This Day in Writing History - April 10 - The Great Gatsby
When one considers what might be the definitive American novel, "The Great Gatsby" is a perennial selection. First published on April 10, 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald set out to capture and critique the spirit of the Roaring Twenties in a novel he fully intended to be his masterwork.
Much of "The Great Gatsby" may be read as autobiographical. Fitzgerald based his setting, affluent Long Island, on his experiences there, particularly the lavish parties that are a hallmark of both the novel and its many adaptations. For the story, particularly that of tragic protagonist Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald only needed to look to his own background. Like the character, Fitzgerald was a midwesterner of middling economic means who headed east for an Ivy League education (Gatsby at Yale, Fitzgerald at Princeton) and ran up against the prevailing prejudices of "old money". For Fitzgerald, this involved rejection as a suitor of an upper-class girl, due to her family's objections to his lack of status.
The situation almost repeated itself after Fitzgerald left Princeton to serve in the military. While stationed in Alabama, Fitzgerald fell in love again, this time with local Zelda Sayre, who also came from a well-off family. Once again, her parents objected. However, rather than halting the engagement outright, they allowed Fitzgerald time to improve his finances. It proved difficult, as a hopeful move to Manhattan netted only unsteady work at an advertising agency and occasional short story sales. A reunion with Zelda proved unsatisfactory, and the engagement remained in flux. Fitzgerald returned to his boyhood home of St. Paul to continue work on his first novel, alongside several odd jobs,
However, it would pay off. That debut novel, "This Side of Paradise", proved a great success upon publication and more than cleared the financial barrier preventing Fitzgerald's marriage to Zelda. They took a home on Long Island and began to circulate amidst New York high society. Having achieved his lofty aspirations, Fitzgerald developed an ambivalent attitude toward his new station, alternating between enchantment and repulsion at the flamboyant lifestyles he regularly interacted with. It became clear that maintaining a well-off existence would often mean constant compromise, particularly for a writer. Though Fitzgerald's passion was for long-form novels, he often found himself preoccupied with short stories that could be sold to magazines to turn quick profits.
Growing tired of New York, Fitzgerald moved to Europe and spent time in both France and Italy. It was here that work on "The Great Gatsby" began in earnest, and constant revisions brought the Jay Gatsby character into focus. Throughout the story, Gatsby experiences the same paralyzing mix of feelings that likely drove Fitzgerald from New York. Though entranced by the trappings of wealth and power, particularly their ability to give him access to the woman of his dreams, Gatsby also finds himself alienated and troubled. The character's various unsavory business dealings, mostly just hinted at in the novel, run parallel to Fitzgerald's experiences with the conflict between economics and artistry.
Upon the completion of "The Great Gatsby", Fitzgerald passed on an opportunity for the novel to be published as a serial, preferring it to be released as a whole volume. It proved to be a costly decision, as the novel's sales oscillated between tepid and non-existent. Indeed, printings of the original edition were available as late as 20 years after its initial release. Though fellow authors such as T.S. Eliot communicated their approval, there was little to be had in terms of popular or critical praise. The lack of success led Fitzgerald to focus on more of the short stories he disliked in order to keep up his finances, particularly as Zelda began to experience serious health problems.
Ironically, Fitzgerald's death in 1940 likely spurred a reevaluation of "The Great Gatsby" which led to a remarkable turnabout in its popularity. Fitzgerald had mostly completed another novel, titled "The Last Tycoon", and his friend Edmund Wilson, a writer and literary critic, was commissioned to complete the work and prepare it for publication. "The Great Gatsby" was republished alongside and thus enjoyed a new wave of attention. A second wave came about when "The Great Gatsby" was chosen as one of the novels to be distributed in paperback form to soldiers fighting World War II in Europe. This unexpected boost in readership, and Wilson's continued support, combined to elevate "The Great Gatsby" and Fitzgerald himself into the pantheon of American literary greatness.