“The Great Gatsby film is coming out soon….” the English teacher said to me, “Can you believe Gatsby is almost 90?”
Wait, 90? The Great Gatsby is almost 90? That debonair, handsome American icon we met in his 30’s could be well over 100 years old?
“He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald began writing his great American novel in 1922, with some of the elements surfacing in the story “Absolution” in the June 1924 issue of the magazine The American Mercury. During the years 1923–1924, Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda, and their baby daughter, Frances “Scottie”, traveled from New York to the French Riviera, where the novel was finished. Fitzgerald went through several revisions between 1923 to 1925 before the novel was finally published.
According to Brant Mangum in a publication from Virginia Commonwealth University:
Fitzgerald’s ambitious goal as he approached the composition of The Great Gatsby was to “write something new–something extraordinary and beautiful and simple + intricately patterned.”
The reaction of the critics was harsh; one early review ran with the headline:
“F. SCOTT FITZGERALD’S LATEST DUD.”
Praise, however came from recognized writers T. S. Eliot, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Ten days after the book came out, Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald’s editor, sent the telegram: “SALES SITUATION DOUBTFUL EXCELLENT REVIEWS.” The first printing of 20,870 copies was a slow seller; Scribner’s printed another 3,000 copies four months late and finished the run. According to an article Living on $500,000 a Year: What F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tax returns reveal about his life and times by William J. Quirk in American Scholar over 12 million copies have been sold, with approximately 300-400 hundred thousand sold annually. However, Fitzgerald never did match his famous protagonist’s wealth:
“Royalties from The Great Gatsby totaled only $8,397 during Fitzgerald’s lifetime. Today Gatsby is read in nearly every high school and college and regularly produces $500,000 a year in [F. Scott Fitzgerald’s daughter] Scottie’s trust for her children.”
Fitzgerald died young, age 44, in December of 1940.
“His estate was solvent but modest—around $35,000, mostly from an insurance policy. The tax appraisers considered the copyrights worthless. Today, even multiplying Fitzgerald’s estate by 30, it would not require an estate tax return.”
He did write other novels, stories, essays, but The Great Gatsby remains his most important addition to the canon. So why call this work the great American novel?
Jonathan Yardley makes his case by calling attention to the distinctively American elements in the novel in the Washington Post book review “Gatsby”: The Greatest Of Them All (1/2/07) writes:
In an extraordinarily compressed space — the novel is barely 50,000 words long — Fitzgerald gives us a meditation on some of this country’s most central ideas, themes, yearnings and preoccupations: the quest for a new life, the preoccupation with class, the hunger for riches and “the last and greatest of all human dreams…”
Our contemporary American obsession with celebrity and wealth is obvious to students who are assigned The Great Gatsby. Our nation’s economy from boom through a recent recession, echoes the experience the heady times of the Roaring 20’s before the Great Depression. The narrative style is engaging and packed with imagery. Anyone who spent time in a high school literature classroom over the past 50 years can recall taking notes on Fitzgerald’s metaphors and complex symbols. Mangum discusses these in his essay:
The green light, which carries meaning at every level of the story–as Gatsby’s go-ahead sign, as money, as the “green breast of the new world,” as springtime–is strategically placed in chapters one, five, and nine. The eyes of T.J. Eckleburg “brood on over the solemn dumping ground,” which is the wasteland that America has become (514).
The appeal of Jay Gatsby’s character is explained in a chapter in America: A Self-Made Country by political commentator Chris Matthews. He writes:
“The reader, like Nick Carraway, comes to like this guy. We love his dream because we have, all of us, shared something very much like it. Gatsby for me is undeniably the great American novel. We celebrate its hero and his “heightened sensitivity” to the promise of life. his “extraordinary gift for hope”, his “romantic readiness” because we as a country share every bit of it” (20).
The final passage of the novel is Fitzgerald’s commentary on the American dream. Nick’s final stream of consciousness:
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Such imagery naturally lends itself to the movie screen, and The Great Gatsby has had more than its fair share of remakes:
- 2000: Mira Sorvino, Toby Stephens, Paul Rudd (made for TV)
- 1974: Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern
- 1949: Alan Ladd, Betty Field, Macdonald Carey
- 1926: Warner Baxter, Lois Wilson, Neil Hamilton
Now, the latest version is coming May (2013), when the Australian film director Baz Lurhman will put his spin on this American story:
Once more, Jay Gatsby will be glamorously immortalized in his youth; this time digitally mastered rather than in celluoid.
However, should someone want to try an even newer genre in order to experience a 21st Century Gatsby, there is the Nintendo Great Gatsby Game that can be played on a computer. While Gatsby is fixed forever as young and ambitious, he now is also amazingly spry for his years! ( “to jump, move arrow keys together right and left”)
For an “Old Sport”, Gatsby wears his age well.