This Side of Paradise is a work of a young author, and possesses some fundamental flaws, both structural and thematic. But it is a truly important work, both in the life of its author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and for the course of twentieth-century American history and fiction. The novel contains a number of autobiographical elements and made an enormous impact on the later life of its author--who may never have written anything else if not for its success. The book was successful not only because of Fitzgerald's lyrical and graceful writing, but more importantly as a telling portrait of a new era in American history.
Fitzgerald was born Francis Scott Key in 1897 (named for the Star Spangled Banner lyricist to whom he was distantly related), and attended an Eastern boarding school, where he did not excel in athletics or academics, but did exhibit an early penchant for writing and producing plays. He was admitted to Princeton University, where he maintained his academic mediocrity but indulged and expanded his love of literature through his friendships and his prominent role in the Triangle Club, a Princeton theater group. Without earning his degree, Fitzgerald enlisted in the army in 1917 and, afraid that he would die in the war, rapidly dashed off a novel entitled "The Romantic Egotist" which was praised, but rejected, by publishers.
Fitzgerald was stationed in Alabama, where he met the wild Southern belle Zelda Sayre, with whom he instantly fell in love. He revised and submitted The Romantic Egotist again, but again met with rejection. The war ended without Scott having to go overseas. His romance continued, but Zelda refused to marry into poverty, insisting that Scott display an ability to earn money first. After a failed career in advertising in New York, Zelda broke off the engagement, and Fitzgerald returned to Minnesota to complete the novel. Adding to and revising The Romantic Egotist, Fitzgerald completed This Side of Paradise. Upon its acceptance by a publisher in 1919, Zelda agreed to marry him.
This novel achieved enormous success and established Fitzgerald as the chronicler of the new post-war youth of America--of flappers, alcohol, and the Jazz Age. Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, barely funded by the sale of Fitzgerald's critically though not commercially successful stories and novels, enjoyed an extravagant and often Bacchic lifestyle in the post World War I American boom era of the 1920's. They spent a great deal of time in Europe among an elite class of artists, royalty, and wealthy American expatriates. In the late 1920's, the Fitzgeralds spent time on the Southern coast of France, known as the Riviera. Their hosts were Gerald and Sara Murphy, who were central among a social set that included such notables as Picasso.
In this world in 1925, Scott finished what is widely considered his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. But at this time, the Fitzgeralds' decadent lifestyle took a toll on them, both financially and emotionally. Zelda's sanity suffered, and she was forced to seek expert and expensive psychological treatments in Switzerland. Fitzgerald was forced to abandon novel writing to pay the medical bills. Zelda's battle with mental illness is depicted in Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald's last complete novel, in the character of Nicole Diver. While the heroine of the novel recovers, Zelda sadly did not, remaining in institutions the rest of her days. Fitzgerald moved around a lot, spending some time working as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. He died in 1940 with all of his novels out of print, thinking himself a failure.
A great deal of the material Fitzgerald employed to write This Side of Paradise came from his own experiences up to that time. The main character, Amory Blaine, is, in many ways, a thinly veiled Fitzgerald. This semi-autobiographical literary technique is one that Fitzgerald employed often throughout his career, and for which he often met strong criticism. However, in the particular case of This Side of Paradise, the most commercially successful of the author's novels, the technique met with popular acclaim. Fitzgerald managed to capture a period of American history and a portrait of the new youth culture (which involved drinking and casual kissing) in a way that few, if any, authors at the time were able. Though in many ways a product and an embodiment of his times, Fitzgerald was able to see through the glamour of the lifestyle to make incisive commentaries on its moral vacuity.