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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 51.1 (2005) 1-33

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History and Masculinity in F. Scott Fitzgerald's this Side of Paradise

F. Scott Fitzgerald prefaces This Side of Paradise with two epigraphs that express a skeptical attitude toward the novel's primary theme, masculine coming-of-age:

. . . Well this side of Paradise! . . .
There's little comfort in the wise.
—Rupert Brooke
Experience is the name so many people give to their mistakes.
—Oscar Wilde

Brooke's presence has particular significance: he stands for the young men of Fitzgerald's generation who wanted to be heroes, who volunteered to fight, and who lost their lives in the First World War.1 Taking the novel's title from him and placing his name on the title page, Fitzgerald uses Brooke's poetry, and the death it recalls, to signify romantic masculine heroism.

Oscar Wilde's bon mot—"Experience is the name so many people give to their mistakes"—dispels that aura of heroism.2 Wilde's irony mocks the principle of development based on error and reflection, the principle undergirding the bildungsroman. One merely renames "mistakes" as "experience." Wilde's wit implies that wisdom does [End Page 1] arrive, in the form of ironic distance, offering some consolation. But however consoling, Wilde's ironic pose introduces dangers of its own: by aligning himself (and his protagonist) with Wilde, Fitzgerald risks identification with a feminized dandy, with no nation to die for and no traditional masculinity to uphold.

Fitzgerald's epigraphs indicate the difficulties that confronted him as the author of a male bildungsromanin 1920. Together, the quotes from Brooke and Wilde find "little comfort" in wisdom and deflate the notion of individual progress. These references do allow Fitzgerald to trace the failure of his coming-of-age narrative to other writers, but they also betray anxiety about masculinity. Brooke and Wilde—both effete writers with ambiguous sexual identities—exemplify the importance of being on the right side of history. Brooke's heroism and Wilde's ignominy offer contradictory models that the novel's effeminate protagonist must master. From this (fallen) side of paradise, becoming a man seems a difficult prospect. Whether it was a pose to be struck (as it was for Brooke), or a fiction to be narrated (as it is in Wilde's epigram), masculine maturity is not a natural possession. Wilde's name and the fate it recalls imply the potentially dire consequences of not achieving it.3

This essay reads This Side of Paradise as a paradigmatic expression of an unease about masculine coming-of-age that surfaces in early-twentieth-century American culture generally and in the bildungsromanin particular. The novel speaks directly to Henry Adams's autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams—"one of the earliest expressions of modern nervousness" (Wieseltierxi)—following its popular republication in 1918. Adams's insistence that older myths of male self-fashioning seemed inadequate to the new, modern world finds profound resonance in Fitzgerald's novel. Both The Education of Henry Adams and This Side of Paradise describe a crisis in male formation. Scholars have traditionally read Paradise as part of Fitzgerald's apprenticeship, or as a thinly veiled autobiographical account of college life. (It is usually remembered as "the Princeton book.") I suggest that we read the novel's flaws as a reflection of a larger cultural anxiety about the coherence of masculinity in the early twentieth century, an anxiety exacerbated by World War I.

Writings from the early part of the twentieth century frequently voice an anxiety that modern life was taking a toll on the character of the American people, particularly American men. People seemed "nervous." In response to an accelerating pace of change, the American character seemed to be losing its firmness. Worse, the new, more fluid identity engendered by modern conditions seemed effeminate. Otto Weininger articulated this cultural logic in his notorious 1903 treatise on character, in which he defines femininity as a [End Page 2] "lack of deep-rooted and original ideas" that manifests...


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