F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Great Writer, but a Not-So-Great Student

By Iliyah Coles ’22

Many people know about the success of the infamous writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Some know that he attended Princeton University and even based his first novel, This Side of Paradise, on the Ivy League school. However, what many people don’t know is that Fitzgerald was not a star student. In fact, he wasn’t even an average student. F. Scott Fitzgerald was perhaps, in terms of academics, one of the worst students in his class. That could be one of the reasons why he decided to drop out during his junior year of college and join the army.

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (named after his well-known, patriotic cousin) initially entered Princeton University with the Class of 1917. Fitzgerald had not done well academically in high school. His thoughts seemed to be always elsewhere, mostly on the girls that he spent time with. According to a 1966 article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, when Fitzgerald applied to Princeton, the admissions board looked at Fitzgerald’s troubling grades and asked him why they should let him in. Fitzgerald then responded by stating that it was his seventeenth birthday. It is possible that Fitzgerald’s charming personality played a role in his acceptance. Fitzgerald himself stated in Ten Years of Princeton ’17, “Priggishness sits ill on Princeton.” Perhaps this is why he was granted admittance despite his questionable grades in high school.

Nevertheless, Fitzgerald entered the class of 1917 and arrived with big dreams. Fitzgerald became fixated with the social scenes on campus like clubs and sports. He even tried out for the football team during his freshman year, but he was cut on the first day of tryouts because he was so slim, as is indicated by a 1956 PAW article. After his football dreams were crushed, Fitzgerald focused on getting into one of the eating clubs (a substitute for Greek life at the university) and Triangle Club (the university’s biggest theater group). Fitzgerald was able to achieve these two goals and, due to his dedication to them, he found success and happiness in both. It is evident that Fitzgerald was really great at the social aspect of college, but that’s just about the only aspect he was great at.

F. Scott Fitzgerald. Photo from 1917 Nassau Herald.

By the time he dropped out of school, Fitzgerald had flunked trigonometry, geometry, algebra, and chemistry. This list doesn’t even include the courses that he barely passed. Professors and classmates have given several accounts of their opinions on the writer’s Princeton career. Arthur Mizener ’30 wrote, “I spoke to a professor […] He looked at me and said firmly, ‘He spells very badly.’” There are other accounts of Fitzgerald’s scholarly negligence. Classmate John Biggs wrote in a 1957 article in the Nassau Sovereign that Fitzgerald wrote a history paper on the Civil War and reconstructed it so that the South won. Of course, his professor did not like this and failed him for the semester.

Fitzgerald even recognized his contempt for institutional learning. His daughter quoted him as follows: “some of the professors teaching poetry really hated it and didn’t know what it was about. I got in a series of scraps with them, so that I finally dropped English altogether.” He wasn’t very much interested in taking classes merely for credit, especially English, which was his favorite. Usually, he spent more time working on English and writing than he did any other subject, like math. Apparently, Fitzgerald was incredibly bad at math. In the article in the Nassau Sovereign referenced above, Biggs wrote of his classmate, “To say mathematics was not his strong point is to make the understatement of the year.” 

Though Fitzgerald was considered one of the greatest writers of his time, he was not as successful as a college student. Perhaps this is because he was so focused on his future that he often held the present in little regard. Fitzgerald wrote extensively while attending Princeton University. His stories, articles, and poems were often published in the Nassau Literary Magazine. One of his poems in the Nassau Lit was called, “Princeton–The Last Day,” which depicts the sadness of beauties that don’t last forever. Many of the pieces that Fitzgerald wrote for the Nassau Lit were used in his first novel, This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald even did some songwriting for the Triangle Club musicals at Princeton. Among his most notable lyrics were those for “Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi!,” which received great reviews.

Cover for “Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi!,” 1914. Triangle Club Records (AC122), Box 97.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was involved in many things at Princeton University; he participated in many clubs and activities while also attending his courses. However, it is evident that Fitzgerald allowed the social aspect of college to overcome the academic one. Maybe the structure of college did not suit him. Or maybe he had to fail so many courses in order to give him time to begin his remarkable journey on the path to the heights of literary success.

 

Sources:

Class Reunion Books Collection (AC214)

Nassau Herald

Nassau Sovereign

Office of the Registrar Records (AC116)

Papers of Princeton database

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Thoughtbook of Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (1910)

Triangle Club Records (AC122)

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