``Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning____
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.''
``The Great Gatsby''
On May 10th, a week from today, Baz Luhrmann's new film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece ``The Great Gatsby’’ hits theaters nationwide starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke. The official premiere of the film kicked off at a star-studded event at Lincoln Center on Wednesday with a dazzling 3-D spectacle.
``The Great Gatsby’’, written by Fitzgerald while living with his wild and mentally unstable wife Zelda in France and Italy in 1924 and early 1925, tells the tragic story of Jay Gatsby (born James Gatz), once a poor young man who rose to become fabulously rich (through bootlegging) embraces a corrupted form of the American Dream by worshiping the monied class of Daisy Buchanan, a former flame of his while enlisted in World War I. Gatsby finally meets her again for the first time in five years and ultimately becomes destroyed by pursuing what he naively thinks will bring him happiness and fulfillment. The theme of disillusionment with American contemporary culture and its fraudulent emphasis on wealth and power are common threads found throughout the novel. But probably ``The Great Gatsby’s’’ most enduring impact was educating succeeding generations about the roaring 20’s, namely about jazz, gambling, excess drinking, and reckless living.
Whether the film meets with upbeat praise or is scorned by critics; the film will more than likely cause film goers to dust off ``The Great Gatsby’’ from their bookshelves or dash off to the library or their Kindle’s to reread what is now considered the Great American novel.
It’s shocking how long it took ``The Great Gatsby’’ to be considered a classic. It wasn’t until April 24, 1960, for example, that The New York Times wrote: ``It is probably safe now to say that it [The Great Gatsby] is a classic of twentieth-century American fiction.’’
When it was published in 1925, Gatsby sold a disappointing 21,000 copies, less than half of sales for ``This Side of Paradise’’ and ``The Beautiful and Dammed,'' Mr. Fitzgerald's first two novels. And there were reportedly still copies from the second printing in the Scribner warehouse when Fitzgerald died in 1940.
Kirk Curnutt, author of ``Coffee with Hemingway’’, ``Key West Hemingway’’, ``The Cambridge Introduction to F Scott Fitzgerald’’, and ``The Critical Response to Gertrude Stein’’, among others, told me: ``It [Gatsby] definitely grew in stature over the years’’ ``A couple of Fitzgerald's friends’’, Curnett says, ``notably Stephen Vincent Benet, recognized that it was a breakthrough in his literary development, but nobody heralded it as a literary classic.’’
Not only did Gatsby practically go unnoticed by American readers, but Fitzgerald himself by the end of his life was rarely, if at all, mentioned as one of America’s greatest writers. Such a perception became a harsh painful reality for Fitzgerald in 1937 when he walked into a bookstore to buy copies of his books for his companion Sheilah Graham only to discover there were no books, not one, of his on the shelves.
In 1940, before dying of a massive heart attack in a Hollywood apartment at the age of 44, Fitzgerald earned a grand total of $13.13 in royalties.
According to a Scribner spokesperson, `` more than 25 million copies of ``The Great Gatsby'' have been sold worldwide since the novel’s original publication in 1925, while more than 15 million copies have been sold in North America alone.’’ Scribner typically sells more than 500,000 combined copies of ``The Great Gatsby'' every year (across print and eBook editions).
Many American literature scholars concede, if Fitzgerald were living today, he would have been rolling in cash from royalties.
When you consider that the vast majority of Fitzgerald obituaries in 1940 clearly omitted the legacy that he left behind, why, many wonder, did it take so long for the American reading public to discover the literary genius of Fitzgerald?
The revival of Fitzgerald probably began in 1941, when Edmund Wilson, a friend of Fitzgerald from Princeton, edited and published ``The Last Tycoon’’, (a manuscript that was 70 percent completed by the time of Fitzgerald’s death). The printing of the volume included ``The Great Gatsby’’ and some of Fitzgerald’s best short stories, which gave readers the opportunity to take a fresh look at his splendid prose.
Over the course of the 1940’s, then, other editions of ``The Great Gatsby’’ began popping up like toasters. Between 1941 and 1949, 17 new editions or reprints of The Great Gatsby were published. In 1949, a second Great Gatsby motion picture, starring Alan Ladd was released (there was a silent version in 1926), which added even more interest to the novel and its author. Along with the American public reexamining the writing of Fitzgerald after World War II, other influential literary critics were praising the splendor of Fitzgerald’s works, especially singling out Gatsby as an exemplary novel of the Jazz Age. In 1945, Lionel Trilling wrote, ``The Great Gatsby….after a quarter century is still as fresh as when it first appeared. It has even gained in weight and relevance, which can be said of few American books of its time.’’
Also in 1945, William Troy identified Gatsby as one of the few truly ``mythological creations in our culture,’’ while poet John Berryman declared it a ``masterpiece.’’
It wouldn’t be until the 1950’s that Fitzgerald was crowned one of the greatest writers of his generations; and by the 1960’s, Gatsby had became practically a standard text in the curriculum in many high schools and colleges with a vast majority of university surveys praising it as one of the greatest novels of all time. A third film version of ``The Great Gatsby’’ appeared in 1974 with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.
In a 1984 interview with Pat Buchanan [See minute 3:47 of this 7 minute video], American writer Gore Vidal said that ``Fitzgerald wrote one perfect novel, ``The Great Gatsby’’, the rest of it was quite sad.’’ In the same interview, Vidal considered Fitzgerald’s contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, to be sort of a Field & Stream writer. `His [Hemingway’s] gift for publicity propelled him ever forward, Vidal told Buchanan. ``He didn’t develop.’’
When asked about the legacy of Fitzgerald and whether Gatsby was indeed the perfect novel, James L. W. West III, Professor of English at Penn State University, who also advised Great Gatsby director Baz Luhrmann on historical aspects of the novel, said ``Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, but he was also one of the finest short-story writers of his time. His classic stories are "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," "Winter Dreams," "The Rich Boy," and "Babylon Revisited." He wrote approximately 150 other stories, many of which are very fine.’’ ``We must remember’’ West said, `` that he wrote for a living; he was a true professional. He did not have a trust fund, did not marry into money, and did not inherit money. He balanced on the line between art and the marketplace as well as any author of his generation.’’ ``No work of literature is perfect’’ West pointed out, ``but Gatsby is nearly so. The prose is shimmering, and the characters memorable.’’
West is general editor of the Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and published "Trimalchio: An Early Version of ‘The Great Gatsby’"
So as the new film is about to be released, some might be curious just how well received ``The Great Gatsby’’ was by book reviewers when it was first published in 1925?
As the following snippets from different newspapers will show, the reviews were a mixed bag; some hailed it as a work of ``art and of great promise’’ (Times Literary Supplement); while others, like The New York Evening World, claimed Fitzgerald’s writing style was ``painfully forced.’’ Few, moreover, had the foresight to declare it a literary masterpiece, at least not in 1925.
May 3, 2013
Scott Fitzgerald and His Work
By H.L. Mencken
The Chicago Daily Tribune, May 3, 1925
``Scott Fitzgerald's new novel, ``The Great Gatsby'' is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that. The story for all its basic triviality has a fine texture; a careful and brilliant finish…..``What gives the story distinction is something quite different from the management of the action or the handling of the characters; it is the charm and beauty of the writing.’’
There is evidence in every line of hard and intelligent effort.’’……. ``The thing that chiefly interests the basic Fitzgerald is still the florid show of modern American life-and especially the devil's dance and that goes on at the top. He is unconcerned about the sweating and suffering of the nether herd; what engrosses him is the high carnival of those who have too much money to spend, and too much time for the spending of it. Their idiotic pursuit of sensation, their almost incredible stupidity and triviality, their glittering swinishness-these are the things that go into his notebook.’’
New Fitzgerald Book Proves He's Really a Writer
By Fanny Butcher
The Chicago Daily Tribune; April 18, 1925
``The Great Gatsby proves that Scott Fitzgerald is going to be a writer, and not just a man of one book. It is bizarre. It is melodramatic. It is, at moments, dime novelish. But it is, despite its faults, a book which is not negligible as any one work, and vastly important as Scott Fitzgerald's work.’’
``A Minute or Two with Books-F. Scott Fitzgerald Ventures’’
By Ruth Snyder
New York Evening World, April 15, 1925
``In ``The Great Gatsby’’ Mr. Fitzgerald has made a valiant effort to be ironical. His style is painfully forced.’’…..`` We are quite convinced after reading ``The Great Gatsby’’ that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of to-day.’’
``Scott Fitzgerald Looks Into Middle Age ''
By EDWIN CLARK
The New York Times
April 19, 1925
Of the many new writers that sprang into notice with the advent of the post-war period, Scott Fitzgerald has remained the steadiest performer and the most entertaining.
With sensitive insight and keen psychological observation, Fitzgerald discloses in these people a meanness of spirit, carelessness and absence of loyalties. He cannot hate them, for they are dumb in their insensate selfishness, and only to be pitied. The philosopher of the flapper has escaped the mordant, but he has turned grave. A curious book, a mystical, glamorous story of today. It takes a deeper cut at life than hitherto has been enjoyed by Mr. Fitzgerald. He writes well-he always has-for he writes naturally, and his sense of form is becoming perfected.
``F. Scott Fitzgerald''
By Ralph Coghlan
St. Louis Dispatch, April 25, 1925
``The Great Gatsby’’ is a thin novel, not longer than 315 short pages. It lacks the lyrical and poetic outbursts of Fitzgerald's earlier work.'''......``Altogether is seems to us this book is a minor performance. At the moment, its author seems a bit bored and tired and cynical. There is no ebullience here, nor is there any mellowness or profundity. For our part, ``The Great Gatsby'' might just as well be called ``Ten Nights on Long Island.''
THE SEAMY SIDE OF SOCIETY
In ``The Great Gatsby'' F. Scott Fitzgerald Creates a New Kind of Underworld Character and Throws the Spotlight on the Jaded Lives of the Idle Rich
The Los Angeles Times
By Lillian C. Ford
May 10, 1925
``F. Scott Fitzgerald……has in The Great Gatsby written a remarkable study of certain phases in the life of today. It is a novel not to be neglected by those who follow the trend of fiction.’’
``The story is powerful as much for what is suggested as for what is told. It leaves the reader in a mood of chastened wonder, in which fact after fact, implication after implication is pondered over, weighed and measured. And when all are linked together the weight of the story as a revelation of life and as a work of art becomes apparent. And it is very great. Mr. Fitzgerald has certainly arrived.’’
The Great Gatsby
The Times Literary Supplement, February 18th, 1926.
By Orlo Williams (Orlando Cyprian Williams)
``F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of ``The Great Gatsby'' is a young American novelist whose work has not hitherto reached England''.....``The Great Gatsby is undoubtedly a work of art and of great promise. Mr. Fitzgerald has grasped the economical construction of a story, and his power of telling conciseness enables him, without being obscure, to compass a great deal in a short space.''
``Mr. Fitzgerald finely maintains, besides his hard, sardonic realism, the necessary emotional intensity, but we must admit that it needs perhaps an excess of intensity to buoy up the really very unpleasant characters of the story.''
``Books on Our Table''
The New York Post, May 5, 1925
``F. Scott Fitzgerald's new novel will surprise a great many people who have read his earlier books. It did us. We had not read a half-dozen pages before we were saying: ``Why, the man's perfectly at his ease in a serious piece of writing. His style fairly scintillates, and with a genuine brilliance; he writes surely and soundly.''....``The Great Gatsby is fascinating. If you begin it you'll go straight through to the end, and you will be conscious that you have read an excellent piece of writing. Mr. Fitzgerald will bear watching.''
``Profits of the New Age III. F. Scott Fitzgerald ‘’
By Harvey Eagleton
The Dallas Morning News, May 10, 1925
``One finishes Great Gatsby ‘’ with a feeling of regret, not for the fate of the people in the book, but for Mr. Fitzgerald. When ``This Side of Paradise’’ was published, Mr. Fitzgerald was hailed as a young man of promise, which he certainly appeared to be. But the promise, like so many, seems likely to go unfulfilled. The Roman candle which sent out a few gloriously colored balls at the first lighting seems to be ending in a fizzle of smoke and sparks.''
``Turns with A Bookworm''
New York Tribune/Herald Tribune
April 12, 1925
``If Mr. Fitzgerald thinks it will turn the edge of critical comment, we fear he is error...Just because he was born with a gold fountain pen in his waistcoat pocket...For there’s no possible probable shadow of doubt, he is a natcheral and incurable writer...The Great Gatsby is purely ephemeral phenomenon, but it contains some of the nicest little touches of contemporary observation you could imagine-so light, so delicate, so sharp....a literary lemon meringue.''
By John McClure
New Orleans Times Picayune, May 31, 1925.
``Even in conception and construction, The Great Gatsby seems a little raw. It is not convincing as a whole. Its finest spots are convincingly clever than convincingly dramatic. The book has merit. Flashes of description, episodes of conduct, snatches of conversation are often striking. There is a feeling for life in the rendering.''....``Mr. Fitzgerald is still where he was five years ago. He is developing in character very favorably; acquiring a broader view of life. But as a literary craftsmen he still faces the necessity of a decision between writing in the fashion like Mr. Rupert Hughes, or according to his inner lights like James Branch Cabell and Sherwood Anderson.''
Novelist Edith Wharton's letter to Fitzgerald, dated June 8, 1925, after reading ``The Great Gatsby.''
``To make Gatsby really Great, you ought to have given us his early career (not from the cradle-but from his visit to the yacht, if not before) instead of a short resume of it. That would have situated him & made his final tragedy a tragedy instead of a ``fait divers'' for the morning papers.''