How many high school students, at this moment, have a tattered paperback of The Great Gatsby in their backpack or locker or bedroom? How many English majors around the world possess a well-worn copy brimming with underlined phrases and blocks of scrawled marginalia? How often has the novel been adapted for theater, film, opera, ballet, fashion trends, and even video games? Answers to these questions are inexact and contested, but one thing should be crystal clear: The Great Gatsby, arguably the quintessential American novel, is everywhere.
F. Scott Fitzgerald published his magnum opus 90 years ago this month, and during this time the novel has ascended—slowly and then extremely quickly, as you’ll see—the competitive ranks of the literary canon to join Moby-Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn atop the summit. By now, readers of The Great Gatsby should know all there is to know about this rags-to-riches tale, the critique of ambition and money and excess, the tragic saga of unrequited love. Right? Thankfully, no. There’s always more to know, especially about literature with such a timeless quality. To celebrate the novel’s 90 birthday and to supply you with fodder for your next cocktail party, let’s learn a little more about The Great Gatsby and its rise to distinction.
A Literary Failure
Fitzgerald died young. In 1940, at the age of only 44, the gregarious and famously dapper writer was fatally shocked by a heart attack. Sadly, this not-yet-middle-aged member of the Lost Generation, which also included Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound, considered himself to be a literary failure. While The Great Gatsby, along with his previous two novels This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned, reaped critical accolades, it floundered with the public and in its first year only sold 20,000 copies—a paltry number for a nascent literary star. Word has it that Fitzgerald made just $13 from the novel by the time of his death. How, then, does such a commercial flop become a venerated masterpiece able to sell 25 million copies? Luck — with delayed timing — it seems.
As Luck Would Have It
Without World War II, it’s likely that The Great Gatsby would have forever vanished. But with the war, the novel was unexpectedly able to reach a much wider audience. In an effort to provide US soldiers with entertainment while they were trying to prevent the world from collapsing, a publisher decided to donate 22 million books. As luck would have it, the publisher included an older and unpopular title from its backlist, The Great Gatsby. It instantly garnered an audience of 150,000 men who, along with their rifles and helmets, now carried with them the life and times of Jay Gatsby. By the 1950s, the novel could be seen propped up in the window display of almost any bookstore, and by 1960 The Great Gatsby had been granted a spot in the most elite and hallowed of all book clubs — that of the Great American Novel. Its reputation was secured.
Write What You Know
An age-old and often misguided dictum states that fiction writers should write plausible tales based on experience (how often has “write what you know” been uttered in a creative writing workshop?). Soon after The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, the Baltimore Evening Sun disparaged the novel, claiming that Fitzgerald had broken this cardinal rule by penning a work of fiction that “is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that.” Oh, how wrong the editors of the Evening Sun were. While the plot of the novel may have been born of imagination, its location, its characters, its fashion, and even its criminal activity were grounded in the reality of the Jazz Age exuberance that surrounded its author.
* In 1922, Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, moved to Great Neck, a wealthy region of Long Island. Here they witnessed extreme wealth on display through stately mansions and extravagant parties. During this time, Great Neck was populated by denizens who only recently rose to riches, while the neighboring areas of Manhasset or Cow Neck were full of folks who had inherited their loot. Sound familiar? In the novel, readers are quickly introduced to West Egg and East Egg, both thinly veiled representations of Fitzgerald’s locale.
* Jay Gatsby’s magnificent home, described in detail throughout the novel, was formed less by Fitzgerald’s vision and more by New York’s Oheka Castle, the second-largest private estate in America, and the long-lost Beacon Towers, a 140-room mansion razed in 1945.
* Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby’s perpetual love interest, was modeled on one of Fitzgerald’s former lovers, Ginerva King. In the novel, Daisy’s best friend is Jordan Baker, a devious professional golfer. In reality, Ginerva King was good friends with Edith Cummings, who just so happened to be a famous golfer.
* Gatsby’s partner in crime (belated spoiler alert!) is Meyer Wolfshiem, a “thin, flat-nosed Jew” who helps Gatsby traverse the road to wealth via the bootlegging of illegal liquor. Scholars agree that Wolfshiem is a dead ringer for Arnold Rothstein, the New York mobster who tried to fix the 1919 World Series.
* During his time at Great Neck, Fitzgerald made the acquaintance of Max Gerlach, a “gentleman bootlegger” and a veteran of World War I who supposedly referred to Fitzgerald as “old sport.” Hmm … who could this man have inspired?
It’s clear that Fitzgerald did, in fact, write about what he knew. But, even if he didn’t, what would it matter? We would still be left with a novel full of dynamic and fashionable personalities, lavish extravaganzas, deception and crime, love and death, and modernity in bloom. We would still have a microcosm of the American 1920s delivered in beautiful and memorable prose that we could return to again and again. What more could we ask for? Happy birthday, The Great Gatsby. You are still, now, and forever loved.