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Fitzgerald's time at Princeton reflected in 'Gatsby'

By Tom Wilk 

THIS YEAR marks the 90th anniversary of the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," a book that has solidified its place as a classic American novel, a staple of high school reading lists and often ranks among the 100 best-selling books on Amazon.
Its themes of wealth, class, power, love and infidelity, and Jay Gatsby's ill-fated quest for Daisy Buchanan have maintained a hold on readers since it was released in 1925. And while Fitzgerald used Long Island as the novel's setting, the author's time spent in New Jersey at the Newman Academy in Hackensack and, more importantly, Princeton University, played a vital role in the creation of his masterpiece.
"Princeton was crucial to Fitzgerald's development as a writer," says Maureen Corrigan, author of "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures" (Little Brown and Company, $26). "For starters, he met two upperclassmen who helped shape his reading tastes: John Peale Bishop and Edmund Wilson," says Corrigan, book critic for NPR's "Fresh Air" program and a literature professor at Georgetown University.
"Wilson became the leading book critic of the 20th century and was instrumental in the revival of Fitzgerald's work after his untimely death in 1940."
Corrigan, who estimates she has read "Gatsby" at least 60 times and lectures on the book as part of the "Big Read" program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, says Princeton, which Fitzgerald entered in 1913, provided him with the opportunity to write.
"Fitzgerald threw himself into the theater at Princeton," she says. "While he wasn't a successful playwright, many scholars of 'Gatsby,' including myself, point out that Fitzgerald's greatest novel is graced with a tight dramatic structure: Every chapter revolves around a party of some sort, from the dinner party at the Buchanans in Chapter One to Gatsby's poorly attended funeral at the conclusion."
Fitzgerald's Princeton experiences also provided the inspiration for "This Side of Paradise," his debut novel published in 1920.
Gatsby's attempts at assimilation reflect Fitzgerald's own feelings, according to Corrigan.
"Fitzgerald thought of himself as an outsider looking in all his life," she says. "He desired wealth and social status, but also had contempt for the easeful rich — think Tom Buchanan — who take their advantages for granted."
Fitzgerald never graduated from Princeton; he struggled academically and dropped out in 1917 to enlist in the U.S. Army during World War I. His work lives on at the school, thanks to a donation of his papers by his daughter, Scottie Fitzgerald Lenahan, in 1950.
"They remain among the greatest treasures at the university," says Don C. Skemer, curator of manuscripts in Princeton's department of rare books. The collection includes Fitzgerald's letters, writings and his autographed and corrected manuscript of "The Great Gatsby," which can be read online at Princeton University Digital Library at pudl.princeton.edu/objects/fq977w07f, along with "Trimalchio," an early version of "Gatsby."
Long after leaving the school, Fitzgerald continued to identify with Princeton. He died of a heart attack at 44 in Los Angeles on Dec. 21, 1940, while reading a new issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
"He was a loyal Princetonian to the end of his life," Skemer says.

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