This Side of Paradise – An Irishman’s Diary on the Irish connections to F Scott Fitzgerald’s debut novel

F Scott Fitzgerald: his debut novel was published one hundred years ago today. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

F Scott Fitzgerald: his debut novel was published one hundred years ago today. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

Published a hundred years ago today to immense and immediate acclaim, F Scott Fitzgerald’s debut novel This Side of Paradise – the book that launched the Jazz Age – might never have made it onto America’s bookshelves without the support of the now largely forgotten Irish author Shane Leslie, who read through its earliest drafts (when it was still titled The Romantic Egotist) and made several suggestions that were taken on board.

He then recommended it to his publisher Scribner’s, complete with a note likening its author to an American Rupert Brooke, a comparison that would have made Fitzgerald swoon, infatuated as he was with the dashing young English poet who had died during the first World War, the very title for This Side of Paradise lifted from the final lines of Brooke’s poem “Tiare Tahiti”.

Born into the heart of the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy in Castle Leslie, Co Monaghan, in 1885, Leslie, a Catholic convert during his university days in Cambridge, had married into a politically well-connected American family and was working with the British embassy in Washington when he first met the teenage Fitzgerald, regaling the impressionable youth with tales of swimming with Brooke in England and meeting an elderly Tolstoy while touring Russia.

They had been brought together by Fr Sigourney Fay, a large and larger-than-life figure who was a trustee of the Newman School, the prestigious Catholic boarding school the Minnesota-born Fitzgerald attended in New Jersey.

Fay, who was in his late thirties when they first met, had taken the precocious Fitzgerald under his wing, not just praising his writing but bringing him to Saturday evening dinner parties at the homes of the East coast Catholic aristocracy.

A victim of the Spanish flu in early 1919, Fay did not live to see Fitzgerald achieve the success they had dreamed of together.

He remained to the fore of Fitzgerald’s mind, however, with This Side of Paradise dedicated to the charismatic priest who numbered the former American president Theodore Roosevelt and the powerful Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore among his close friends.

Leslie, meanwhile, would be thanked for all the “literary help and encouragement” he had bestowed upon the aspiring writer a few years later in the dedication to Fitzgerald’s second novel The Beautiful and Damned.

With Irish lineage on both sides of his family, This Side of Paradise is also replete with references to the country, including mentions of Wilde, Shaw and Joyce – all writers the young Fitzgerald greatly admired.

Fitzgerald, indeed, was so in awe of Joyce that when they met in Paris in 1928 he greeted him ostentatiously on bended knee.

Even more interesting are the allusions to the tumultuous Irish political scene of the time, including a line on the “rancid accusations” of the unionist leader Edward Carson, who on July 12th, 1919, had made a widely-reported speech demanding Americans – and Irish-Americans in particular – stop interfering in the Irish situation.

Another passage pictured Msgr Darcy (the Fay figure in the book) attending a meeting in Boston during Éamon de Valera’s famous tour of America. This did not happen, Fay having died a few months before de Valera even began his tour.

Nevertheless, it was an entirely plausible line of thought as Fay, though not Irish, had felt a deep emotional attachment to the country, writing articles for the Dublin Review and weeping openly as he offered a Mass for the dead rebels of the Easter Rising in 1916.

Fitzgerald, though clearly aware of events in Ireland, was far less invested in the Irish struggle, writing blithely of Amory Blaine, his alter ego in This Side of Paradise, that though his “Celtic traits” had once been “pillars of his personal philosophy”, he had now “completely tired of the Irish question”.

In truth, Fitzgerald was always slightly ashamed of his Irish roots (despite his high opinion of the country’s writers), and the fact that it was the money made by his Fermanagh-born immigrant grandfather Phillip McQuillan that allowed the family send him to the Newman School and Princeton University.

Rather, he saw his Irishness as a permanent black spot on his character and prospects, a disfigurement that set him apart and marked him as an outsider in the world he was always straining to enter.

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