The early reviews of Gatsby were, for the most part, not encouraging. Mencken declared it to be no more than "a glorified anecdote," made up of characters who are "mere marionettes" with a story that "does not go below the surface." Other reviewers called it Fitzgerald's "latest dud" or "only as permanent as a newspaper story," or, perhaps the most amusing appraisal, "more or less rotten." When Fitzgerald died in 1940, the book (and all of his books) was out of print. It was not evaluated (by and large) as a great novel until about 10 years after Fitzgerald's death, when critics became interested in the man--and then after that the novel. What do you think accounts for this? What aspects of our culture in the 50s allowed critics to begin to see the extraordinary beauty of the work (some now call ("perfect"!)?
It makes sense that the book would not be appreciated in Fitgerald's time, in a way. People were not willing to look at the excesses of the generation. It was not until after, when the book stuck around, that people began to realize that it had merit.
Greg brings up a nice point, suggesting that novels which emphasized "surface elements" did not come in to popularity until the 1950's. (This does raise questions about why Hemingway could sometimes get away with intimation instead of exposition, but, even so, I agree with Greg on the whole.)
I would echo the comment that surface elements came into preference well after The Great Gatsby was published. 19th century literature was highly interested in direct psychological exposition. Look at Tolstoy and Austen and Dostoyevsky.
This kind of interest in psychology and in dissection waned in the 20th century, after a while anyway. That is not to say that direct exposition is uncommon today, but if you look at the novels which have created a buzz and won awards in the last 30 years, few of them feature "psychological depth" as Menken may have desired and instead feature new ways to play with surface in a narrative, ways that will intimate, suggest, and tease out deeper ideas and which avoid direct statements.
Look at Gilead, White Noise and 2666. These novels choose to use surface elements to delve into cultural issues while resisting direct exposition and direct, broad-based statements.
While some, like Mencken, were not crazy about Gatsby, a good many reviews were indeed positive. In Dial, a few months after publication, Gilbert Seldes said, "Fitzgerald has more than matured; he has mastered his talents and gone soaring in a beautiful flight, leaving behind him everything dubious and tricky in his earlier wor, and leaving even farther behind all the men of his own generation and most of his elders." T.S. Eliot, not an easy man to please, declared Gatsby to be, "the first step American fiction since Henry James."
As to why the 50s chose to focus on the positive, I would say that part of the appeal is the reclamation of the uniquely American voice.
Interesting connection, Greg. And now we value the surface as a form of its meaning concerning the material aspect of life...Art(visual) in general was all about surface in the post war period, wasn't it?
Ah, great question. I always tend to think (or at least hope) that reviewers actually recognize qualities in the works, but that they see and value them differently than others. The elements you quoted in these early reviews are precisely those that might allow a later generation to esteem Gatsby so highly. For example, the accent on surface is definitely there—but will seem much more precious in the 1950s, when the Communist witch hunt is prying beneath the surface, people are keeping false fronts in place, and the high gloss of Leave It to Beaver is emerging. Likewise, characters who move on their inexorable paths to destruction will seem much more human after World War II, when the world got to watch Europe do just that.