in the summer of 1919, after less than a year of courtship, zelda sayre broke up with the 22-year-old fitzgerald. after a summer of heavy drinking, he returned to st. paul, minnesota, ｗhere his family lived, to complete the novel, hoping that if he became a successful novelist he could win zelda back. while at princeton (notably in university cottage club's library), fitzgerald had written an unpublished novel, "the romantic egotist", and ultimately 80 pages of the typescript of this earlier work ended up in this side of paradise.
on september 4, 1919, fitzgerald gave the manuscript to his friend shane leslie to deliver to maxwell perkins, an editor at charles scribner's sons in new york. the book was nearly rejected by the editors at scribners, but perkins insisted, and on september 16 it was officially accepted. fitzgerald begged for early publication—convinced that he would become a celebrity and impress zelda—but was told that the novel would have to wait until the spring. nevertheless, upon the acceptance of his novel for publication he went and visited zelda, and she agreed to marry him.
this side of paradise was published on march 26, 1920, with a first printing of 3,000 copies. the initial printing sold out in three days. on march 30, four days after publication and one day after selling out the first printing, fitzgerald wired for zelda to come to new york and get married that weekend. barely a week after publication, zelda and scott married in new york, on april 3, 1920.
the book went through 12 printings in 1920 and 1921, for a total of 49,075 copies. the novel itself did not provide a huge income for fitzgerald. copies sold for $1.75, for which he earned 10 percent on the first 5,000 copies and 15 percent beyond that. in total, in 1920 he earned $6,200 ($82,095.27 in 2015 dollars) from the book. his new fame enabled him to earn much higher rates for his short stories.
the book is written in three parts.
"book one: the romantic egotist"—the novel centers on amory blaine, a young midwesterner who, convinced that he has an exceptionally promising future, attends boarding school and later princeton university. he leaves behind his eccentric mother beatrice and befriends a close friend of hers, monsignor darcy. while at princeton he goes back to minneapolis, ｗhere he re-encounters isabelle borgé, a young lady whom he had met as a little boy, and starts a romantic relationship with her. at princeton he repeatedly writes ever more flowery poems, but amory and isabelle become disenchanted with each other after meeting again at his prom.
"interlude"—following their break-up, amory is shipped overseas, to serve in the army in world war i. (fitzgerald had been in the army himself, but the war ended while he was still stationed on long island.) amory's experiences in the war are not described, other than to say later in the book that he was a bayonet instructor.
"book two: the education of a personage"—after the war, amory falls in love with a new york debutante named rosalind connage. because he is poor, however, this relationship collapses as well; rosalind decides to marry a wealthy man, instead. a devastated amory is further crushed to learn that his mentor monsignor darcy has died. the book ends with amory's iconic lament, "i know myself, but that is all".
most of the characters are drawn directly from fitzgerald's own life:
this side of paradise blends different styles of writing: it is, at times, a fictional narrative, at times free verse, and at times a narrative drama, interspersed with letters and poems from amory. in fact, the novel's odd blend of styles was the result of fitzgerald's cobbling his earlier attempt at a novel, "the romantic egotist", together with assorted short stories and poems that he had composed but never published. the occasional switch from third person to second person gives the hint that the story is semi-autobiographical.
many reviewers were enthusiastic. burton rascoe of the chicago tribune wrote: "it bears the impress, it seems to me, of genius. it is the only adequate study that we have had of the contemporary american in adolescence and young manhood." h. l. mencken wrote: this side of paradise was the "best american novel that i have seen of late."