By Joseph Epstein

‘The true paradises,’ wrote Proust, “are the paradises that we have lost.” F. Scott Fitzgerald would have enthusiastically seconded the motion. In his short life (1896-1940), Fitzgerald had come rather to specialize in lost paradises. His first novel, published when he was 23, was “This Side of Paradise.” The first major biography of Fitzgerald, written by Arthur Mizener, was titled “The Far Side of Paradise.” Now David S. Brown, a historian by training and trade, has written “Paradise Lost,” an excellent study of Fitzgerald that summarizes past scholarship on the novelist and sets out the argument that, in his fiction, he was both a moralist and a social critic working the same vein as Thorstein Veblen, Randolph Bourne and H.L. Mencken —that he was, in other words, a chronicler of the depredations of capitalism gone haywire on American life. Mr. Brown argues that Fitzgerald also joined “Freud, Conrad, Adams, Spengler, [Frederick Jackson] Turner, and Eliot in trying to make sense of the modern age.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald is perhaps best known as the chief representative, if not the leading exemplar, of the Jazz Age, that period in American life between the end of World War I and the onset of the Depression in 1929. The tendency has been to think of him as a romantic, a bit of a snob, and a boozer. He was all three, of course, but he was also much more—a vastly talented writer with a gift for imbuing what he wrote with a charm that, when he was at his best, seemed quite magical. His specialty was endowing the wishes and dreams of his characters with an aura of poetry.

The critic Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald’s friend at Princeton, did him no service when, as early as 1922, he wrote that Fitzgerald had “been given imagination without intellectual control of it . . . the desire for beauty without an aesthetic ideal and . . . a gift for expression without very many ideas to express.” Wilson did concede that, for all his faults, Fitzgerald’s fiction “does not commit the unpardonable sin: it does not fail to live.” (The same cannot be said of Wilson’s own attempts at fiction, “I Thought of Daisy” and “Memoirs of Hecate County.”) That much of Fitzgerald’s fiction continues to live, now nearly a century after he wrote it, guarantees his place in American literature, the Nathaniel Hawthorne, as Mr. Brown nicely proposes, of the 20th century.

“I didn’t have the two top things: great animal magnetism or money,” Fitzgerald wrote. “I had the two second things, though: good looks and intelligence.” Neither of the latter conduced to grant him his two youthful wishes, which were to play football for Princeton and to prove his courage in World War I. Nature denied him the physique for the first (he was 5-foot-6 and weighed 130 pounds); history denied him the second (soon after he received his commission, the war ended). A second set of wishes—success as a young novelist and marriage to a beautiful and ebullient Southern girl—did come true, though this seems to be a case of the gods first acceding to the wishes of those whom they would destroy.

Fitzgerald wrote about his own youthful triumph with his novel “This Side of Paradise” (1920) and about what a mixed blessing it was. “The compensation of a very early success is a conviction that life is a romantic matter,” he noted in “The Crack-Up” (1936), adding that in his case early success meant “the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment—when life was literally a dream.” Whatever its joys, an early success does not supply the best training for the harder days ahead in later life.

As for winning the Southern belle, Zelda Sayre, of Montgomery, Ala., she agreed to marry Fitzgerald only if he could make money from his writing; after his first novel was accepted and proved a commercial success, they married. A writer with more than a proclivity for dissipation and a strong case of Irish flu (also known as alcoholism), Fitzgerald could not have found a worse partner than Zelda. She suffered her first breakdown in 1930 and, though thought neurasthenic, was evidently what is now labeled bipolar.

Mr. Brown devotes several judicious pages to the toll that the Fitzgerald marriage, with its infidelities and rivalrousness, took on both parties. “What is our marriage anyway?” Zelda wrote to Scott. “It has been nothing but a long battle ever since I can remember.” Fitzgerald told a friend that “I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels.” Poor Zelda, in and out of sanitariums, lived on eight years after her husband, only to die of asphyxiation in a fire.

Mr. Brown’s book is a useful corrective to the figure of F. Scott Fitzgerald as a hopeless drunk and unrestrained reveler—diving into the fountain at the Plaza and all that—which has been vastly overdone. Fitzgerald had, after all, published three novels before he was 30. He was never less than stalwart in fulfilling his duty. He worked hard to pay off his wife’s costly medical bills and sent their daughter, Scottie, to the best private schools. In the middle 1930s, he set aside his artistic plans to work in Hollywood for the kind of money that allowed him to close the books on his debts.

Weak, wavering though Fitzgerald often was, strong character was one of his ideals. “He believed in character,” he wrote about Charlie Wales, the hero of his story “Babylon Revisited.” “He wanted to jump back a whole generation and trust in character again as the eternally valuable element. Everything wore out.” A central aspect of the novelist’s criticism of the 1920s, in which he came to full maturity, is that its gaudy opulence took its toll on character.

Fitzgerald also believed in his art, at which he worked with the ardor of the true professional. In his introduction to “The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald” (1951), Malcolm Cowley recounts the multiple revisions that Fitzgerald put his novel “Tender Is the Night” through, discarding great chunks of it as he went along. He kept notebooks in which he recorded observations, descriptions and overheard bits of conversation that might one day be useful for his fiction. His artistic ideal was Joseph Conrad, and he aspired to be the American Conrad. He was more cavalier with his short stories, claiming that a moderate-length story shouldn’t take more than a day to write, a lengthier one three days. He published many of his stories in the Saturday Evening Post, where the fees were impressively high. Between 1920 and 1937, Mr. Brown reports, he published 65 stories there.

The regnant American figures of the 1920s were its songwriters: Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart. Fitzgerald thought he might well have become a songwriter himself, “but I guess I am too much a moralist at heart and really want to preach at people in some acceptable form, rather than to entertain them.” He was able to get away with his preaching only because he could do so in his fiction subtly, charmingly, and, yes, entertainingly. What Fitzgerald preached was, as Mr. Brown puts it, the “ongoing saga—the one about the man, the generation, and the country that had fallen short.” Notes harking back to a better time play throughout his fiction. One recalls here Nick Carraway’s admiration for his father in “The Great Gatsby.”

Fitzgerald remarked that there can never be a good biography of a good novelist because a novelist is so many of the characters he has created. Yet his own most interesting characters turn out to have been portraits or partial projections of himself. Amory Blaine of “This Side of Paradise,” the literary dilettante at Princeton, is fairly closely modeled on the novel’s author. Jay Gatsby’s love for Daisy Buchanan resembles Fitzgerald’s own hopeless youthful love for Ginevra King, the daughter of a vastly wealthy Chicago banker whose money put her well out of his league. At the beginning of “Tender Is the Night,” Dick and Nicole Diver would appear to be loosely based on Gerald and Sara Murphy, the swank couple who made the Riviera fashionable for Americans, but the book ends with the Divers more resembling the Fitzgeralds as their marriage caves in owing to Nicole’s mental illness and Dick’s drinking. In the unfinished novel “The Last Tycoon,” the Hollywood producer Monroe Stahr, is meant to resemble MGM’s Irving Thalberg, the only man said to have understood the “full equation” required for successful movies. The novel turns on a doomed affair, suggesting Fitzgerald, who in his last years carried on a love affair with the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham.

What ties these fictional heroes together is that all are failures. Fitzgerald, as is well known, died thinking himself a failure. (His writing was out of fashion, and his final royalty check, as Mr. Brown notes, for the humiliating sum of $13.13.) Yet Fitzgerald had a way, in his writing, of making failure seem not only fascinating but noble. All his heroes, like their author, were romantic dreamers: Gatsby’s dream was to recapture the past, Dick Diver’s to bring the luster of charm to everyone he loved and befriended, Monroe Stahr’s to make art in a Hollywood world where it was held in contempt. Each is doomed to failure; each in his own way is admirable. Success would only have robbed them of their allure.

The background to Fitzgerald’s fiction, Mr. Brown avers, is “social breakdown.” By this he means that “the collapse of once dominant classes, values, and taboos had given his work an immediacy that worked on two levels, most obviously as ruminations on topical issues and, more important, as deeper meditations on historical change.” This gives Fitzgerald’s best fiction a weight, a gravity, that it might otherwise not possess. “In Fitzgerald’s writings, rather, we encounter an America unusually thick with fallen heroes, martyrs to a powerful social-mobility mythology,” writes Mr. Brown. “Embedded in these offerings is the disquieting notion that we have drifted far from our inheritance as the children of pioneers to fashion a culture that teaches its young to love too much the privileges and protections of wealth.”

Early in his career, Fitzgerald set out the following program as a goal for writers: “An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.” Given the unceasing flow of books by and about him and the fact that, excepting perhaps only J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Great Gatsby” must be the most taught book in American classrooms, Fitzgerald accomplished this goal, though at his death in 1940 he could not have known it.

Mr. Brown shares with Fitzgerald himself the view that “Tender Is the Night” was his best novel, “Gatsby” his second best. The latter Fitzgerald thought “a kind of tour de force and the other a confession of faith” and went on to compare “Gatsby” to a sonnet and “Tender” to an epic. Having recently reread both novels, I would agree that “Tender Is the Night” is a work on a larger canvas, with many more characters and touching on more themes. Yet it also contains a larger than fair share of longueurs, patches of egregious overwriting and a less than compelling plot, if plot it may be said to have at all. “The Great Gatsby,” on the other hand, is without a false note, on a grand theme, penetrating in its observations and exquisitely plotted—in all as nearly perfect a novel as American literature provides.

Before his death, bemoaning the unjust neglect of his writing, Fitzgerald noted that “even now there is little published in American fiction that doesn’t slightly bear my stamp—in a small way I was an original.” An original he indubitably was, and one of the splendid services rendered by Mr. Brown is to have convincingly made the case that F. Scott Fitzgerald was an original in a way much grander than he himself realized.