The Great Gatsby is a 1925 novel written by American author F. Scott Fitzgerald that follows a cast of characters living in the fictional town of West Egg on prosperous Long Island in the summer of 1922. The story primarily concerns the young and mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby and his quixotic passion and obsession for the beautiful debutante Daisy Buchanan. Considered to be Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, The Great Gatsby explores themes of decadence, idealism, resistance to change, social upheaval, and excess, creating a portrait of the Jazz Age or the Roaring Twenties that has been described as a cautionary tale regarding the American Dream.
Fitzgerald, inspired by the parties he had attended while visiting Long Island’s north shore, began planning the novel in 1923 desiring to produce, in his words, “something new—something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.”
First published by Scribner’s in April 1925, The Great Gatsby received mixed reviews and sold poorly; in its first year, the book sold only 20,000 copies. Fitzgerald died in 1940, believing himself to be a failure and his work forgotten. However, the novel experienced a revival during World War II, and became a part of American high school curricula and numerous stage and film adaptations in the following decades. Today, The Great Gatsby is widely considered to be a literary classic and a contender for the title “Great American Novel.” The book is consistently ranked among the greatest works of American literature. In 1998 the Modern Library editorial board voted it the best American novel and the second best novel in the English language.
Set in the prosperous Long Island of 1922, The Great Gatsby provides a critical social history of America during the Roaring Twenties within its narrative. That era, known for unprecedented economic prosperity, the evolution of jazz music, flapper culture, and bootlegging and other criminal activity, is plausibly depicted in Fitzgerald’s novel. Fitzgerald uses these societal developments of the 1920s to build Gatsby’s stories from simple details like automobiles to broader themes like Fitzgerald’s discreet allusions to the organized crime culture which was the source of Gatsby’s fortune. Fitzgerald educates his readers about the garish society of the Roaring Twenties by placing a timeless, relatable plotline within the historical context of the era.
Many of the events in Fitzgerald’s early life are reflected throughout The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald is also similar to Jay Gatsby, as he fell in love while stationed in the military and fell into a life of decadence trying to prove himself to the girl he loves. Fitzgerald became a second lieutenant, and was stationed at Camp Sheridan, in Montgomery, Alabama. There he met and fell in love with a wild seventeen-year-old beauty named Zelda Sayre. Zelda finally agreed to marry him, but her overpowering desire for wealth, fun, and leisure led her to delay their wedding until he could prove a success. Like Nick in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald found this new lifestyle seductive and exciting, and, like Gatsby, he had always idolized the very rich. In many ways, The Great Gatsby represents Fitzgerald’s attempt to confront his conflicting feelings about the Jazz Age. Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald was driven by his love for a woman who symbolized everything he wanted, even as she led him toward everything he despised.
The cover of the first printing of The Great Gatsby is among the most celebrated pieces of art in American literature. It depicts disembodied eyes and a mouth over a blue skyline, with images of naked women reflected in the irises. A little-known artist named Francis Cugat was commissioned to illustrate the book while Fitzgerald was in the midst of writing it.
Several writers felt that the novel left much to be desired following Fitzgerald’s previous works and promptly criticized him. Harvey Eagleton of The Dallas Morning News believed the novel signaled the end of Fitzgerald’s success: “One finishes Great Gatsby with a feeling of regret, not for the fate of the people in the book, but for Mr. Fitzgerald.”John McClure of The Times-Picayune opined that the book was unconvincing, writing, “Even in conception and construction, The Great Gatsby seems a little raw.” Ralph Coghlan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch felt the book lacked what made Fitzgerald’s earlier novels endearing and called the book “a minor performance … At the moment, its author seems a bit bored and tired and cynical.” Ruth Snyder of New York Evening World called the book’s style “painfully forced”, noting that the editors of the paper were “quite convinced after reading The Great Gatsby that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of to-day.” The reviews struck Fitzgerald as completely missing the point: “All the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.”
In 1940, Fitzgerald suffered a third and final heart attack, and died believing his work forgotten. His obituary in The New York Times mentioned Gatsby as evidence of great potential that was never reached. However, a strong appreciation for the book had developed in underground circles, The republication of Gatsby in Edmund Wilson’s edition of The Last Tycoon in 1941 produced an outburst of comment, with the general consensus expressing the sentiment that the book was an enduring work of fiction.
In 1942, a group of publishing executives created the Council on Books in Wartime. The purpose of the Council was to distribute paperback books to soldiers fighting in the Second World War. The Great Gatsby was one of these books. The books proved to be “as popular as pin-up girls” among the soldiers, according to the Saturday Evening Post’s contemporary report. 155,000 copies of Gatsby were distributed to soldiers overseas, and it is believed that this publicity ultimately boosted the novel’s popularity and sales.
By 1944, full-length articles on Fitzgerald’s works were being published, and the following year, “the opinion that Gatsby was merely a period piece had almost entirely disappeared.” During a revival of Fitzgerald’s works in 1945, Gatsby gained readers when Armed Services Editions gave away 150,000 copies of it to military personnel in World War II. During the 1950s, the book gradually became part of standard high school curriculum required reading in the United States. In 1951, Arthur Mizener published The Far Side of Paradise, a biography of Fitzgerald. He emphasized the book’s positive reception by literary critics who may have influenced public opinion, and renewed interest in it.
By 1960, the book was steadily selling 50,000 copies per year, and renewed interest led New York Times editorialist Arthur Mizener to proclaim the novel “a classic of twentieth-century American fiction.” The Great Gatsby has sold over 25 million copies worldwide.The book annually sells 500,000 copies and is Scribner’s most popular title; in 2013, the e-book alone sold 185,000 copies.
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