Last Updated on July 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1168
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 confrontational scene at the Plaza Hotel, Tom condemns Gatsby for being a bootlegger while holding a bottle of whiskey in his hand, a symbol of his hypocrisy.
- Women’s Rights: The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote, was also passed in 1920. It’s worthwhile to remind students that Daisy, Jordan, and Myrtle lived in a world where such a fundamental right was a novelty for women.
- Flappers: The ‘20s was also the era of “flappers,” a term used to describe a generation of women who were breaking taboos against wearing revealing clothing (dresses cut above the knee were considered risqué), drinking and smoking in public, and expressing sexuality. One of the triggers of the movement had been World War I; as men were sent off to battle, back home women took on roles in the labor force that had been traditionally male. After experiencing some of men’s economic liberties and responsibilities, women were staking claim to greater social freedoms as well. Fitzgerald’s work was famous for portraying flappers; one of his early story collections is titled Flappers and Philosophers. Daisy and Jordan both fit the type, but Gatsby’s most detailed portrayal of flapper culture is found in the party scenes, where women are repeatedly shown being free-spirited, boisterous, and drunk—behaviors that wouldn’t have been tolerated a decade earlier.
- Jazz: The Roaring ‘20s was also known as the Jazz Age, a term that Fitzgerald is said to have coined. Jazz at the time, with its energy and experimentation, was both popular and subversive, much like rock and roll would be in the period following World War II. Also like rock, much of the popular jazz in the ‘20s was performed by white musicians appropriating a black musical idiom. The jazz mentioned in the novel—performed at Gatsby’s parties and later wafting up from a wedding reception at the Plaza—is presumably played by white musicians, but its roots in black culture are likely to be one of the prompts for the racist paranoia expressed by Tom several times in the novel.
- Automobiles: Cars play an important part in the resolution of Gatsby, and they’re used as symbols of affluence throughout the story. It can be enlightening for students to learn how the status of cars and driving in 1922, when the novel is set, differs from the current day. In the early ‘20s there were approximately 10 million registered automobiles in the U.S., compared to about 260 million today. There were no traffic signals. (The first was put into use in 1923.) Driver’s licenses weren’t required, and driver education was informal—car salesmen would give instruction to new owners, and most drivers were taught by family and friends. Daisy’s fateful time behind the wheel is an indication of growing freedom for women in the ‘20s. The fact that her driving turns out to be fatal could be interpreted as a sign that Fitzgerald felt some ambivalence about women’s empowerment.
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