History of the Text
Publication History and Initial Reception: At the time of The Great Gatsby’s publication in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a rising literary star. Like Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s narrator, Fitzgerald came from Midwestern roots and attended an Ivy League college. After leaving Princeton without a degree and barely missing action in World War I (he was completing training when the war ended), he launched his writing career by selling several short stories to literary magazines. He followed in 1920 with his first novel, This Side of Paradise, which was a surprise bestseller. A second novel published in 1922, The Beautiful and the Damned, also sold well, and he was earning top dollar for the stories he regularly contributed to prominent magazines. Not yet thirty years old, Fitzgerald was famous, well compensated, and—like the characters in The Great Gatsby—leading an extravagant social life in New York.
- Fitzgerald wrote to his editor that he aimed to make Gatsby “a consciously artistic achievement.” Ultimately the book would more than fulfill his ambitions, becoming one of the most read and revered works in the American literary canon, but at the time of its publication, it was a disappointment, garnering mainly positive reviews but not selling as well as his first two novels.
- Gatsby would mark the beginning of a downturn in Fitzgerald’s career. He would continue his substantial output of short stories and essays published in leading magazines, but he wouldn’t complete another novel until 1934’s Tender Is the Night, which drew modest sales and mixed reviews. His personal life was marked by alcoholism, tuberculosis, mounting debts, and a troubled marriage. In the late 1930s he tried to shore up his finances by moving to Hollywood to write movie scripts. It was there that, in December of 1940, he died of a heart attack at the age of 44.
Posthumous Rise in Status: Several factors contributed to the rise in The Great Gatsby’s status in the years following Fitzgerald’s death. Though it hadn’t sold as well as his earlier novels, it was recognized in some obituaries as his greatest achievement, and it had prominent champions in the literary world, including poet T. S. Eliot, critic Lionel Trilling, and editor Malcolm Cowley. Most significant in this group was Edmund Wilson, a classmate of Fitzgerald’s at Princeton, who edited the unfinished manuscript of Fitzgerald’s final novel, The Last Tycoon. It was published in 1941 in a joint edition with a reprint of Gatsby, thus boosting Gatsby’s readership.
- The renewed interest led to its being chosen in 1942 as a book to be given to American soldiers fighting in World War II. Over 150,000 copies were distributed—six times the number that had sold in Fitzgerald’s lifetime. From that point forward, it was firmly established as part of the American literary canon. With 25 million copies in print, it’s the best selling book ever produced by the venerable publishing house Charles Scribner’s Sons.
The Roaring ‘20s: The Great Gatsby is filled with cultural allusions linked to the period in which it was written and set—the Roaring ‘20s, a point in American history that’s both colorful and consequential. The following cultural phenomena of the time are central to the story, but were so familiar to Fitzgerald’s original readers that he needed only to make passing allusions to them:
- Prohibition: The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting manufacture and sale of alcohol, passed in 1920, marking the beginning of the Prohibition Era. Although the word “prohibition” doesn’t appear in The Great Gatsby , it’s key to the story’s plot. In a few years, Gatsby has gone from penniless to rich as a result of bootlegging—the black-market sale of alcohol, which became a thriving business for organized crime in the ‘20s. Without Prohibition, the Gatsby of the novel couldn’t have existed. Also, every character in the novel who drinks is a complicit scofflaw. In the...
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