Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Godfather appeared at a turbulent time, when racial tensions flared, crime rates rose, young people indulged in sex and drugs, and an unpopular war in Vietnam made citizens lose faith in their government. The Godfather, with his solid family and supreme power on both sides of the law, loomed in the public imagination as a figure ironically sympathetic and even nostalgic. Seldom has a literary character had such a major impact on popular culture.

The novel stayed on bestseller lists a record sixty-seven weeks, and more than twenty million copies were sold, though academic reviewers largely ignored it and press notices usually treated it sensationally, not seriously. The book inspired scores of imitations in both fiction and nonfiction, such as Peter McCurtin’s The Mafioso (1972), Gay Talese’s Honor Thy Father (1972), Richard Condon’s Prizzi’s Honor (1982).

The 1972 movie based on the novel broke box-office records, received critical acclaim, and launched a screenwriting career for Puzo. He won Oscars for the screenplays of both The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II (1974), and he scripted eight other films, most notably The Godfather: Part III (1990), The Cotton Club (1984), also about ethnicity and crime, and two Superman movies.

Critics praised the artistic brilliance of Puzo’s first two books: The Dark Arena (1955), a melodrama set in occupied Germany after World War II, and an autobiographical novel The Fortunate Pilgrim (1964), which included some Mafia material. Yet sales were slow, and when an agent suggested amplifying the Mafia theme, Puzo began The Godfather, writing from research without actual contact with real Mafiosi. He later admitted writing it to make money, without fully using his artistic gifts. Puzo returned to his crime theme in subsequent novels, Fools Die (1978), about Las Vegas, Hollywood, and the world of publishing, The Sicilian (1984), a picaresque tale, and The Last Don (1996), which draws complex correlations between industrial tycoons and their underworld counterparts.