Fitzgerald Grows Up
On April 10, a few months past the chronological center of the 1920s, Scribner’s published the novel that would epitomize the decade better than any other, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby . So completely does the book symbolize its era that Gatsbyesque has come to be an all-purpose description for anything twenties-related. No other novel in American history is so inextricably identified with its decade—despite the recent efforts of Tom Wolfe.
The title character is Jay Gatsby, a World War I veteran who has become fabulously wealthy in an unspecified but illegal business. At his palatial estate on Long Island Sound, east of New York City, he throws bacchanalian parties for throngs composed almost entirely of strangers. All the while he is plotting to attract the attention of Daisy Buchanan, his old flame from before the war, who lives in a mansion across the bay. Eventually he manages to see her, and tragic complications ensue.
Though unsurpassed as a meditation on wonder and yearning and loss and money, Gatsby is not without flaws. Referring to the novel’s lightweight plot, H. L. Mencken called it “a glorified anecdote.” Fitzgerald’s characterizations are also far from exhaustive—particularly those of Daisy and Gatsby, whose details must be supplied from whatever glamorous femmes fatales and enigmatic creeps the reader has known in the past. Instead, the book’s strength lies in its lush yet compact descriptions of High Twenties lifestyles and mores.
A summer party at Gatsby’s mansion is introduced thus: “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” Here are Gatsby and Daisy sealing their love: “He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.” And of course there is the majestic final sentence: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past"—a line that retains its impact even for readers who have already heard it quoted dozens of times.
Few 1920s reviewers realized that Fitzgerald had written the definitive 1920s novel, though most were pleased that after wasting his time on quickie short stories for popular magazines ("trashy imaginings,” Fitzgerald called them), the promising but unpolished author of This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) had finally gotten his act together. There were dissenters; one critic called The Great Gatsby “sordid and depressing,” while another complained that everyone in it was “more or less rotten.” (A modern scholar expresses this in academic language by saying that the novel “lacks a moral center.") At the other extreme Gilbert Seldes wrote in The Dial that Fitzgerald “has mastered his talents and gone soaring in a beautiful flight, leaving behind him everything dubious and tricky in his earlier work, and leaving even farther behind all the men of his own generation and most of his elders.”
Few book buyers were as enthusiastic as Seldes, and when Gatsby sold poorly, the free-spending Fitzgerald turned to more lucrative work writing short stories and screenplays. Alcohol abuse and mental illness took a heavy toll on him and his wife, Zelda, who beginning in 1930 spent much of her time in institutions. The only other novel Fitzgerald published in his lifetime was Tender Is the Night , which appeared to a mixed reception and mediocre sales in 1934.
In December 1940, halfway through his first draft of The Last Tycoon , he died of a heart attack. By then, sales of his books had dwindled to virtually nothing and he was best remembered for coining the term Jazz Age . Not until after World War II was his reputation suddenly, almost galvanically, revived. Since the 1950s he has been a favorite role model for dissolute would-be writers and others who romanticize self-destructive lifestyles. In view of this, it is not surprising that The Great Gatsby remains a top seller on college campuses and that more copies of it are sold every year than were sold during all of Fitzgerald’s lifetime.