May 9, 2013

Ten Nights On Long Island: The Great Gatsby’s early reviews

by

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

In its first year, The Great Gatsby sold a disappointing 21,000 copies, less than half of the first year sales for This Side of Paradise or The Beautiful and Dammed. Though it did merit a second printing, copies were still gathering dust in the warehouse when F. Scott Fitzgerald passed away in 1940.

Fitzgerald earned $2,000 on Gatsby in 1925, according to his ledger. This was the same amount he received for a single short story published in The Saturday Evening Post.

He later sold the foreign motion picture rights for $16,666, and recorded $5,000 more when Gatsby ran as a play in New York, Chicago and elsewhere.

The New York Evening World called the book “a valiant effort to be ironical,” but “his style is painfully forced.” The daytime version of the paper ran a headline that called Gatsby “a dud.” 

Isabel Paterson wrote, “What has never been alive cannot very well go on living; so this is a book for the season only.” In the Chicago Tribune, H.L. Mencken pronounced it “no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that…. Certainly not to be put on the same shelf with, say, This Side of Paradise.”

Ralph Coghlan reviewed the book for the St. Louis Dispatch on April 25, 1925:

Altogether is seems to us this book is a minor performance. At the moment, its author seems a bit bored and tired and cynical.  There is no ebullience here, nor is there any mellowness or profundity. For our part, The Great Gatsby might just as well be called Ten Nights on Long Island.

Harvey Eagleton in The Dallas Morning News May 10, 1925:

One finishes Great Gatsby with a feeling of regret, not for the fate of the people in the book, but for Mr. Fitzgerald.  When This Side of Paradise was published, Mr. Fitzgerald was hailed as a young man of promise, which he certainly appeared to be. But the promise, like so many, seems likely to go unfulfilled. The Roman candle which sent out a few gloriously colored balls at the first lighting seems to be ending in a fizzle of smoke and sparks.

Fitzgerald’s friends sent on constructive criticism. Here’s a letter from Edith Wharton to Fitzgerald, dated June 8, 1925:

To make Gatsby really Great, you ought to have given us his early career (not from the cradle-but from his visit to the yacht, if not before) instead of a short resume of it. That would have situated him & made his final tragedy a tragedy instead of a fait divers for the morning papers.

Fitzgerald and Zelda were reportedly so appalled by the 1926 film adaption, they walked out of the theater. The full film is now lost, according to OpenCulture, but the trailer remains:

One of Fitzgerald’s short stories was rejected from The New Yorker in 1926 (though that story did eventually appear in its pages 76 years later).

Fitzgerald headed to a bookstore in 1937 to buy copies of his books for his lover, Sheilah Graham, and found none of his books available on shelves. They went to another, and another. No luck.

By the time Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in 1940, at age 44, he had earned just $13.13 in Gatsby royalties.

But the twenty years that followed were good to Gatsby. As the glitz of the Jazz Age faded into memory, readers were willing to revisit the novel and consider its literary merit anew. Fitzgerald had a few critical supporters who brought the book late success.

In his review of Taps at Reveilly for The New Republic in 1935, T. S. Matthews wrote, “There seems to be a feeling abroad that it would be kinder not to take any critical notice of the goings-on of Fitzgerald [the short-story writer], since his better half [the novelist] is such a superior person but there is no real difference.”

This budding critical interest in Fitzgerald’s novels blossomed over the next twenty years.

In 1941, Edmund Wilson edited and published Fitzgerald’s unfinished book, The Last Tycoon, and The Great Gatsby appeared in a new edition, eventually including an introduction by Lionel Trilling. Wilson’s The Crack-Up, published by New Directions in 1945, chronicled Fitzgerald’s fall from riches and fame into despair by age 39.

Patricia Hampl asserts that the reviews for The Crack-Up were expected to be gossipy, and turned out to be quite the opposite:

Over time, the publication of The Crack-Up has come to be regarded as the trigger to Fitzgerald’s resurgence as an essential and enduring figure of 20th-century American literature. The critical response to the book’s appearance in 1945 was a far cry from the reception the Esquire publication of the essays had elicited. Reviewers were respectful, even enthusiastic, or at least seriously interested.

Stephen Vincent Benet was a notable champion of Fitzgerald’s late work, too:

When Scott Fitzgerald died, a good many of the obituaries showed a curious note of self-righteousness. They didn’t review his work, they merely reviewed the Jazz Age and said that it was closed. Because he had made a spectacular youthful success at one kind of thing, they assumed that that one kind of thing was all he could ever do. In other words, they assumed that because he died in his forties, he had shot his bolt. And they were just one hundred percent wrong, as The Last Tycoon shows.

Margaret Marshall described Fitzgerald as a failure in The Nation, but remarked that Gatsby was “enduring.” The New Yorker put together a series of tributes to Fitzgerald by writers like Glenway Wescott and Budd Schulberg. The idea that Gatsby was nothing beyond a period piece disappeared by 1945.

Trilling praised the book in 1945: “After a quarter century [The Great Gatsby] is still as fresh as when it first appeared. It has even gained in weight and relevance, which can be said of few American books of its time.”

The same year, William Troy called Gatsby one of the “mythological creations in our culture.” John Berryman declared it a “masterpiece.”

Between 1941 and 1949, seventeen editions of The Great Gatsby were published, Viking Portable and Bantam editions among them, with a wide range of new covers. By 1946, The Kenyon Review and The Sewanee Review were publishing long articles devoted to Gatsby. In 1951, two full-length books of criticism were published on the subject.

The book enjoyed a revival when new movie, starring Alan Ladd, was released in 1949:

In 1960, Arthur Mizener wrote, “It is probably safe now to say that it [The Great Gatsby] is a classic of twentieth-century American fiction.”

Mizener’s New York Times review praised its voice and its “realization of the fluidity of American lives”:

There was a special irony for Fitzgerald in the reception of The Great Gatsby. It was an immediate success with professional writers and that curious underground of serious readers in America who have, almost alone, kept many good books alive when the reviewers and the popular audience have ignored them, as they did “Gatsby.” At its publication they thought it skillful light fiction. For the next twenty-five years, on the rare occasions when it was discussed, it was considered a nostalgic period piece with “the sadness and the remote jauntiness of a Gershwin tune,” as Peter Quennell said in 1941.

…Almost for the first time Fitzgerald created with that voice an image of The Good American of our time in all his complexity of human sympathy, firm moral judgment and ironic self-possession. We can now afford to turn our attention to such things – because, whatever disagreements we may have over Fitzgerald’s work as a whole, there remain few doubts of the greatness of Gatsby or of its imaginative relevance to American experience.

Now Scribner says more than 25 million copies of The Great Gatsby have been sold worldwide since 1925, and the book typically sells more than 500,000 combined copies every year (including eBook editions). No doubt they’ll see an increase with the new tie-in edition, thanks in no small part to the allure of Toby McGuire’s arched eyebrow.

Today, “Gatsby” is the name of a SoHo bar, as well as a real estate company, Jen Doll points out in The Atlantic.

As Fitzgerald wrote in Tender is The Night, “In any case you mustn’t confuse a single failure with a final defeat.”

 

Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.

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