The charge that F. Scott Fitzgerald was an irresponsible writer is refuted by the compositional history of The Great Gatsby. He began planning the novel during the summer of 1922 as a work set in the Midwest and New York at the end of the nineteenth century. At that time he announced to Maxwell Perkins, his editor: “I want to write something new—something extraordinary and beautiful and simple + intricately patterned.” He started writing an early version of the novel in the summer of 1923 at Great Neck, Long Island, the locale for the published novel, but serious work did not commence until the summer of 1924 on the Riviera. The typescript was sent to Perkins in November. Prompted by his editor’s response, Fitzgerald rewrote and restructured the novel in galley proof during January and February 1925 in Rome.
The rewritten proofs were dispatched to Perkins with Fitzgerald’s report that he had solved the problems that bothered both of them:
(1.) I’ve brought Gatsby to life
(2.) I’ve accounted for his money
(3.) I’ve fixed up the two weak chapters (VI and VII)
(4.) I’ve improved his first party
(5.) I’ve broken up his long narrative in Chap. VIII
Gatsby achieved its greatness in proof. Fitzgerald’s principal concern was to improve the existing narrative plan by shifting the pieces of Gatsby’s biography: Gatsby’s revelation to Nick of his love for Daisy (originally in Chapter Seven) and the account of Dan Cody and Gatsby (originally in Chapter Eight) were incorporatedinto Chapter Six. The novel is a work of genius, but it is equally a triumph of craftsmanship.
In 1925 Fitzgerald’s short novel about a flamboyant racketeer’s attempt to recapture the upper-class girl who threw him over seemed an unlikely candidate for masterpiece or world-classic stature. It was a commercial disappointment when it was published in April 1925; the two printings that year totaled 23,870 copies. (This Side of Paradise had sold 41,075 copies in 1920. The best-selling novels of 1925 were Soundings by A. Hamilton Gibbs, The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy, The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton Porter, Glorious Apollo by E. Barrington, The Green Hat by Michael Arlen, The Little French Girl by Anne Douglas Sedgwick, Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, The Perennial Bachelor by Anne Parish, The Carolinian by Rafael Sabatini, and Our Increasing Purpose by A. S. M. Hutchinson.) Yet the reviews included the warmest Fitzgerald had received—along with some opaque dismissals. Gilbert Seldes announced that “Fitzgerald has more than matured; he has mastered his talent and gone soaring in a beautiful flight, leaving behind him everything dubious and tricky in his earlier work, and leaving even farther behind all the men of his own generation and most of his elders.” This review appeared late in The Dial, a small-circulation literary journal. In January 1926, Seldes complained in the English New Criterion that the reviews had not been sufficiently enthusiastic, saying that Fitzgerald “stands at this time desperately in need of critical encouragement.” Among the prominent receptive critics were William Rose Benet in The Saturday Review of Literature, Laurence Stallings in the New York World (after an earlier unsigned World review was headlined “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Latest a Dud”), Herbert S. Gorman in the New York Sun, Harry Hansen in the Chicago Daily News, Carl Van Vechten in The Nation, and Herschel Brickell in the New York Evening Post. Probably the review that most concerned the author was H. L. Mencken’s long piece in the Baltimore Evening Sun, which expressed reservations about the novel while recognizing Fitzgerald’s development as a writer:
The story is obviously unimportant … it is certainly not to be put on the same shelf with, say, This Side of Paradise. What ails it, fundamentally, is the plain fact that it is simply a story—that Fitzgerald seems to be far more interested in maintaining its suspense than in getting under the skins of its people. It is not that they are false; it is that they are taken too much for granted. Only Gatsby himself genuinely lives and breathes. The rest are mere marionettes—often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.
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.
Charles Scribner’s Sons made a strong effort to promote the book. It was packaged in a striking dust jacket by Francis Cugat, but the jacket copy conveys the impression that the publisher was uncertain about the nature of its product: “It is a magical, living book, blended of irony, romance, and mysticism.” The seven ads in The Saturday Review of Literature from April to June indicate that Scribners allocated a generous advertising budget to The Great Gatsby. The second ad (April 25) was captioned “F. Scott Fitzgerald, Satirist,” indicating that the publisher was still looking for the right handle. The fifth ad (May 23) announced:
“Mencken is right:”
SAYS JOSEPH HERGESHEIMER
“it is beautifully written and saturated with a sharp, unforgettable emotion. It gathers up all his early promise surprisingly soon, and what he subsequently does must be of great interest and importance.”
The English impact was negligible. The 1926 Chatto & Windus printing did not sell well, although the reviews were better than those Fitzgerald’s previous novels had received in England. The Times Literary Supplement called it “undoubtedly a work of art and of great promise”; Edward Shanks in the London Mercury commended the author’s control over his material. Conrad Aiken, writing in The New Criterion, praised the form and originality of the novel but stated that it is not “great,” “large,” or “strikingly subtle.”; L. P. Hartley called it “an absurd story” in the Saturday Review.
The novel was dead in the market before the end of 1925, even though The Great Gatsby achieved exposure through the 1926 dramatization by Owen Davis that ran for 112 performances on Broadway and the 1926 silent movie based on the play. This publicity did not sell the book. Copies of the August 1925 second printing were still in the warehouse when Fitzgerald died in 1940. There was one more American printing during the author’s lifetime, the 1934 Modern Library volume—discontinued for lack of sales. This reprint added Fitzgerald’s introduction replying to the charges of triviality brought against his work in the proletarian thirties: “But, my God! it was my material, and it was all I had to deal with.” The only other republications of Gatsby during Fitzgerald’s lifetime were in two pulp magazines: Famous Story Magazine serialized it in 1926, and the English Argosy ran it in one 1937 issue.
Fitzgerald’s newspaper obituaries revealed no awareness that The Great Gatsby was more than a period piece. The New York Times devoted a paragraph to the novel:
The best of his books, the critics said, was The Great Gatsby. When it was published in 1925 this ironic tale of life on Long Island at a time when gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession (according to the exponents of Mr. Fitzgerald’s school of writers), it received critical acclaim. In it Mr. Fitzgerald was at his best, which was, according to John Chamberlain, “his ability to catch… the flavor of a period, the fragrance of a night, a snatch of old song, in a phrase.”
The next day, an editorial stated: “It was not a book for the ages, but it caught superbly the spirit of a decade.” James Gray wrote “A Last Salute to the Gayest of Sad Young Men” for the St. Paul Dispatch in which he ventured the “heresy” that the Nobel Prize had been awarded to writers who had not produced anything as brilliant as The Great Gatsby: “Perhaps some day it will be rediscovered.” The New Yorker’s comment on the obituaries described Gatsby as “one of the most scrupulously observed and beautifully written of American novels.”
The 1941 assessments and tributes generally played it safe by viewing Fitzgerald as a writer who had failed to fulfill his promise. Even in the series of reminiscences that appeared in two 1941 issues of The New Republic, John Peale Bishop’s elegy lamented Fitzgerald’s failure. The other contributors included Malcolm Cowley, John Dos Passos, John O’Hara, Budd Schulberg, and Glenway Wescott. Dos Passos challenged the nostalgia or period-flavor critical approach to Fitzgerald and declared that Gatsby was “one of the few classic American novels.”
Fitzgerald’s death triggered a Gatsby revival—which triggered the Fitzgerald revival. Unlike the Melville revival, which was the work of academics, the Fitzgerald revival was a popular response resulting from reader demand in the forties. Critical reassessment of the novel was mainly a process of the fifties. During the forties no article devoted to The Great Gatsby was published, but there were appraisals or reappraisals of Fitzgerald that singled it out for praise. In 1945 William Troy identified Gatsby as Fitzgerald’s only completely successful novel, and in 1946 John Berryman declared it a “masterpiece.”
Publishers did more than the critics for Fitzgerald. Between 1941 and 1949, seventeen new editions or reprints of The Great Gatsby were published. The key event was the inclusion of Gatsby with The Last Tycoon in 1941, for the respectful posthumous attention attracted by the unfinished novel carried over to Gatsby. In 1942 Scribners brought out a small reprint of Gatsby.
Three years later, the novel became widely available and widely sold—the surest gauge of a book’s influence. In 1945 there were five new editions or reprints—as well as The Crack-Up, with its section of letters about Gatsby from Edith Wharton, T. S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein. That year the Tycoon/Gatsby edition went into a second printing, the Armed Services Edition was published, the Viking Portable Fitzgerald (which included Gatsby and Tender Is the Night) was published and required a second printing, and the twenty-five-cent Bantam paperback was released. It is impossible to determine the effect of a book giveaway program, but publishing historians have credited the 155,000 copies (nearly eight times the 1925 first printing) of the Armed Services Edition distributed to military personnel with creating a new readership for The Great Gatsby.
In 1946 the Bantam paperback was reprinted twice, New Directions published Gatsby in the New Classics series—with an introduction by Lionel Trilling—and Gatsby was included in Great American Short Novels (four printings in the forties). The Portable went into third and fourth printings in 1949, and that year Grosset & Dunlap brought out a tie-in printing for the Alan Ladd movie version.
Before The Great Gatsby became a required textbook in the fifties and sixties, some half million copies were in the hands of readers who were reading it because they wanted to read it.
For a long time, The Great Gatsby was classified as “a book about the Roaring Twenties.” It is one of those novels that so richly evoke the texture of their time that they become, in the fullness of time, more than literary classics; they become a supplementary or even substitute form of history. It is surprising that this statement should apply to a work by F. Scott Fitzgerald, for in certain ways the historiographer of the Jazz Age (which he named) was ill-equipped for the task.
He was not a documentary writer. John O’Hara paid him the tribute of declaring: “He always knew what he was writing about… Scott Fitzgerald had the correct impressions because, quite apart from his gifts, the impressions were not those of a man who’s never been there.” Although O’Hara carefully repeated the word “impressions,” the implication that Fitzgerald was a master reporter is overgenerous. His control of detail was never as sharp or comprehensive as O’Hara’s. The most famous car in American fiction is never identified. Fitzgerald may have felt that to stipulate its make would render the “circus wagon” / “death car” less extraordinary—it would have become just a Pierce-Arrow or Stutz or Duesenberg. Instead, he treated the vehicle impressionistically: “It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel,swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes and tool boxes, terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns” (p. 77). He relied on style to evoke a car appropriate for Gatsby. (Note Fitzgerald’s characteristic use of the surprising adjective in “triumphant hat-boxes.”)
The Great Gatsby provides little in the way of sociological or anthropological data. Three cars are identified: Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce (not his personal car), Nick’s Dodge, and the Ford in Wilson’s garage. Three celebrities are named: Joe Frisco, Gilda Grey, and David Belasco—all from show business. Two criminals—Charles Becker and Herman Rosenthal—are mentioned. Yet Fitzgerald’s invented list of the attendees at Gatsby’s party has become a source for students of Prohibition society. The laureate of the Jazz Age had little interest in jazz. His music was the popular songs of the era, six of which are mentioned in the novel: “The Sheik of Araby,” “The Love Nest,” “Ain’t We Got Fun?” “Three O’clock in the Morning,” “The Rosary,” and “Beale Street Blues” (a 1917 jazz work by W. C. Handy that was a popular dance tune).
Although he had a keen sense of history, Fitzgerald was indifferent to many of the causes and activities of the twenties. Despite his call for political and social change annexed to This Side of Paradise (1920), he soon abandoned that concern. He ignored the Sacco and Vanzetti case, which enlisted his literary friends. When Fitzgerald came to write his 1931 postmortum, “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” he observed: “It was characteristic of the Jazz Age that it had no interest in politics at all.” This generalization doesn’t hold, but it applies to Fitzgerald. His claim that he had been influenced by The Decline of the West—“I read him [Spengler] the same summer I was writing The Great Gatsby and I don’t think I ever quite recovered from him”—does not bear scrutiny. The Decline of the West was not available in English in the summer of 1924.
Another subject of general interest in the twenties that Fitzgerald was ignorant of was the stock market. Nevertheless, he was able to convey the Eldorado mood that provides the background for The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway decides to enter the investment field because “Everybody I knew was in the bond business” (p. 3). When James B. (“Rot-Gut”) Ferret left the gambling table at Gatsby’s party, “it meant that he was cleaned out and Associated Traction would have to fluctuate profitably next day” (p. 75). Gatsby is involved with Meyer Wolfsheim in a securities swindle, as well as bootlegging, but Fitzgerald was unable to document this activity. When Maxwell Perkins read the unrevised typescript, he noted that Gatsby’s criminal activities were vague. Fitzgerald admitted that the flaw resulted from his own ignorance: “But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words make sure, I’m going to tell more.” Although Fitzgerald subsequently reported to Perkins that “I’ve accounted for his money,” he only supplied clues that Gatsby was involved in illegal endeavors. His source was a man in Rome who briefed him on the 1922 Fuller-McGee Case, in which the partners in a brokerage firm were charged with misappropriating clients’ funds. Arnold Rothstein, the remote source for Wolfsheim, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series, was implicated.
Writing to Corey Ford from Hollywood a dozen years after The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald described his method of treating material:
In This Side of Paradise (in a crude way) and in Gatsby I selected the stuff to fit a given mood or “hauntedness” or whatever you might call it, rejecting in advance in Gatsby, for instance, all the ordinary material for Long Island, big crooks, adultery theme and always starting from the small focal point that impressed me—my own meeting with Arnold Rothstein, for instance.
Fitzgerald did not work directly from models; he did not attempt to copy life. He transmuted his impressions. “Whether it’s something that happened twenty years ago or only yesterday, I must start out with an emotion—one that’s close to me and that I can understand.”
The figure who controls Gatsby’s mysterious wealth is a travesty of Rothstein. Fitzgerald attempted to document Wolfsheim’s criminal background through his reminiscences of the 1912 Rosenthal-Becker murder case, but the facts are distorted to accommodate Wolfsheim’s sentimentality. Except for the touch of menace provided by his human-molar cufflinks, Wolfsheim is a comicracketeer—as is Gatsby in different ways. [Bootlegger Max von Gerlach was a partial source for Gatsby. A quarter of a century after the novel was published, the fifty-five-year-old proprietor of a Flushing, Long Island, used-car business shot himself (New York World-Telegram, December 22, 1939,4). See Matthew J. Bruccoli, “’How Are You and the Family Old Sport?’—Gerlach and Gatsby,” Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual 1975, pp. 33-36.] O’Hara, one of Fitzgerald’s staunchest admirers, commented: “I fully believed Gatsby until I went to NY and met some of those mob people. Gatsby would not have lasted a week with the ones I met, let alone taken control.”
Despite inaccuracies and absurdities, The Great Gatsby has become a source for historians because of Fitzgerald’s sense of time, of the emotions evoked by particular moments. In This Side of Paradise he formulated a distinction that he used twice in the novel: “the sentimental person thinks things will last—the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t.” Many writers have been distinguished by a sense of the past; Fitzgerald possessed a complex and delicate sense of the passing present. Malcolm Cowley has observed that Fitzgerald wrote as if surrounded by clocks and calendars.
Fitzgerald’s primary concern was with the rhythms, the colors, the tones associated with time and place—often expressed through synesthesia, as in “yellow cocktail music” (p. 49). Time and place are inseparable in Fitzgerald: not just how it was, but how it felt in “a transitory enchanted moment” (p. 217). He later wrote, “After all, any given moment has its value; it can be questioned in the light of after-events, but the moment remains.” His task was to fix and preserve evanescent experience. Fitzgerald’s sense of mood was extraordinary: the summer twilight in New York, the riotous Long Island nights, the Chicago railroad station at holiday time (yet he stipulated the wrong station before Ring Lardner corrected it). These passages have become touchstones of American prose.
At the end of “Echoes of the Jazz Age” he observed: “and it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite as intensely about our surroundings any more.” This theme is not the same as the familiar ubi sunt formula. Fitzgerald and his heroes do not yearn for the melted snows of yester year; they mourn for their lost capacity to respond to those snows: “the snow of twenty-nine wasn’t real snow. If you didn’t want it to be snow, you just paid some money.”
The strongest feeling generated by The Great Gatsby is regret. It is not regret keyed to mutability—which means change. Fitzgerald evokes regret for depleted emotional capacity, a regret as intense as the emotions that inspired it were. While he was writing The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald explained: “That’s the whole burden of this novel—the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.”
In “Winter Dreams,” the 1922 story that is a miniature of The Great Gatsby, poor boy Dexter Green becomes wealthy but loses the rich girl who catalyzed his ambitions. This is his response to her home as published in the magazine text:
There was a feeling of mystery in it, of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and strange than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through these deep corridors and of romances that were not musty and laid already in lavender, but were fresh and breathing and set forth in rich motor cars and in great dances whose flowers were scarcely withered.
When Fitzgerald rewrote this passage in Chapter 8 of the novel for Gatsby’s response to Daisy Fay’s home—scrupulously cutting it from the collected text of the story—“rich motor cars” became “this year’s shining motor-cars” (p. 178). Not just expensive cars, but the cars that evoke the aura of a particular time.
At the end of “Winter Dreams,” Green is told that the beauty of his dream girl has “faded.”
For the first time in years the tears were streaming down his face. But they were for himself now. He did not care about mouth and eyes and moving hands. He wanted to care but could not care. For he had gone away and he could never come back anymore. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gay beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, when his winter dreams had flourished.
“Long ago,” he said, “long ago, there was something in me, butnow that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.”
Green grieves for his capacity to respond to “the richness of life,” but he nonetheless yields to time and loss. Gatsby doesn’t: “’Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ’Why of course you can!’” (p. 133).
The Great Gatsby is time-haunted from “In my younger and more vulnerable years” to “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” There are at least 450 time words in the novel. Exclusive of character names, the second most frequent noun is time, with 87 occurrences. (House appears 95 times.) Moment or moments occur 73 times; day or days, 70; minute or minutes, 49; hour or hours, 47; o’clock, 26; year, 19; past, 18 (as against 5 appearances of future); month or months, 15; week or weeks, 15; twilight, 9; clock, 6; watch (noun), 5; time-table, 3. The first striking image in the novel is the Buchanans’ lawn “jumping over sun-dials” (p. 8).
In Chapter 5, the fulcrum of the nine-chapter novel, when Gatsby is reunited with Daisy, his “head leaned back so far that it rested against the face of a defunct mantlepiece clock” (p. 104). A moment later Gatsby almost knocks the clock off the mantle, “whereupon he turned and caught it with trembling fingers, and set it back in place” (p. 105). The irony of this symbolism may be too blatant. Gatsby, the time defier, rescues a defunct timepiece, but time will put him “back in place.” When Gatsby takes Daisy to tour his house later in this chapter, Klipspringer plays the piano and Fitzgerald provides the lyric:
In the morning,
In the evening,
Ain’t we got fun—
In the meantime,
In between time—
And when Daisy leaves Gatsby’s party in the next chapter, the orchestra is playing “Three O’clock in the Morning”—“a neat, sad little waltz of that year” (p. 131).
Fitzgerald’s treatment of time with the effect of simultaneous detachment and involvement—what Cowley described as “double vision”—reinforces the permeation of realism and imagination that identifies his best fiction. Thus, Nick jots down the names of the people who came to Gatsby’s parties on a timetable headed “This schedule is in effect July 5th, 1922” (p. 73). Such horology fosters the impression of historical truth—which is not the same thing as straight history.
The ebullient author of This Side of Paradise proclaimed in 1920 that “An Author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.” Five years later he achieved those aims—and more. Now the young readers, the scholar-critics, and the schoolmasters are engaged with Gatsby and Gatsby. Yet no one in 1925 predicted the present eminence of The Great Gatsby— not even Fitzgerald.
The essays commissioned for this volume investigate several aspects of the stature of The Great Gatsby. They provide answers to the question of why this short novel, which seemed to be dead before its author, rose from the graveyard of “dated” fiction and assumed its rightful position among the American masterpieces. Of course it is dated—as are all works of literature. Critics praise timeless works, but a timeless work is one that people keep reading.
The contributors have addressed those qualities of Gatsby that contribute to its staying power. Richard Anderson has gone back to Fitzgerald’s 1920 statement and traced the evidence of the great Gatsby revival. Roger Lewis has examined Gatsby’s treatment of the suppressed American theme of money—in particular, the connection between love and money. Susan Resneck Parr has examined the role of illusion in establishing order within the world of the novel. Kenneth E. Eble has placed the novel in the tradition of America’s quest for an American literature. George Garrett has approached it from the perspective of a novelist, responding to the miracles of Fitzgerald’s style.
The Great Gatsby is inexhaustible. Thirty-five years after the resuscitation of the novel, it has been possible to assemble these useful new essays. It seems safe to forecast that, with or without the valuable work represented here. The Great Gatsby and deserving readers will always find each other. And the discovery must be a private act. After that happens, the serious reader will require the kind of help this collection provides.
Matthew J. Bruccoli is Jefferies Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. A leading authority on Fitzgerald, he is the author of Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Published in New Essays on The Great Gatsby, Ed. by M. J. Bruccoli (Cambridge University Press, 1985).