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. Short stories, novels and a play have followed with consistent regularity since he became the philosopher of the flapper with This Side of Paradise. With shrewd observation and humor he reflected the Jazz Age. Now he has said farewell to his flappers—perhaps because they have grown up—and is writing of the other sisters that have married. But marriage has not changed their world, only the locale of their parties. To use a phrase of Burton Rascoe’s—his hurt romantics are still seeking that other side of paradise. And it might almost be said that The Great Gatsby is the last stage of illusion in this absurd chase. For middle age is certainly creeping up on Mr. Fitzgerald’s flappers.
In all great arid spots nature provides an oasis. So when the Atlantic seaboard was hermetically sealed by law, nature provided an outlet, or inlet rather, in Long Island. A place of innate natural charm, it became lush and luxurious under the stress of this excessive attention, a seat of festive activities. It expresses one phase of the great grotesque spectacle of our American scene. It is humor, irony, ribaldry, pathos and loveliness. Out of this grotesque fusion of incongruities has slowly become conscious a new humor—a strictly American product. It is not sensibility, as witness the writings of Don Marquis, Robert Benchley and Ring Lardner. It is the spirit of Processional and Donald Douglas’s The Grand Inquisitor; a conflict of spirituality caught fast in the web of our commercial life. Both boisterous and tragic, it animates this new novel by Mr. Fitzgerald with whimsical magic and simple pathos that is realized with economy and restraint.
The story of Jay Gatsby of West Egg is told by Nick Carraway, who is one of the legion from the Middle West who have moved on to New York to win from its restless indifference—well, the aspiration that arises in the Middle West— and finds in Long Island a fascinating but dangerous playground. In the method of telling, The Great Gatsby is reminiscent of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. You will recall that the evil of that mysterious tale which so endangered the two children was never exactly stated beyond a suggested generalization. Gatsby’s fortune, business, even his connection with underworld figures, remain vague generalizations. He is wealthy, powerful, a man who knows how to get things done. He has no friends, only business associates, and the throngs who come to his Saturday night parties. Of his uncompromising love—his love for Daisy Buchanan—his effort to recapture the past romance—we are explicitly informed. This patient romantic hopefulness against existing conditions, symbolizes Gatsby. And like the Turn of the Screw, The Great Gatsby is more a long short story than a novel.
Nick Carraway had known Tom Buchanan at New Haven. Daisy, his wife, was a distant cousin. When he came East Nick was asked to call at their place at East Egg. The postwar reactions were at their height—every one was restless— every one was looking for a substitute for the excitement of the war years. Buchanan had acquired another woman. Daisy was bored, broken in spirit and neglected. Gatsby, his parties and his mysterious wealth were the gossip of the hour. At the Buchanans Nick met Jordan Baker; through them both Daisy again meets Gatsby, to whom she had been engaged before she married Buchanan. The inevitable consequence that follows, in which violence takes its toll, is almost incidental, for in the overtones—and this is a book of potent overtones—the decay of souls is more tragic. 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, glamourous story of today. It takes a deeper cut at life than hitherto has been essayed by Mr. Fitzgerald. He writes well—he always has—for he writes naturally, and his sense of form is becoming perfected.
From New York Times Review of Books, April 19, 1925.
The most tragic novel about life as it may be lived in and near this city [New York] seems to me F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (Scribner), and the first story in his new collection, All the Sad Young Men (Scribner), seems a preliminary study for it. I do not know if Mr. Fitzgerald wrote with a moral intention, but he certainly produces a moral effect. “Monstrous dinosaurs carried these people in their mouths,” you meditate, “and now look at the darned things,” and being launched upon meditation, come to the depressing truth that they are what they are not in spite of money and power, but because of these.
From Saturday Review of Literature, June 12, 1926.