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Let’s rewind all the way to the beginning, circa 1925.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a budding writer with two successful novels, This Side of Paradsie and The Beautiful and Damned. As part of the unparalleled literary cadre of Hemingway, Stein, and Pound, he was on the cusp of greatness. He was good, but his pièce de résistance awaited.
When The Great Gatsby was published, it was well-received by writers and critics … and only sold 21,000 copies, a puny number for a rising star.
To add insult to injury, the critics—even the ones who praised Gatsby—misunderstood the whole damned thing. From the New York Times:
What really shook [Fitzgerald] was “that of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.” They found in it only the bright but trivial talent they had seen in his earlier books. “Gatsby” was they said, “clever and brilliantly surfaced but not the work of a wise and mature novelist”; it was “a little slack, a little soft, more than a little artificial, [falling] into the class of negligible novels.” Mencken said that it was “certainly not to be put on the same shelf with, say, “This Side of Paradise,” and Isabel Paterson that “what has never been alive cannot very well go on living; so this is a book for the season only.”
Any American teenager forced to read Gatsby can tell you (aided by SparkNotes) that it’s far more than a trifling piece of nostalgia. There’s important stuff in there, like … social critique, love, the meaning of integrity, and yadda yadda.
Fitzgerald’s contemporary critics and reviewers would be befuddled by English teachers’ reverence for the novel. To them, Gatsby was nothing more than a pretty little ditty of a story. Oops?
Fitzgerald died in 1940, convinced of his failure as a writer. The grand total of his royalties at the time of his death was $13. Poor guy.
As the ultimate irony and proof of God’s cruel sense of humor, soon after Fitzgerald’s death, both the general public and literally critics rediscovered Gatsby.
As a part of a revolutionary scheme of donating more than 22 million books to World War II troops abroad, a publisher threw in a random book from its backlist: The Great Gatsby. Along with books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (a crowd favorite), Gatsby and others entered the consciousness of millions of men who returned from war with an appreciation for paperback books and reading.
Literary critics joined the GIs with acclaim for Gatsby. The adulation began in 1941 with the republication of Fitzgerald’s short stories and gained momentum as literary heavyweights such as Lionel Trilling and William Troy fawned over the svelte book.
During the 1950s, Gatsby became a regular sight in bookstores and sold like hot cakes. By 1960, its place among the great American novels was assured.
Gatsby became one of those rare books that gains meaning through distance. Fitzgerald’s contemporaries were unable to see the novel for what it was—biting satire of the hypocrisy of the profligate Jazz Age—because they were in the thick of it. Sometimes zeitgeist works aren’t recognized as such until we have sufficient distance and time to appreciate the time period and its cultural significance.
Such is the vagaries of popular opinion and literary critics. Who knows how many works of genius lay dormant in dusty old backlists? And Gatsby is one of the lucky ones.
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