|F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda, their daughter Scottie, and Scottie's nanny, 1924, as he was writing The Great Gatsby.|
I recently re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby. What more is there to add about one of the most famous novels ever written? Simply put, it is Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. It’s different from all his other novels. Not in terms of subject matter, for Fitzgerald’s subjects and obsessions remained constant throughout his career, but there’s a difference in feeling. After reading Fitzgerald’s first two novels, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned, the contrast with The Great Gatsby is stunning. Whereas those two novels are like overstuffed armchairs, as Fitzgerald crams in all the observations he’s made in his life, Gatsby is a stripped-down masterpiece. There’s nothing extraneous in the book.
Fitzgerald made an excellent artistic choice when he decided that Nick Carraway should serve as the book’s narrator. This puts the reader slightly at a distance from Gatsby, and makes him more mysterious to us. Like Fitzgerald, Nick Carraway is a Minnesotan who is a sharp-eyed observer of the events around him. There’s a beautiful sentence where Nick is describing the party with Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson at Myrtle’s love nest:
“Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” (p.40)
Nick’s sense of himself as both observer and participant is how I imagine Fitzgerald must have seen himself. Fitzgerald participated in all kinds of privileged social activities, fancy parties at the White Bear Yacht Club, dinner and dancing at the University Club, but I suspect there was part of his brain that was always viewing it from the outside, taking mental notes for when he would reconstruct these scenes later in his fiction. Unfortunately there’s no quote I can pull out from Fitzgerald to prove his mind worked this way. However, Nick’s sense of being within and without fits perfectly with what Malcolm Cowley called Fitzgerald’s “double vision.” Cowley wrote:
“It was as if all his novels described a big dance to which he had taken the prettiest girl, and as if at the same time he stood outside the ballroom, a little Midwestern boy with his nose to the glass, wondering how much the tickets cost and who paid for the music.” (Introduction to The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, p.xiv)
I think Fitzgerald put some of his own romanticism into the character of Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald wrote to his editor Maxwell Perkins, “Gatsby sticks in my heart.” (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, p.211) I also suspect that in person Fitzgerald exuded some of the same charisma that Gatsby has. Biographer Andrew Turnbull knew Fitzgerald, and he wrote in his biography about Scott’s magnetism: “Fitzgerald focused on you—even riveted on you—and if there was one thing you were sure of, it was that whatever you happened to be talking about was the most important matter in the world.” (Scott Fitzgerald, by Andrew Turnbull, p.225) Fitzgerald echoes Gatsby’s famous line about repeating the past in Tender is the Night: “The drink made past happy things contemporary with the present, as if they were still going on, contemporary even with the future as if they were about to happen again.” (p.107-8) I don’t know if some of Fitzgerald’s drinking was an attempt so sink back into a happier past, but the passage certainly fits with his nostalgic and romantic notions about life and art.
Reading Gatsby again, I was struck by the humor and irony throughout the book. I think this was intentional on Fitzgerald’s part. When Gatsby almost knocks the clock off the mantelpiece at his reunion with Daisy, it’s a funny, awkward moment, and I think Fitzgerald intended it to be humorous.
Ironically enough, given its current status as a classic, The Great Gatsby did not set the world on fire when it was first published. A now notorious review in the New York World was headlined, “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s latest a dud.” However, some critics did understand was an accomplishment it was, and Fitzgerald received letters of congratulation about the book from Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, and T.S. Eliot, who wrote “In fact it seems to me to be the first step American fiction has taken since Henry James.” (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, by Matthew J. Bruccoli, p.218)
Fitzgerald knew that he had written something amazing. In a letter written shortly after the novel’s publication, Fitzgerald wrote: “Gatsby was far from perfect in many ways but all in all it contains such prose as has never been written in America before. From that I take heart.” (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, p.221)
The Great Gatsby was also not an immediate best-seller. When it was released in April of 1925, the first printing was 20,000 copies. In August Scribner’s went ahead with a second printing of 3,000 copies. When Fitzgerald died fifteen years later, there were still unsold copies of the second printing sitting in the Scribner’s warehouse.
Fitzgerald wrote his editor Maxwell Perkins just after the publication, and he offered two explanations for why the book did not become an immediate best-seller:
“1st: The title is only fair, rather bad than good. 2nd: And most important—the book contains no important woman character and women control the fiction market at present.” (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, p.217)
Fitzgerald usually went through numerous title changes for his novels, and Gatsby was no exception. (Tender is the Night went through seven possible titles during its long gestation before the final title was settled on.) Early titles for Gatsby were Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires, Gold-Hatted Gatsby, On the Road to West Egg, The High-Bouncing Lover, Trimalchio, and Trimalchio in West Egg. Personally, I think Trimalchio would have been a pretty obscure title, as it refers to a character in the Satyricon by Petronius who threw extravagant parties. At the very last minute, Fitzgerald cabled Perkins to ask about a possible title change to Under the Red, White and Blue. I think that would have been an excellent title, although it brings to mind a more sweeping novel, a panorama of American life, rather than the small slice that Gatsby gives us. Of course, to my ears now The Great Gatsby sounds perfect—it’s simple, easy to remember, and has nice alliteration.
As to the book containing “no important woman character,” certainly Daisy Fay Buchanan and Jordan Baker are important to the novel, but they aren’t the main focus. Even though Gatsby’s quest for Daisy is the main action of the book, Daisy remains somewhat underdeveloped as a character. However, this may have been deliberate on Fitzgerald’s part. Daisy remains somewhat vague to us as she probably remains vague to Gatsby—is he in love with the Daisy of the present, or the Daisy of five years’ past? Gatsby himself might not know the answer to that question. We also never get to see Daisy and Gatsby alone after their reunion—since Nick obviously cannot observe such scenes, they don’t become part of the novel, and thus deprive us of a deeper knowledge of both characters.
In 1934, Gatsby was reprinted by the Modern Library. It was withdrawn from the series because of low sales. (F. Scott Fitzgerald on Authorship, p.141) In his introduction to the Modern Library reprint, dated August, 1934, Fitzgerald expressed some of his frustrations over American literary criticism, and he defended the novel, writing:
“Now that this book is being reissued, the author would like to say that never before did one try to keep his artistic conscience as pure as during the ten months put into doing it. Reading it over one can see how it could have been improved—yet without feeling guilty of any discrepancy from the truth, as far as I saw it; truth or rather the equivalent of the truth, the attempt at honesty of imagination.” (ibid, p.140)
Fitzgerald also explains the economical prose of the book, as he wrote, “What I cut out of it both physically and emotionally would make another novel!” (ibid, p.140)
Ironically enough, this Great American Novel was written in Europe; specifically, France and Italy. Fitzgerald had worked on the book while living in Great Neck, Long Island, but he was finding his busy social life to be a distraction.
Fitzgerald was humorously prophetic in a letter he wrote to his friend the novelist Thomas Boyd in May of 1924: “Well, I shall write a novel better than any novel ever written in America and become par excellence the best second-rater in the world.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, p.69)
In Europe, the novel came together fairly quickly, and by late October of 1924 the typescript was sent off to Scribner’s. Throughout the winter, Fitzgerald made changes to the book, including reorganizing some chapters. As always, Fitzgerald kept revising and improving his work until the last possible minute, even making substantial changes to the book when it was in galley form. Gatsby was turned down by several magazines for serialization, which was probably just as well, since The Beautiful and Damned had suffered an unfortunate serialization at the hands of Carl Hovey, the editor of Metropolitan magazine, who removed much of the guts from it.
The Great Gatsby remains F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, and Gatsby’s place in American literature testifies to his consummate skill as a chronicler of the times in which he lived. It’s a shame that Fitzgerald didn’t live to see the novel take its rightful place as one of the greatest of all American novels.