A Temporary Crown

This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “novel about flappers for philosophers,” was accepted for publication on this day in 1919. The acceptance date is regarded as an important one: the first edition of this first novel (the most financially successful one of his career) would sell out in three days, spring-boarding the twenty-four-year-old Fitzgerald to fame and all that came with it. In a letter to Edmund Wilson written at the beginning of 1918, Fitzgerald describes his work-in-progress as a “prose, modernistic Childe Harold,” sure to bring his own sudden, Byronic glory:

I know I’ll wake some morning and find that the debutantes have made me famous over night. I really believe that no one else could have written so searchingly the story of the youth of our generation.

The critics concurred, Robert Benchley saying that he was “inclined to hail as a genius” a young author who “can think up something new and say it in a new way.” Benchley concluded that “Mr. Fitzgerald deserves a crown of something expensive,” a statement to which some biographers have attached a tragic irony — the crown granted and then snatched away, both at the author’s expense.

Fitzgerald took his title from the last lines of Rupert Brooke’s “Tiare Tahiti,” a poem in which he reflects upon the gardenias worn by many Tahitian women, either behind the ear or in a garland crown. Written a year before Brooke’s early death and based on an earlier South Sea romance, the poem wonders at the wisdom of those who recommend the after-life, given the clear pleasures of the here-and-now. The speaker’s carpe diem conclusion, addressed to the beauty with whom he is sharing the night:

…Spend the glittering moonlight there
Pursuing down the soundless deep
Limbs that gleam and shadowy hair,
Or floating lazy, half-asleep.
Dive and double and follow after,
Snare in flowers, and kiss, and call,
With lips that fade, and human laughter
And faces individual,
Well this side of Paradise! …
There’s little comfort in the wise.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.