Prospect Avenue Visions of F. Scott Fitzgerald
By Stuart Mitchner
…. and they rode up smiling Prospect Avenue, through the gay crowd, to have tea at Cottage.
—from This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)
I’m walking up Prospect Avenue. On my right is the apartment building at 120 where Dream Songs poet John Berryman was fixated on Don Giovanni in the summer of 1947. Up the street on the other side is the Cottage Club, the site of the spring 1920 honeymoon revels of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, during which Zelda “turned cartwheels down Prospect,” according to Fitzgerald’s biographer Andrew Turnbull. Thinking of all the characters, poets and players, outsiders and insiders who have walked and dreamed and cartwheeled up and down that illustrious thoroughfare, including T.S. Eliot, I’m having “such a vision of the street as the street hardly understands.”
“Paradise” and the Garden
I went to Prospect Avenue last week for a first-hand look at the three Victorian houses slated for demolition as part of the University’s vision of the street that the petitioners of Save Prospect Now (SPN) are hard put to understand. As much as I sympathize with SPN’s resistance to the plan, I’m taking advantage of the occasion to write a belated centenary celebration of Scott Fitzgerald’s prose poem to Princeton, This Side of Paradise, and Princeton’s Garden Theatre, both of which made their debut in 1920, the novel in May, the theatre in September. The first film I saw at the Garden some 50 years later was a revival of MGM’s Grand Hotel (1932). It’s been even longer since I read This Side of Paradise. I have to handle my copy with care; the pages of the 35-cent Dell paperback are yellowed and flaking, and no wonder; it’s copyrighted 1948, in the name of Zelda Fitzgerald, who died that year in a fire at Highland hospital in Asheville, N.C.
Saturday Night in May
Fitzgerald begins a May 1920 letter to an old friend, “Well, you may go to Princeton but we never will again. We were there three days, … and not one of us drew a sober breath … It was the damndest party ever held in Princeton and everybody in the University will agree.”
Later that month, Fitzgerald received a letter about the book from Princeton’s president John Grier Hibben (“I cannot bear to think that our young men are merely living in a country club and spending their lives wholly in a spirit of calculation and snobbishness”). Fitzgerald replied at length, declaring that while Princeton wasn’t “the happiest time” in his life (“That the picture is cynical is the fault of my temperament”), “I love it now better than any place on earth.” Admitting that the novel “does overaccentuate the gayety and country club atmosphere … for the sake of the reader’s interest … To that extent the book is inaccurate. It is the Princeton of Saturday night in May.”
A Sense of Revelation
Hibben at least approves of Fitzgerald’s descriptions “of the beauty and charm of Princeton,” a romanticized vision that helped attract generations of students, including future statesman and historian George Kennan (Class of 1925), who read This Side of Paradise as a high school senior in Wisconsin, deriving from it, as he says in his Memoirs, “the excitement and sense of revelation” that led him to enroll. Before Kennan set foot on campus in September 1921 he was walking down Fitzgerald’s “shadowy scented lanes, where Witherspoon brooded like a dark mother over Whig and Clio, her Attic children, where the black Gothic snake of Little [Fitzgerald’s dorm] curled down to Cuyler and Patton, these in turn flinging the mystery out over the placid slope rolling to the lake.” Then there were “the great dreaming spires of Holder and Cleveland towers,” “the Gothic halls and cloisters” that were “infinitely more mysterious as they loomed suddenly out of the darkness, outlined each by myriad faint squares of yellow light,” while “the early moon had drenched the arches with pale blue, and, weaving over the night, in and out of the gossamer rifts of moon, swept a song, a song with more than a hint of sadness, infinitely transient, infinitely regretful.”
While Fitzgerald discovered a muse in Princeton, Kennan failed to find “the sort of experience reflected in This Side of Paradise.” Talked into joining an eating club, he soon resigned, joining the “non-club pariahs” in the “gloomy refectory” of the upper-class commons. The portrayal of “the Midwesterner’s reaction to the fashionable East” in the “hauntingly beautiful epilogue to The Great Gatsby,” as Kennan recalls, held “such familiarity for me that when I first read it, while still in college, I went away and wept unmanly tears.”
The Fitzgerald Touch
Conspicuous among numerous intimations of Gatsby in Paradise is the image of “tragedy’s emerald eyes” glaring “suddenly at Amory over the edge of June,” which prefaces the scene where three of the protagonist Amory Blaine’s classmates die in an auto accident.
But then there was little room for tragedy in Class Reunion June as Amory’s date Isabelle and her chaperon mother “rode up smiling Prospect Avenue, through the gay crowd, to have tea at Cottage,” Fitzgerald’s own club, which he characterizes as “an impressive melange of brilliant adventurers and well-dressed philanderers.” That June “the days grew so hot and lazy that they could not worry even about exams, but spent dreamy evenings on the court of Cottage, talking of long subjects until the sweep of country toward Stony Brook became a blue haze and the lilacs were white around tennis-courts, and words gave way to silent cigarettes…. Then down deserted Prospect and along McCosh with song everywhere around them, up to the hot joviality of Nassau Street.”
This Side of Paradise closes with a flourish reminiscent of the penultimate paragraphs in Gatsby about “the last and greatest of human dreams” and the “transitory enchanted moment” when “man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent.” Amory, who has been away from Princeton for much of the second half of the novel, sets out on foot from New York in the tradition of the storybook wanderer “on a day of dreams and hopes and clear visions.” After getting a ride, he walks the last stretch “with the ghost of a new moon in the sky and shadows everywhere.” He sees the campus from the road:
“Long after midnight the towers and spires of Princeton were visible, with here and there a late-burning light — and suddenly out of the clear darkness the sound of bells. As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets. Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a reverie of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken….”
You can imagine President Hibben’s response to those statements.
There’s another foretaste of Gatsby in novel’s final sentences:
“He stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky.
“‘I know myself,” he cried, but that is all.’”
As for Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further …”
Back to the Garden
Fitzgerald describes a scene inside another Princeton theatre that would have taken place a few years before the Garden opened in September 1920 with a showing of Civilian Clothes, a silent comedy starring Thomas Meighan.
“After supper they attended the movies, where Amory was fascinated by the glib comments of a man in front of him, as well as by the wild yelling and shouting.
“‘Oh, honey-baby — you’re so big and strong, but oh, so gentle!’”
“‘Kiss her, kiss ’at lady, quick!’”
“‘Oh-h-h — !’”
“As they pushed out, giving and receiving curious impersonal glances, Amory decided that he liked the movies, wanted to enjoy them as the row of upper classmen in front had enjoyed them, with their arms along the backs of the seats, their comments Gaelic and caustic, their attitude a mixture of critical wit and tolerant amusement.”
Visions of the Street
I associate the lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” (“You had such a vision of the street / As the street hardly understands”) with my nightly walks up Prospect Avenue to Firestone Library during our first years in Princeton. By day I helped the secretary emeritus bring the vast project of a
Princeton encyclopedia into port; at night, the office, which looked out on the Chapel, was all mine.
As the fantastical novel I was writing up there became more and more fantastically unpublishable, I decided to relocate my Shangri-La of poets and philosophers, Marlowes and Coleridges, to the most unfantastical of settings — a middle-sized New Jersey city I called New Bristol, where there was a “strange and wonderful” secondhand bookshop rumored to have the original manuscript of Moby-Dick stashed in the basement. I called the street the store was on Prospect Avenue.