fitzgerald became almost instantly famous. Selling out its first printing in three days, This Side of Paradise earned for Fitzgerald the large sum of sixty-two hundred dollars in 1920 alone.
The novel documents a national youth culture, vividly capturing its mores, attitudes, and tastes. While today the behavior of the young characters may not scandalize, Fitzgerald rather boldly depicts the “petting” of the time—the casual kissing of more than one partner—as well as the excessive imbibing of alcohol both before and after Prohibition. He describes a new kind of young woman, the Popular Daughter, or P.D., who becomes engaged often before shrewdly marrying a financially secure man.
Along with practicality, traditional morality is not abandoned. Although late in the novel it is clear that Alec Connage has had sex with the underage woman he brought to Atlantic City for that purpose, earlier it is suggested that, though in love, Amory and Rosalind have not slept together. A chronic waster of his talent, Amory is not immoral or even amoral. He believes in evil so palpably that he has visions of it as a man in brown suit and in the atmosphere that hovers over the illicit scene in the Atlantic City hotel room. In addition, Amory’s discussions with his classmates about literature and society reflect a spiritual questing that undergirds his development. In an era of rapid social and cultural change, Amory seeks a way of being and of being better.
Much of Amory’s maturation occurs as a series of poses that he half-knowingly adopts. Chief among these is a romantic self-conception that is reinforced through purposeful or perceived failure, as if he is deliberately playing and replaying the role of the tragic character. When Amory refuses to study for an important mathematics examination and...
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