In 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda and their baby girl Scottie moved to Great Neck, a peninsula on the North Shore of Long Island, New York. It was farm country then, becoming railroad commuter villages as booming Manhattan slipped its bounds, a place where new money and celebrities staked their claims. Fitzgerald conceived his best known novel there, “The Great Gatsby.”
He wrote hard, revising as he went, cutting and rewriting until nearly the last minute. It would be a “consciously artistic achievement,” he said.
“I think the novel is a wonder,” his editor wrote in late 1924. “At last I’ve done something really my own, but how good ‘my own’ is remains to be seen,” Fitzgerald said.
On April 10, 1925, Charles Scribner’s Sons published it, a small hardcover with a gaudy jacket; just 47,000 words, almost a novella. It sold out its first edition of 20,000.
The reviews were mixed. Writing in the New York Evening World, Ruth Snyder said the paper’s editors were “quite convinced after reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of today.”
Because Fitzgerald had staked on “Gatsby” his hope of the only life he really cared for, the life of a serious writer, “it was disastrous,” said biographer Arthur Mizener.
When Fitzgerald died, 15 years later, only 44, he was sure “Gatsby” was out of print and forgotten. He was partly right but as time went on he became stupendously wrong.
It had never sold its second print run of 3,000 copies. The remainder sat in a warehouse for decades.
It was one of the paperback books given to American soldiers in World War II. It had an academic jolt in the 1950s. By 1960, Mizener, writing in The New York Times, said, “It is probably safe now to say that it is a classic of twentieth-century American fiction.” It has sold steadily ever since, and bedeviled generations of high school students who not only have been made to read it but have been told they must find symbolism in it – a rotten thing to do to good entertainment.
At its heart is old-money couple Tom and Daisy Buchanan, and Gatsby, the rich, mysterious arriviste, on Long Island in the summer of 1922. It is framed by a narrator, Nick Carraway, a young bond trader who is Gatsby’s neighbor.
None of them are relatable. The book is not really about anything. It is not the great American novel because nothing could bear that weight, not even a book as fast, clever and ravishing as “Gatsby.”
It could not redeem Fitzgerald despite Tom’s mistress Myrtle purchasing a puppy in Manhattan: “We backed up to a grey old man who bore an absurd resemblance to John D. Rockefeller. In a basket, swung from his neck, cowered a dozen very recent puppies of an indeterminate breed.”
It could not do it despite Nick telling us that once, in the empty spaces of a railroad timetable, he made a list of all the people who came to Gatsby’s parties, and that, old and faded now, it includes “the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires and a whole clan named Blackbuck who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whosoever came near.”
It could not even do it after a manic Gatsby in his mansion took out his shirts “of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel...in coral and apple and green,” and Daisy sobbed, her voice “muffled in the thick folds,” saying, “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such – such beautiful shirts before.”
Happy birthday anyway, old sport.