Sometimes, you’re remembered for your commercial failures rather than the books the critics celebrate.
In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) published The Great Gatsby. Following the commercial and critical successes of This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), Gatsby received generally favorable reviews from the critics, but it flopped commercially. Nine years passed before he published his final novel, Tender is the Night(1934). An uncompleted novel, The Last Tycoon, was finished by a friend and published in 1941.
Yet of all his novels (and a multitude of stories and articles written for magazines), it is The Great Gatsby that is the best remembered and the book that made his literary reputation. And more than one critic has named it in the running for “the great American novel.”
Gatsby is both a novel of its time and a novel that captured its time. Its heart is a love story, one between a young soldier from a poor farming family in Minnesota and a Louisville debutante. But the love story, mostly existing in the past, only gradually unfolds.
Jay Gatsby is an extremely wealthy man living in an opulent mansion on Long Island. Next door, in a small, rented house sandwiched between estates, lives Nick Carraway, the narrator of the story, a 30-year-old trying to make his way as a salesman in the bond market. Just across the bay is the home of Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Tom has inherited his wealth from his Chicago family; Daisy is a former debutante from Louisville who was wooed and sought after by man young men.
F. Scott Fitzgerald about 1921
Tom, despite his wealth, is something of a brute. He has little polish and considerable vulgarity; he’s also having an affair with the wife of the owner of the local gas station. The polish and manners seem to belong to Jay Gatsby, who throws ongoing lavish parties that people seem to invite themselves to. Rumors abound about the source of Gatsby’s wealth, including ties he has to the gangster who supposedly fixed the 1919 World Series.
Carraway is a cousin of Daisy, and Gatsby invites him to a party. What Gatsby really wants is to meet Daisy privately, at Nick’s house. He and Daisy have a past.
Fitzgerald gradually builds the tension of the story, using Carraway as both an agent of narrative development and the recorder of events. The reader senses that this will not end well; some kind of tragedy seems to be inevitably unfolding. The surprise is what and how it happens – and who ends up being the character the reader admires the most.
There are numerous editions of the book available. The one I read was recently published by T.S. Poetry Press. With an introduction by poet Tania Runyan, it includes the full text of the story, historical context, fashion notes, vintage illustrations, and a Gatsby poem and poetry prompt.
The Great Gatsby is a novel of the Jazz Age, a story of rich people whose main occupation seems to be drinking and entertaining themselves. It’s also a story of old money and new money, the decay of values, and the superficiality of what passes as society and celebrity.
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