Read an Excerpt
From Sharon Carson’s Introduction to This Side of Paradise
With the soul of a poet, the ear of a musician, and a psyche inextricably intertwined with that of his culture, F. Scott Fitzgerald was perhaps the last true voice of the romantic American spirit. And in all instances, he sought beyond the constraints of cultural mores and literary conventions to create a body of work that bespeaks its ethos. This Side of Paradise (1920) was Fitzgerald’s first novel, the work that made him the voice of post–World War I America, “the Jazz Age.” The Jazz Age was not just a drastic change in the culture; it was a new dimension in consciousness. During the 1910s and 1920s America underwent a massive paradigm shift, a transition from an era of smug Victorian conformity and certainty to one of confusion and ambiguity called “modernism.” World War I had accelerated the velocity of this change, and Fitzgerald expresses this transition in attitudes early in his 1917 play The Debutante when flapper Helen Halcyon with her cigarettes and silver flask is asked by her father if she is ready to fit into the wide, wide world, and she replies, “No daddy, just taking a more licensed view of it.” The typical 1920’s flapper, Helen doesn’t want to “fit in” to the rigid roles prescribed for her by the Victorian world, but to live a more independent lifestyle based on her own desires, and to experience greater social and sexual freedom. Her disdain for convention is a symptom of the shifting cultural mores of the Jazz Age.
It is ironic that Fitzgerald’s first novel is the one for which he achieved the most acclaim, praise from which he never recovered. Perhaps its reception was the result of the novel’s sense of anticipation for the age to come. Written between 1917 and 1919 and published on March 26, 1920, This Side of Paradise actually preceded the Jazz Age, an era that Fitzgerald claimed lasted from May Day 1919 to October 1929, when the stock market crashed. Yet the novel is a sensitive barometer of the shifting social climate. Brian Way remarks that “all Fitzgerald’s best writing as a historian of manners is retrospective,” and even though The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender Is the Night (1934) both look back on previous summers and previous years, “for a short time at the beginning of his career, Fitzgerald anticipated social change . . . he achieved the kind of popularity which depends upon a writer’s being fractionally ahead of his time” (Way, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Art of Social Fiction, p. 62; see “For Further Reading”).
This Side of Paradise might have been ahead of its time partly because it examines and rejects the romantic idealism of the Victorian past and reluctantly embraces the troubling uncertainties of the future. It reveals an American culture that is economically on the ascendant but that is psychically ambivalent. World War I had finally ended in November 1918, and the “war to end all wars” had given the nation a euphoric sense of its own power. The stock market was booming, and thousands were getting rich overnight. Many felt the United States had emerged from the war relatively unscathed, having suffered fewer deaths than France, Germany, or Great Britain, and that it was now the greatest nation on earth. But at the same time Americans were troubled by a sense of unease: The trenches in France had demonstrated the brutality of war, and death was on a scale so massive it was incomprehensible. How had the culture, indeed the whole world order, failed so cataclysmically? The war had created a tectonic shift in human consciousness. Paul Fussell comments in The Great War and Modern Memory on the change that occurred between the start of the war in 1914 and its end in 1918: “Out of the world of summer 1914, marched a unique generation. It believed in Progress and Art and in no way doubted the benignity even of technology. The word machine was not yet coupled with the word gun” (Fussell, p. 24). The savage and absurd deaths of 10 million were a result of this new technology of killing, which introduced the “civilized” nations to artillery, air power, poison gas, and unprecedented civilian casualties. Ezra Pound decried the chaos of the war in his poem “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” (1920): “There died a myriad, . . . For an old bitch gone in the teeth, For a botched civilization,” and T. S. Eliot wrote that the stable world view of the nineteenth century could not accord with “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”
Much like the rebellious youth of the 1960s during the Vietnam War, the young people of the 1920s questioned the absurdity of this “Great War,” the value system of a civilization that had created it, and the beliefs of their elders who had supported it. Many of them rejected what they regarded as a pretentious, hypocritical, and outmoded lifestyle and began to live for the moment. The “new women” of the post-war period began smoking and drinking in public, applying rouge, wearing shorter skirts, and speaking their minds. They were becoming more numerous in the post-war workforce, were gaining economic independence, and by 1920 would get the right to vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. No longer the proper Victorian maid with her beau and her chaperone in the tearoom, the new woman was now “the flapper” and “the slicker” in the “speakeasy,” sans chaperone. Meanwhile, a sense of hedonistic revelry infected the ballrooms and nightclubs, where dances like the Charleston and the Black Bottom replaced the more sedate and conventional waltzes. Jazz music was popular and was becoming even more so by way of the Graphophone (an early phonograph) and the radio, early accompaniments to what Fitzgerald would call “the gaudiest spree in history.” Appalled by the uninhibited carousing, reactionaries mandated prohibition in early 1920 with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment but were met with a populace drinking all the more, even if it was bootlegged liquor or grain alcohol. As Matthew J. Bruccoli notes, “Drinking increased among people for whom defying the bluenose Prohibitionists was a gesture of intellectual respectability” (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, p. 131).