Mike St. Thomas reviews ‘Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald.'
by Mike St. Thomas via Commonweal on January 4, 2018
History remembers F. Scott Fitzgerald as the author of The Great Gatsby, but that reputation arrived posthumously. While he was alive, his 1920 debut novel This Side of Paradise was his calling card. Its descriptions of the loosened morals of his generation established the twenty-three-year-old writer as the voice of the Jazz Age, and its publication convinced Zelda Sayre to offer him her hand in marriage.
Fitzgerald took the book’s title from “Tiare Tahiti,” a poem by the late-Victorian writer Rupert Brooke, in which the poet rejects heavenly “paradise” as the folly of the wise, and turns instead to the fleshy pleasures of the Tahitian isle. Likewise, the novel’s Amory Blaine, Fitzgerald’s most transparently autobiographical protagonist, pursues fulfillment in liquor, women, and high society, paradise be damned.
Paradise, though, still has a hold on Amory. Haunted by Catholicism, “the only ghost of a code he had,” he remains torn between the worlds of flesh and spirit. Fitzgerald was really writing about himself. Long after he claimed to have left the church, he described himself as a “spoiled priest,” a divided soul unable to pursue mammon with a clear conscience. Arthur Mizener used the phrase as a motif in The Far Side of Paradise, the first biography of the author, which helped resuscitate Fitzgerald’s reputation and to this day remains the standard for insight into his psyche.
David S. Brown, in naming his new biography Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, places himself squarely in Mizener’s wake. In the crowded field of Fitzgerald scholarship, the scope of Brown’s book deserves this ambitious title. A historian by trade, Brown argues for Fitzgerald’s status as a cultural critic who charted the decline of America from the high ideals of the nineteenth century to the “soulless materialism” of the twentieth.