Luck is Always on This Side of Greatness

Some years ago, a former Princeton student recently discharged from military service was working his first job in New York City as an advertising copywriter for the Barron Collier Agency.  He found the city exciting — ‘the land of ambition and success’ as he wrote to his girlfriend. 

Like many 20-somethings, he had big dreams. 

He was beginning to see success in advertising.  His boss liked what he wrote. One of his more imaginative string of words was advertising copy for a steam laundry in Muscatine, Iowa — “We keep you clean in Muscatine.”

But the Big Apple is a hard mistress even for the young and energetic. The times were unsettled and rapidly changing. Within a few months, this young man packed his bags and returned home to Minnesota to live under his parent’s roof. 

He’d written a novel while in college and serving stateside in the military. His manuscript, The Romantic Egotist, had been sent off to publishers, only to have rejection letters sent back.  “Without personalization,” the young author recorded in his notebook.

But, optimistic and sure about life as only the young can be, he decided to give himself a few months to rewrite the manuscript while living with his parents.  He would then resubmit the novel. 

He put together a writing schedule and pinned it to the window curtain by his desk.

Determined to stick to the schedule he outlined, he kept his head down, even refusing a request for a contribution to The Saturday Evening Post. He finished the rewrites plus new copy by the end of August, delivering the manuscript to the not yet legendary editor Maxwell Perkins at Charles A. Scribner’s. 

Perkins was interested.  He would become one of the young man’s biggest champions.

The author was anxious for rapid publication. So he queried the editor,

“Would it be utterly impossible for you to publish the book Xmas — or say by February?  I have so many things dependent on its success — including, of course, a girl—…”  (The Far Side of Paradise by Arthur Mizener, p.88)

Thus began the career of F. Scott Fitzgerald with his debut novel, This Side of Paradise. The girl, of course, was Zelda Sayre.

Zelda was a true Southern Belle.  Daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court Judge, she wanted for nothing and generally got what she wanted. 

By all accounts, she was smart and talented if terribly undisciplined. She darted between a passion for ballet, writing prose, and painting — never consistently focusing over the long haul on one endeavor.  Her semi-autobiographical novel, Save Me The Waltz published in 1932, is still available.

She was also shackled with serious mental health issues, which grew over the years. She was probably misdiagnosed and poorly treated, given the era.  For many years her creative output was dismissed but recently, especially her painting has been reassessed. 

Zelda’s acceptance of Scott’s marriage proposal after his novel was published has become part of his literary lore.  They would go on to a tumultuous life, together and apart. It was punctuated by her mental health, his infidelities, her romantic dalliances, and lots and lots of alcohol. 

Over the years, they both turned their tumult into text.   

But on March 26, 1920, with the publication of This Side of Paradise, the story was only beginning.  Twenty-three year-old Fitzgerald shot to fame. 

He was young, virile, and eminently photographable.  He gazed into the camera with a slight curl of the lip and tilt of the head.  Zelda, too, could woo the lens. They fed America’s beginning obsession with celebrity. Their promises of paradise easy on the eyes. 

Fitzgerald’s prose was pretty good, too. Most reviewers hailed this new face of fiction as bearing the mark of genius. His book was ‘the best American novel of late.’ 

H. L. Mencken, perhaps the most powerful cultural critic at the time and not an easy mark, wrote in the literary journal, The Smart Set, “a truly amazing first novel — original in structure, extremely sophisticated in manner, and adorned with a brilliancy that is as rare in American writing as honestly is in American statecraft.”

Heywood Broun of the New York Tribune was one of the few dissenting voices calling the novel callow and self-consciously written.  (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur by Matthew Bruccoli, p. 120)

Today, it feels like Broun called it better.  The novel is scattered, overwritten, and cluttered.  But, there are moments of splendid wordplay.  And, without this novel, it’s doubtful we’d have the greatness that followed.

This novel about Amory Blaine’s Princeton experience and coming of age in the great city fed the American psyche with possibility.  Fitzgerald would later get credit for characterizing the era as “the jazz age.”

America loved the buoyancy of the new epoch and this new novel.

The first print run of 3,000 sold out in 3 days.  A year later, 39,786 copies had sold.  This, in an era when the college experience was only open to a few.  But the promise was being made, and the numbers were growing.

In 1910 only 5.1% of the population attended college.  Twenty years later, the numbers had skyrocketed. (Source: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History).

It wasn’t just book sales that mattered. Books rarely make an author rich. What they do, do is open doors for other opportunities. 

This Side made Fitzgerald viable commercially. No longer an unknown writer, Fitzgerald could now get work writing for the movies and immediately sell his short fiction for a $1,000 a story, equivalent according to conversion tables to $12,995.90 today. He was going viral, as we say. 

By September 9, 1929, the month before the market crash (October 29, 1929), Fitzgerald wrote Hemingway with whom there was always a rivalry, 

“— the Post [The Saturday Evening Post] now pays the old whore [Fitzgerald] $4,000 a screw. But now it’s because she’s mastered the 40 positions—in her youth, one was enough.”

For a decade after the Great War, Fitzgerald represented the new America that was moving full steam ahead.  Products were emerging for every man and woman with the promise of a great American life, without effort or sacrifice.

His prose reflected and fed the existence promised by Madison Ave with cigarettes, soap, and washing machines.

Though his books never sold as he wished, after his first job in advertising, Fitzgerald never again held a 9 to 5.  He would, as James L. W. West III in his essay “F. Scott Fitzgerald, Professional Author” emphasizes, forever make his living with his pen. He produced four novels, over 150 short stories, essays, and film scripts in his 20-year career. 

West writes,

He did nothing else: He had no other vocation and drew on no private source of income.  He made his way on talent, ambition, self-discipline, and luck.”   

In the end, luck ran out, and “he was hampered by personal problems and bad habits…” 

But before luck disappeared and heavy drinking took its toll, Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby. 

Though the novel’s reception was anything but grand, it has become part of Americana, revered by the likes of Bill Gates and Haruki Murakami.

Even the original book cover art by the painter and graphic designer Francis Cugat is considered a masterpiece, hailed as one of the best American book cover designs — ever.

However, in 1925 The Great Gatsby generated lukewarm reviews and marginal sales.

The New York Herald Tribune’s reviewer referred to The Great Gatsby as a

“purely ephemeral phenomenon, but it contains some of the nicest little touches of contemporary observation you could imagine—so light, so delicate, so sharp … a literary lemon meringue.

According to his ledger, Fitzgerald earned a mere $2,000 from Gatsby in its first year (1925).  Depressing financials when you consider what he got for a short story — with a lot less sweat.  Later, he sold the foreign motion picture rights for $16,666 and recorded $5,000 more when Gatsby ran as a play.

Fitzgerald attributed the lackluster performance to two things as he wrote to Perkins:

1st, The title is only fair, rather bad than good.

2nd, And most important — the book contains no important woman character, and women control the fiction market at present.I don’t think the unhappy end matters particularly.

(Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, p. 220)

By 1940, America was staring down the barrel of another war, Fitzgerald was dead of a heart attack at 44, and The Great Gatsby had sunk into oblivion. In the 15 years since its birth, it sold fewer than 25,000 copies. 

All his life, it was a heavy disappointment for Fitzgerald.

In 1922, Fitzgerald had written to Maxwell Perkins, “I want to write something new… something extraordinary and beautiful and simple.”

He thought The Great Gatsby was going to be that kind of novel. Turns out, it was. It just took a few years for the world to see it. 

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