You don’t know about me unless you read a book by the name of This Side of Paradise that I wrote. There is things that I stretched, but I told the truth, mainly. People badmouth my book some, but at this point it wouldn’t be realistic to have a guy like Amory Blaine writing a smooth book. That comes later. And anyway, I probably let some things slip out that a smoother writer would have covered up, so you get that.
I’m a naturalist like Dreiser and all those guys. I show my characters with all their flaws, non-judgmentally. If they seem precious and fake that’s because I show the gritty reality of their lives – pretense – even though maybe they don’t look so appealing that way. I just tell the truth, and I even show you the half-baked novelist himself (me) right there in the middle of his half-baked novel.
Sometimes I wonder where my friend Edmund got the nerve to say all those things about me, given that he can barely write his way out of a paper bag, if that. But then, I have a lot more nerve than he does, which is why I wrote a novel that people will still be reading a century from now, and he didn’t.
Also, my book is a morality play, with a Virgin Mary (Clara) and two succubi (Axia and Elaine), and if you read the book carefully you will understand how women and the devil lead us into sin.
“I know myself, but that is all”. Ha.
Amory Blaine is F. Scott Fitzgerald, more or less. Blaine tells us various things he has noticed about the Midwest, Princeton University, the WWI generation, women, sin, etc., and some of these things are interesting, but the book is mostly about him. He learns a lot about himself from the women he tries to love, and these women also tell him what it’s like to be at the receiving end of fetishism. A stranger in the world, Amory must manipulate and dominate his way through life, but doing so makes real human contact almost impossible. His aristocratic egotism, analytic reflex, misogyny, asceticism / Puritanism, and decadent disdain for the world of his time separate him from the rest of humankind, making a life dedicated to the Church seem tempting. But the vocation he ends up choosing is writing, not the priesthood.
As a writer he needs experience, and for a committed romantic like Amory experience (despite his Puritanism) means love. But even love does not save him, and at the end of his book he is in utter confusion, overcome by cynicism, misogyny, resentment, and a vaguely progressive nihilism, and has no other choice than to become a writer, which is what he had always wanted to do anyway.
Fitzgerald and Decadence
[The Jazz Age] is as dead as were the Yellow Nineties in 1902.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1931, “Echoes of the Jazz Age” (in The Crack-Up, p. 13).
Young Benêt (at New Haven) is getting out a book of verse before Xmas that I fear will obscure John Peale [Bishop]’s. His subjects are less precieuse and decadent. John is really an anachronism in this country at this time…..
Fitzgerald, letter to Wilson, 1917, in The Crack-Up, p. 248.
The old English hunting prints on the wall were Tom’s, and the large tapestry by courtesy, a relic of decadent days in college, and the great profusion of orphaned candlesticks and the carved Louis XV chair in which no one could sit more than a minute without acute spinal disorders…..
This Side of Paradise, “Restlessness”.
Suddenly he felt an overwhelming desire to let himself go to the devil…..There were so many places where one might deteriorate pleasantly: Port Said, Shanghai, parts of Turkestan, Constantinople, the South Seas—all lands of sad, haunting music and many odors, where lust could be a mode and expression of life, where the shades of night skies and sunsets would seem to reflect only moods of passion: the colors of lips and poppies.
“In the Drooping Hours”.
This Side of Paradise is usually understood in terms of its present and future (the Jazz Age / Lost Generation) but it is also illuminating to look at this book in terms of its past. The voluminous reading lists comprising Amory Blaine’s literary education show us this book’s literary background in detail, and authors of the decadent tradition are found on these lists from the very beginning. Along with Midwestern Catholicism, it is the decadence he inherits from his mother that gives Amory a feeling of otherness that plagues him throughout the book.
At least ten recognized decadent authors are seen on Amory’s reading lists: Verlaine, Wilde, Swinburne, Pater, Huysmans, Gautier, Bourget, Dowson, Symons, and Ralph Adams Cram. Along with these are another ten or so authors beloved by the decadents or in some way related to them: Poe, Rabelais, Boccaccio, Suetonius, Petronius, Byron, Chesterton, Robert Hugh Benson, Compton Mackenzie, and H. L. Mencken. One of the book’s two epigraphs comes from the decadent Oscar Wilde, and the author most frequently named or cited in the book (along with the progressive H. G. Wells, who is ultimately rejected) is the decadent poet Swinburne.
The American decadent tradition was still alive and publishing when This Side of Paradise appeared — both Ben Hecht’s Edward Dorn and James Huneker’s Painted Veils (re-released 30 years later as a scandalous dime novel) were published at about that time. Huneker was H. L. Mencken’s mentor, and Hecht would go on to become one of the greatest of the early screenwriters, but Fitzgerald was aware that decadence was already passé, and he refrained from identifying himself as a decadent (though he still did use the Wilde quip). Instead he opportunistically affiliated himself with The Lost Generation even though his life had not been blighted by World War I.
“Bourgeois” doesn’t mean a citizen with the rights of the city. A duke may be bourgeois in the indirect sense in which the word has been used for the past thirty years or so. “Bourgeois”, in France, means roughly the same as “philistine” in Germany, and it means everyone, whatever his position, who is not initiated in the arts or doesn’t understand them. Once upon a time…. it was enough to be pink-cheeked and clean-shaven, with a square shirt-collar, and a stove-pipe hat, to be apostrophized with this injurious epithet.
Théophile Gautier, in Le Moniteur Universel, Dec. 31, 1855.
By now the decadents have been disappeared from canned literary history, so perhaps I should try to say what decadence was. When we try to do this, the slack contemporary use of the word “decadent” is not helpful. It most often used to characterize self-indulgent forms of hedonism such as eating too much chocolate, but more seriously self-destructive wastrels and idle social parasites are also called decadent. But the literary decadents read by Fitzgerald / Blaine were self-aware dissidents with a rationale and a theory of history, and the present usage of the word only calls to mind the least-admired traits of some of them.
“Decadence” evokes overripeness, the declining Roman Empire and its ornate prose style, and the inexorable decline of nations, races, classes, and families (thought of in terms of Darwin, Hegel, or Gibbon). The class origins of the decadents were various; ideally they were from old families in decline, but there were also social-climbing decadents. Weir distinguishes bohemians from decadents by the bohemians’ declassé status and the consequent squalor and shabbiness of their lives. Decadents live in the shadow of greatness, and there is often a hint that they would have been able to do heroic things, but that great things are not possible in this fallen bourgeois world. Decadents are past-oriented, anti-democratic, and conservative or reactionary in sentiment, though in some contexts they might sympathize with the left, but they have no real place in the actual political world, disdain political participation, and are effectively apolitical.
The decadents’ great enemy is the bourgeoisie with its sentimentality, vulgar prosperity, and bad taste. Decadents reject the technical, commercial, industrial, and national commitments of the bourgeoisie as well as all theories of progress (Whig, Marxist, humanist, or other), which they replace with mirror theories of regression and inevitable decline. But “decline” is a moving target: their argument was both that bourgeois progress is in itself a decline in real terms, and that the nations and races of Europe were regressing even from their own bourgeois or nationalist point of view.
In practice, the crux of decadence was the belief that for an individual in this declining world it was wisest to live beautifully rather than righteously, and with no thought of purpose — to live life to its fullest today rather than to dutifully re-invest in “progress” while deferring realization to some never-to-be-attained future state. Their denial of purpose and direction in history and the idea of duty in the lives of individuals is their defining difference from the optimistic and dutiful Victorians.
Individual expressions of decadence took widely varying forms, always involving disengagement from public goals and the rejection of public obligation. Decadents were most often discreet gentleman with refined (though sometimes depraved) tastes, an aristocratic air, and a scorn for the bourgeoisie. Many were were wealthy or successful. They were characterized variously by aestheticism, idleness, languor, fatalism, reclusiveness, disdain for the mass, preciosity, artificiality, obscure and erudite interests, antiquarianism, exoticism, eroticism and debauchery (but sometimes celibacy) and a taste for Satanism, the macabre, and the Gothic. But no decadent had all these traits and some had only a few of them — in particular, the more lurid forms of the pursuit of evil were not general.
The decadents were alienated both from the world of business and from the world of nations, and given their common bourgeois enemy, it is not as surprising as it might seem when they are found to be in communication with radicals. Decadents and radicals were both dissatisfied with the present, for reasons which were mostly very different but which sometimes overlapped. But decadents look toward the past and offered little hope, while radicals looked toward a glorious future. The decadent Oscar Wilde called himself a socialist, and it was probably some kind of Wildean aesthetic socialism that Amory Blaine was arguing for in the final pages of This Side of Paradise.
By the time that Fitzgerald’s book was published, decadence was forty years or more old in France and England, but in the United States there was a decadent revival in the aftermath of the WWI disaster, and while the critic and polemicist H.L. Mencken who dominated the American Twenties may not have been quite a decadent himself, he revered the decadent James Huneker as his master.
She learned in England to prefer whiskey and soda to wine, and her small talk was broadened in two senses during a winter in Vienna.…. She fed him sections of the Fêtes Galantes before he was ten.
“Amory, Son of Beatrice”.
Often she deplored the bourgeois quality of the American Catholic clergy, and was quite sure that had she lived in the shadow of the great Continental cathedrals her soul would still be a thin flame on the mighty altar of Rome.
“Amory, Son of Beatrice”.
“Yes,” continued Beatrice tragically, “I had dreams—wonderful visions.” She pressed the palms of her hands into her eyes. “I saw bronze rivers lapping marble shores, and great birds that soared through the air, parti-colored birds with iridescent plumage. I heard strange music and the flare of barbaric trumpets ….. gardens that flaunted coloring against which this would be quite dull, moons that whirled and swayed, paler than winter moons, more golden than harvest moons—”
“Preparatory to the Great Adventure”.
Amory Blaine’s wealthy, wasteful, histrionic, alcoholic, cosmopolitan, bourgeois-hating, Verlaine-reading mother Beatrice, with her wavering Catholicism and ornate dreams, was a daughter of the American fin-de-siecle decadence (the”Mauve Decade” or the “Yellow Nineties”). Like the mad witch Eleanor later in the book (a “wilder and brainier Beatrice”), Amory’s mother had even spent time in Vienna, the most decadent place on earth. (Beatrice in the book does not much resemble Fitzgerald’s real life mother, and her portrait as a decadent must be regarded as a deliberate statement by Fitzgerald).
In prep school young Amory had tended toward dandyism, zeroing in on the only poem in Milton in which decadent escapism might possibly be found: “L’Allegro” . (The companion piece to “L’Allegro”, “Il Penseroso”, is not mentioned).
He had appeared …. in his first long trousers, set off by a purple accordion tie and a “Belmont” collar with the edges unassailably meeting, purple socks, and a handkerchief with a purple border peeping from his breast pocket. But more than that, he had formulated his first philosophy, a code to live by, which, as near as it can be named, was a sort of aristocratic egotism.
“Code of the Young Egotist”. (Did the purple here foreshadow Prince?)
Many nights he lay there dreaming awake of secret cafes in Mont Martre, where ivory women delved in romantic mysteries with diplomats and soldiers of fortune, while orchestras played Hungarian waltzes and the air was thick and exotic with intrigue and moonlight and adventure. In the spring he read “L’Allegro,” by request, and was inspired to lyrical outpourings on the subject of Arcady and the pipes of Pan. He moved his bed so that the sun would wake him at dawn that he might dress and go out to the archaic swing that hung from an apple-tree near the sixth-form house. Seating himself in this he would pump higher and higher until he got the effect of swinging into the wide air, into a fairyland of piping satyrs and nymphs with the faces of fair-haired girls he passed in the streets of Eastchester.
“Philosophy of the Slicker”.
Later at Princeton, under the guidance of Tom d’Invilliers (who was based on Fitzgerald’s college friend, the poet John Peale Bishop), Amory plunges into the reading of decadent authors. A tinge of fatalism and uselessness is added to his formerly-ambitious egotism and narcissism.
So he found “Dorian Gray” and the “Mystic and Somber Dolores” and the “Belle Dame sans Merci”; for a month he was keen on naught else. The world became pale and interesting, and he tried hard to look at Princeton through the satiated eyes of Oscar Wilde and Swinburne—or “Fingal O’Flaherty” and “Algernon Charles,” as he called them in precieuse jest. He read enormously every night— Shaw, Chesterton, Barrie, Pinero, Yeats, Synge, Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons, Keats, Sudermann, Robert Hugh Benson, the Savoy Operas….
“Spires and Gargoyles”.
Yet he knew that where now the spirit of spires and gargoyles made him dreamily acquiescent, it would then overawe him. Where he now realized only his own inconsequence, effort would make him aware of his own impotence and insufficiency.
“A Damp Symbolic Interlude”.
When Amory’s college disasters begin, his reading continued its decadent turn, though at first once-decadent Catholic authors help him defend himself against the real thing:
Even Amory’s reading paled during this period; he delved further into the misty side streets of literature: Huysmans, Walter Pater, Theophile Gautier, and the racier sections of Rabelais, Boccaccio, Petronius, and Suetonius.
“First Appearance of the Term ‘Personage’.
“[Amory] had fallen into a deep cynicism over what had crossed his path, plotted the imperfectability of man and read Shaw and Chesterton enough to keep his mind from the edges of decadence….. He was not even a Catholic, yet that was the only ghost of a code that he had, the gaudy, ritualistic, paradoxical Catholicism whose prophet was Chesterton, whose claqueurs were such reformed rakes of literature as Huysmans and Bourget, whose American sponsor was Ralph Adams Cram, with his adulation of priests and cathedrals — a Catholicism which Amory found ready-made, without priest or sacraments or sacrifice”.
“Narcissus Off Duty”.
When Amory is been finally rejected by his one true love, Rosalind Connage, decadence and uselessness triumph. After a disastrous week-long binge, he talks with his friend Tom about his prospects, speaking of the heroic deeds he had once planned but feels are no longer possible. Rather incongruously he brings up Carlyle as a point of comparison, saying that nowadays heroes of the type of which Carlyle spoke are destroyed as soon as they are created. (“Wood” below is WWI hero Gen. Leonard Wood, who has actually been forgotten by now, though there is a military base in Missouri named for him. “Roosevelt” here is Teddy, of course, on the basis of his stunt on San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War).
“Carlyle would have difficulty getting material for a new chapter on ‘The Hero as a Big Man’ “….. People try so hard to believe in leaders now, pitifully hard. But we no sooner get a popular reformer or politician or soldier or writer or philosopher—a Roosevelt, a Tolstoy, a Wood, a Shaw, a Nietzsche, than the cross-currents of criticism wash him away”
“I’m tres old and tres bored, Tom,” said Amory one day, stretching himself at ease in the comfortable window-seat. He always felt most natural in a recumbent position…. Existence had settled back to an ambitionless normality.
Monsignor Darcy and Thornton Hancock
Amory’s mentor Monsignor Darcy (his mother Beatrice’s former Swinburnean beau, now a Catholic convert and a priest) was, like Beatrice, a child of the American fin-de-siecle decadence. Darcy’s character is based on Monsignor Sigourney Fay, to whom the book is dedicated. Fay had the served as mentor and father-figure to Fitzgerald, whose real father was a weak presence. Not only did Fay convince Fitzgerald that Irish Catholicism might be something to be proud of rather than an embarrassment, he even was able to introduce him to Thornton Hancock, an eminent American of Puritan descent who had taken an interest in ritualistic Catholicism; Hancock was very impressed with Amory and the admiration was mutual. (Hancock was modeled on Henry Adams, a descendant of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams and the author of Mont St.-Michel and Chartres. Adams shared the decadents’ sense of the the bourgeois world’s reduced possibilities and the shabbiness of bourgeois life.)
Only to bishops and above did she divulge her clerical romance. When she had first returned to her country there had been a pagan, Swinburnian young man in Asheville, for whose passionate kisses and unsentimental conversations she had taken a decided penchant—they had discussed the matter pro and con with an intellectual romancing quite devoid of sappiness. Eventually she had decided to marry for background, and the young pagan from Asheville had gone through a spiritual crisis, joined the Catholic Church, and was now—Monsignor Darcy….. He was intensely ritualistic, startlingly dramatic, loved the idea of God enough to be a celibate, and rather liked his neighbor.
“Amory, Son of Beatrice”.
[Darcy] announced that he had another guest. This turned out to be the Honorable Thornton Hancock, of Boston, ex-minister to The Hague, author of an erudite history of the Middle Ages and the last of a distinguished, patriotic, and brilliant family….. He’s a radiant boy,” thought Thornton Hancock, who had seen the splendor of two continents and talked with Parnell and Gladstone and Bismarck—and afterward he added to Monsignor: “But his education ought not to be intrusted to a school or college.”
“Preparatory to the Great Adventure”.
“Monsignor Darcy still thinks that you’re his reincarnation, that your faith will eventually clarify”.
“Temperature Normal”. (This is Mrs. Lawrence, “a type of Rome-haunting American whom Amory liked immediately”, speaking to Amory).
–“He’s the natural radical?”
–“Yes,” said Amory. “He may vary from the disillusioned critic like old Thornton Hancock, all the way to Trotsky”
“Amory coins a Phrase”.
The witch girl
Amory’s decadence and romanticism culminate in a summer-long relationship with Eleanor, who (like Edgar Allen Poe and Fitzgerald’s own father) comes from old Maryland stock. They find one another like birds, by ear. Eleanor hears Amory reciting Poe’s “Ulalume” and responds with Verlaine (in French) and two poems by Swinburne. This chapter is littered with poetry, including Amory’s and Eleanor’s own poetry, and Fitzgerald even manages to sneak in a rhymed poem disguised as prose (for which he was rebuked by the relentless Edmund Wilson). In Amory, Eleanor sees Rupert Brooke and Lord Byron, and Amory plays to that; in Eleanor, Amory sees the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets and one of Poe’s fatal heroines, and she plays to that. Their minds meet as one and they live out a summer of passionate intensity, each occasionally reminding the other that the summer cannot last.
As intended, Eleanor’s escalating impiety and sacrilege shock the still-pious Amory, and she ends with a dramatic, abortive suicide attempt that actually does kill her horse. No longer able to maintain her pose, she falls out of character and breaks down in tears. The spell is broken, and they return to the mundane world they had tried to escape, each hating the other (though much later they do communicate in verse, but from a distance).
Eleanor is of a kind with the demon women in Poe and in the decadent-romantic contes of Nodier, Nerval, Gautier, and the other authors of France’s fantastique tradition. Amory’s parting from Eleanor is inconclusive; he later speaks of her as evil, but at the moment of parting he does not flee from her as he earlier had from Axia, the other demon woman in the book, but merely escorts her glumly home as if she had committed an unforgivable faux pas. Amory soon returns to his decadent poems and decadent fantasies, but his rejection of Eleanor seems to represent his realization that their dreams had been fake and that in the end they probably would have been fatal.
Eleanor is is the only major figure in the book who cannot be identified with someone known to Fitzgerald in real life. Amory thinks of her as an enhanced version of his mother Beatrice and wonders whether he had dreamed her, suspecting that everything he found in her was probably just a projection of his own mind. And in fact, Elaine is a succubus, Fitzgerald’s (or Amory’s ) version of a medieval Catholic (or Freudian or Jungian) archetype.
Eleanor was, say, the last time that evil crept close to Amory under the mask of beauty, the last weird mystery that held him with wild fascination and pounded his soul to flakes. With her his imagination ran riot and that is why they rode to the highest hill and watched an evil moon ride high, for they knew then that they could see the devil in each other. But Eleanor—did Amory dream her? Afterward their ghosts played, yet both of them hoped from their souls never to meet…… She will have no other adventure like Amory, and if she reads this she will say:“And Amory will have no other adventure like me.”
“I’ve got a crazy streak,” she faltered. “Twice before I’ve done things like that. When I was eleven mother went—went mad—stark raving crazy. We were in Vienna—”
“The End of Summer”.
….Rosalind not like Beatrice, Eleanor like Beatrice, only wilder and brainier…..
“The Egotist Becomes a Personage”
Not long after Amory’s escape from Eleanor, his worldly disaster becomes complete in “The Collapse of Several Pillars”, the sudden, 298-word turning point of this supposedly plotless book. Over the course of two days he finds out that he has been publicly disgraced, that fair Rosalind is engaged to be married to one Dawson Ryder, that his inheritance has disappeared into bankruptcy, and that his mentor Monsignor Darcy has died. While this chapter might be regarded as the amateurish move of a novice novelist in a hurry to get his book done, it might just as well be seen as an impressively bold stroke by an original young author who has already defied the inventions of the “novel” in several other ways.
Amory is now thrown into utter confusion, and during the last 35 pages of the book a chaos of contradictory ideas rush through his head. He begins by writing a nicely decadent poem and dreaming of escaping to some tropic isle to rot pleasantly:
A fathom deep in sleep I lie
With old desires, restrained before,
To clamor lifeward with a cry,
As dark flies out the greying door;
And so in quest of creeds to share
I seek assertive day again…
But old monotony is there:
Endless avenues of rain.
“The Collapse of Several Pillars”.
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. Here he might live a strange litany, delivered from right and wrong and from the hound of heaven and from every God (except the exotic Mexican one who was pretty slack himself and rather addicted to Oriental scents)—delivered from success and hope and poverty into that long chute of indulgence which led, after all, only to the artificial lake of death.
“In the Drooping Hours”.
Like any good decadent, at age 23 he now thinks of himself as a tired old man, disillusioned like the rest of his generation, watching the younger generation fall blindly into the pit of lust and ambition.
There were no more wise men; there were no more heroes; Burne Holiday was sunk from sight as though he had never lived; Monsignor was dead. Amory had grown up to a thousand books, a thousand lies; he had listened eagerly to people who pretended to know, who knew nothing. The mystical reveries of saints that had once filled him with awe in the still hours of night, now vaguely repelled him. The Byrons and Brookes who had defied life from mountain tops were in the end but flaneurs and poseurs, at best mistaking the shadow of courage for the substance of wisdom.
As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets.
“The Egotist Becomes a Personage”.
In the final section chapter Amory claims to speak for his “restless generation”. Generational thinking can take many forms. In a traditional society the new generation is seen as simply learning the ways of the elders and eventually replacing them. In a progressive society, each new generation is seen as superior and is expected to improve on the life it inherited and make the world a better place. In the decadent theory of decline, each new generation is worse than the one before, and living in a worse world. Amory here speaks with his customary extreme confusion, but seems to think that the postwar generation is different from his own and worse. In any case, he sees transition rather than stability, as usual, and it also might be true, as intimated by Edmund Wilson, that his generational talk (in a section added last, in response to Scribners’ demand for a proper conclusion, but also quite suitable for The American Mercury, The Smart Set, and The Saturday Evening Post) was is part of his marketing plan for his book.
My whole generation is restless. I’m sick of a system where the richest man gets the most beautiful girl if he wants her….. I simply state that I’m a product of a versatile mind in a restless generation—with every reason to throw my mind and pen in with the radicals.
“The Little Man Gets His”.
“You are ‘the man’, you told me, you know, at the beginning of our conversation “who has made America “Younger-Generation-conscious”. Did you realize, when you used that expression, that you had dropped into the language of advertising?”
Edmund Wilson, in Kazin, p. 62. Wilson imagines Van Wyck Brooks saying this to Fitzgerald.
Purpose, Direction, Duty
Up until WWI, almost everyone in America — Protestant, Catholic, establishmentarian, patriot, progressive, or radical — believed that life and history have a knowable direction and purpose, that people had a duty to live their in terms of this purpose, and that works of art should contribute to this purpose. Only the decadents disagreed. The first two versions of This Side of Paradise were rejected by the publisher because they didn’t “work up to a conclusion”, and even though Fitzgerald finally satisfied the publisher by tacking a chapter onto the end, many critics were still not satisfied. At the end of the book Amory Blaine is left in a fog, with no clear idea of what to do next, and for most readers of the time that did not count as a real ending — but for the “Lost Generation”, so-called, it did. Fitzgerald’s book was read as a Quest novel, but the quest had been unsuccessful and it is a bildungsroman without much bildung. Amory has not come to understand his mission in life, all his supports have disappeared, and the book ends almost like an episode of a radio serial, inviting us to tune in next week while the hero hangs in midair.
Neither the hero’s career or his character are shown to be brought to any stage which justifies an ending.
Anonymous Scribners reader, cited in Carson. p. xxi .
…..a phantasmagoria of incident that had no dominating intention to endow it with unity and force. In short, one of the chief weaknesses of This Side of Paradise is that it is not really about anything; its intellectual and moral content amounts to little more than a gesture, a gesture of indefinite revolt…..
Edmund Wilson, in Mizener, pp. 80-81.
During his prep school years Amory had been confident and ambitious, with vague but high goals. During his college years he remained confident even after an early setback, but by the end of This Side of Paradise his confidence has disappeared.
Amory was enjoying college immensely again, The sense of going forward in a direct, determined line had come back….
“Still Calm” (early in the book).
There were days when Amory resented that life had changed from an even progress along a road stretching ever in sight, with the scenery merging and blending, into a succession of quick, unrelated scenes.
“September” (toward the end of the book).
This was what admirers and detractors of This Side of Paradise loved or hated: the book’s unprogressive doubts about life, history, and purpose. Amory has turned away from conventional wisdom but also from progressivism, since he and his friends believed that both had been debunked by The Great War – and Amory, at least, had never quite believed in them anyway. All his life Amory had resisted recruitment to public purposes, but by the end of the book he has definitively disengaged himself from all of them.
This Side of Paradise is not quite a decadent novel. Amory’s parting from Elaine seems like a parting from decadence, or at least from her romantic version of it. On the last pages of the book Amory seems to be headed toward an angry, messy Bohemianism, and seems quite unlikely to be financially or otherwise capable of maintaining the serene disdain characteristic of successful decadents. In 1920 Fitzgerald was too shrewd to tie himself to the tradition of aging uncles writing in outdated literary forms and an overripe tradition of once-fresh decay, but instead chose to speak to the disenchanted modernist youth of the future, of whom he was just barely one. Nonetheless, when Fitzgerald lifted pen from paper at the end of This Side of Paradise, the existing tradition to which it most clearly belonged was the decadent one.
Of the books on Amery’s reading list, the decadents and the naturalists are the ones never disavowed, and Amory’s cynicism and pessimism at the end of the book are consistent with decadence. The break with Eleanor seems to represent a break more from romanticism than from decadence, since Amory writes a classically decadent poem immediately after leaving her (….. But old monotony is there: Endless avenues of rain) and not too much later nurtures decadent fantasies of escaping to rot in the tropics (“In the Drooping Hours”).
The ending of This Side of Paradise is a beginning, and it gives us a good idea of what kind of writer Amory will and will not be. His comments on his reading lists tell us that Amory will show, rather than explain or advocate, and that he will make no attempt to leave the reader with a comforting or inspiriting message, and this is a reasonably good description of what Amory / Fitzgerald did in This Side of Paradise.
MORE: People, the Devil, and Mirrors in Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise”.