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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

Just before The Great Gatsby was to appear—with a publication date of April 10, 1925—the Fitzgeralds were in the south of France. Fitzgerald was waiting for news from Max Perkins, his publisher, and cabled him to request “Any News.” The 29-year-old author had won critical acclaim for his first novel, This Side of Paradise, but had faltered with the less-than-perfect The Beautiful and the Damned. He was earnest about being considered one of the top American writers of his time, and needed the boost that his third novel might give him to achieve that status.

During his lifetime, Fitzgerald was generally praised for The Great Gatsby; it is usually considered to be his finest accomplishment and the one most analyzed by literary critics. The established opinion, according to biographer Arthur Mizener in The Far Side of Paradise, is best represented by renowned critic Lionel Trilling: “Except once, Fitzgerald did not fully realize his powers.… But [his] quality was a great one and on one occasion, in The Great Gatsby, it was as finely crystallized in art as it deserved to be.” Saturday Review critic William Rose Benét said that the book “revealed matured craftsmanship.” Even harsh critics like Ernest Hemingway and H. L. Mencken praised the writer, as quoted by Mizener. Said the notoriously abrasive Mencken in a letter to the author: “I think it is incomparably the best piece of work you have done.” Nevertheless, he qualified this compliment with a complaint that the basic story was “somewhat trivial, that it reduces itself, in the end, to a sort of anecdote.” Ring Lardner liked it “enormously” but his praise was too thin, for Fitzgerald's tastes: “The plot held my interest … and I found no tedious moments. Altogether I think it's the best thing you've done since Paradise.” Some of the initial reviews in newspapers called the book unsubstantial, since Fitzgerald dealt with unattractive characters in a superficially glittery setting. His friend, Edmund Wilson, called it “the best thing you have done—the best planned, the best sustained, the best written.” All reviews, good and bad, affected Fitzgerald deeply.

From an artistic perspective, Fitzgerald's third novel was as close to a triumph as he would ever get. Financially, however, the book was a failure since he was over $6200 in debt to Scribner's, his publisher, and sales of the book did not cover this by October of 1925. By February, a few more books were sold and then sales leveled out. The summer of 1925 for Fitzgerald was one of “1000 parties and no work.” His drinking continued to affect his work. For the rest of his life, nothing he wrote quite measured up to Gatsby . In fact, when he walked into a book shop in Los Angeles and requested one...

(The entire section is 683 words.)