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The Failure of The Great Gatsby

“I know Gatsby better than I know my own child. My first instinct was to let him go and have Tom Buchanan dominate the book but Gatsby sticks in my heart. I had him for a while, then lost him, and now I know I have him again.”

– Fitzgerald in a letter to Maxwell Perkins (December 1924)

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Originally titled Trimalchio In The West Egg, F.Scott Fitzgerald began work on The Great Gatsby in June 1922. After the success of his first two novels, Fitzgerald was sure that his new working progress would be the one to cement him as a literary writer.

Many critics and historians have tried to find the links between Fitzgerald’s situations and those his characters find themselves in, of which there are quite a few. But what I find most interesting is how fascinated Fitzgerald seemed to be with the period of time he lived in himself. In October 1922, Fitzgerald, his wife, and new-born moved to Long Island which would become the geographical base of his next novel. The house they lived in was small compared the homes of the wealthy New-Yorkers around them and money caused Fitzgerald no end of stress throughout his life. So it’s no surprise to see these themes make their way into The Great Gatsby; Especially during a time when technology was on the rise in the form of photographs and cars and the rise of consumerism.

The Great Gatsby was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons on April 10th 1925. On the same day, Fitzgerald contacted his editor, Maxwell Perkins, to ask if there had been any news, to which Perkins responded “sales situation doubtful, but excellent reviews.” As I mentioned earlier, Fitzgerald was sure his latest publication would be a commercial success, and hope he would sell as many as 75,000 copies. By October of the same year, The Great Gatsby had sold 20,000 copies. Critic response was incredibly mixed; and what many believe led to the period of self-doubt which Fitzgerald carried until the day he died. As to be expected, the negative reactions to the book were notable: One of the most memorable being from Harvey Eagleton for The Dallas Morning News who wrote “one finishes Great Gatsby with a feeling of regret, not for the fate of the people in the book, but for Mr. Fitzgerald.”

Fitzgerald felt that everyone, both with good and bad things to say, had missed the point he was trying to make with the book and (sorry to any ladies who swoon over him like I do) he blamed the bad reception, in part, on women being the main readers of literature at the time, and that they were put off by the lack of “admirable women” in the story.

Despite all of this, Scribner’s kept the book in print and the first edition remained on their trade list until 1946, by which time The Great Gatsby was available in three other print forms. In total, Fitzgerald earned only $8,397 from the book in his lifetime.

As critics continued to beat down his other books and with a stream of endless rejections, his wife’s illness led to him writing only short stories as a means to gain money quicker to pay for her care. F.Scott Fitzgerald died December 21st 1940 believing he was a failure.

However, this tale has a slightly happier ending. During World War II, publishing executives, under the “Council on Books in Wartime”, distributed paperback books to the fighting soldiers overseas. 155,000 copies of The Great Gatsby were among them. This led to streams of articles being written about Fitzgerald’s works in 1944. The book began to sell 50.000 copies a year and editor Arthur Mizener (The New York Times) labelling it “a classic of twentieth-century American fiction” certainly did a lot to help. As of 2013, The Great Gatsby had sold over 25 million copies worldwide. With the glitzy Baz Lurhman adaptation in 2013 and many educational institutions adding the book to reading lists, Fitzgerald is finding his way into new hearts every day.

F.Scott Fitzgerald died believing that he had failed as a writer. But that was not right. He just hadn’t found his audience yet.

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“America’s greatest promise is that something is going to happen, and after a while you get tired of waiting because nothing happens to American art because America is the story of the moon that never rose.”

-Fitzgeraald in a letter to Marya Mannes (October 1925

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