F. Scott Fitzgerald: Princeton Years
Fitzgerald attended prep schools in St. Paul and then in New Jersey, where his literary leanings first appeared in stories and plays he penned for student publications. In 1913, he entered Princeton University with the Class of 1917, beginning a period that would permanently shape his life and work. Princeton's aura of leisurely privilege inspired him. Fitzgerald made friends with young men (Princeton didn't go co-ed until 1969) who also would go on to become important literary figures, like the critic Edmund Wilson and the poet John Peale Bishop. A much better writer than a student, Fitzgerald scribbled prolifically for the campus' literary publications and theatrical societies while his grades withered. He fell in love with a young Chicago debutante named Ginevra King. Though the relationship eventually ended, Ginevra remained in his consciousness as a model for later female characters—most notably Gatsby's Daisy Buchanan. He also learned to drink. What started out as enjoyment of cocktails with friends eventually morphed into the alcoholism that contributed to Fitzgerald's early death.
Shockingly enough, the combination of wretched grades, unrequited love and rampant boozing eventually landed Fitzgerald on academic probation. With graduation unlikely, he did the gentlemanly thing for a young man of his time—he quit school and joined the military, hoping to be sent to Europe to fight in World War I. In November 1917, Fitzgerald accepted a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He never graduated from Princeton. Soon after reporting for duty at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Fitzgerald started work on a novel entitled The Romantic Egoist. Fitzgerald would likely have admitted to egoism (he reported for military duty in a Brooks Brothers-tailored uniform) and he definitely held romantic visions of overseas battle. He was convinced he was going to die in the war and imagined his novel as his goodbye letter to the world.
But Fitzgerald didn't die. He didn't even go to war. World War I ended on 11 November 1918, before the well-dressed soldier even got a chance to board a ship for Europe. Near the end of his life, Fitzgerald wrote that the two greatest regrets of his life were not having seen overseas combat . . . and not being big enough to play college football. This great disappointment—the buildup of hope, nerves and emotion that were never released—became a dominant theme for Fitzgerald and countless other young men like him. This was the defining characteristic of the group of young men that Gertrude Stein called the "Lost Generation," whom Fitzgerald described as "grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken."3They were disillusioned, and figured that if the noble causes had all been already fought, they might as well have a good time.