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Critical Insights: The Great Gatsby
The Critical Reception of
The Great Gatsby
By Amy M. Green
The Great Gatsby now holds an undeniable place among the masterpieces of twentieth-century American literature. The green light at the end of Daisy's dock and the spell it casts over Gatsby as he tries to force the world into his version of the American Dream endures as an iconic symbol of both optimism and failure. Despite the critical accolades now showered upon The Great Gatsby, the novel followed a path to success marked along the way by stinging criticism and lackluster sales at the time of its publication. Fitzgerald understood that his new novel would prove problematical for publishers, as "his story contained material that put it well outside the moral boundaries" (Hook, 63) of the commercial literary magazines of his day. Given Fitzgerald's often perilous financial situation, concerns about the marketability of the novel held potentially grave consequences for the author. Indeed, several literary magazines would not serialize The Great Gatsby due to concerns about moral issues raised by the story, including adultery and overt sexuality. The novel finally did find a home and was published by Charles Scribner's Sons on April 10, 1925. On the craft of writing, Fitzgerald commented, "An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the school masters of ever afterward" (Scribner, 22). These words proved prophetic as they relate to evolving critical and popular opinion of The Great Gatsby.
Literary luminaries within Fitzgerald's immediate circle, including Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and T. S. Eliot, immediately showered his new novel with praise. Given that these authors emerged as the vanguard of the modernist movement in literature, their praise bolstered Fitzgerald's sense of having accomplished something truly literary. Unfortunately, the high esteem in which fellow authors held The Great Gatsby did not transfer to the reading public at large or the novel's profitability as "sales remained deeply disappointing," despite the often enthusiastic responses from friends and fellow writers (Hook, 71). Overall, however, the critical response to Gatsby immediately following its publication proved less than resounding endorsements for the novel. Influential critic H. L. Mencken reviewed the novel shortly after its publication and commented that the story was "no more than a glorified anecdote" (Mizener 1963, 2), finding the overall plot arc lacking in depth. However, Mencken did not believe that the novel was wholly without merit. He believed that it marked the evolution of Fitzgerald as an author and craftsman, writing that "the story, for all its basic triviality, has a fine texture, a careful and brilliant finish" (Mencken, 157). Furthermore, Mencken praised Fitzgerald's depiction of the decadence of the rich, including their ennui, their questionable morals, and their ever-changing habits—portraits he found accurate. Critic Laurence Stallings, who like Mencken reviewed The Great Gatsby in 1925, concurred with the prevalent critical view that the novel showcased Fitzgerald's ability to improve upon his previous novels and short stories. Stallings's overall praise of the novel proves conditional at best. He asserted that "the earlier Fitzgerald was barbarous; those who followed him have aped his barbarity (Stallings, 155). Yet despite the improvements Stallings found in The Great Gatsby, he concluded that the novel did not rise to the level of masterpiece. He wrote, "I do not think for one moment in reading this book that ‘here is a great novel’ or even, that ‘here is a fine book’" (154) and believed that the novel felt unfinished, much like a plan without fineness of execution, a view mirrored by Mencken.
Fitzgerald's acknowledgment of the novel's problematic issues of morality and sexuality contributed to The Great Gatsby's lackluster reception by critics. One anonymous reviewer, writing in 1926, focused on his or her utter contempt for the characters in the novel, finding them unlikeable. The reviewer contended that the novel needed "perhaps an excess of intensity to buoy up the really very unpleasant characters of this story" (New Novels, 176). Modern critics would likely view such criticism as backhanded praise, given that Fitzgerald's story hinges upon the decadence and corruption of nearly every character the reader meets. It will also be the modern critic who recognizes Fitzgerald's realization in Gatsby of a theme he visited in earlier works, that of the decline of the wealthy, lazy, and ignorant brought to life by defining "convincingly the reasons for their defeat" (Mizener 1972, 61). However, at the time of its publication, the reading public seemed genuinely taken aback by Fitzgerald's frank depiction of moral decay. Other reviewers proved even less kind in their assessment, evidenced by the headline of a New York newspaper in 1925 which stated simply, "F. Scott Fitzgerald's Latest a Dud" (Hook, 70).
The Great Gatsby remained in critical and literary purgatory until the 1940s, when interest in the novel began to pick up in earnest, a trend which continued into the 1950s (Mizener 1963, 2–3). Critics G. Thomas Tanselle and Jackson R. Bryer see the year 1945 as pivotal to Gatsby scholarship and that a "revival" in the novel may have been ushered in by the publication of a scholarly essay praising heretofore neglected merits of the novel. Specifically, interest centered on "Fitzgerald's preoccupation with failure" and the difficulties of living in an industrialized "modern" world (Tanselle and Bryer, 182, 190). In Gatsby, Fitzgerald masterfully realizes both of these themes in the crafting of his titular character and indeed, critics took notice of Gatsby himself as a source for close examination. Where previous critics faulted the novel for its perceived lack of scope, the literary scholars of the 1940s recognized the complexity of Gatsby, "for Gatsby, divided between power and dream, comes inevitably to stand for American itself" (Trilling, 17). Whatever the plot may lack in terms of a far-reaching arc across time or exotic locales it makes up for in abundance with its "intellectual intensity" (17). Shortly thereafter in 1948, critic George Garrett recalls attending a class at Princeton in which Fitzgerald's works, including Gatsby, were taught for the first time (Garrett, 29), marking the start of Gatsby making headway into the classrooms of academia.
Interest in the novel continued into the 1950s. During this decade, scholarly commentary on Gatsby began to focus on the irony inherent in the character of Gatsby—a romantic man surrounded by, and even participating in, corruptive acts. The American Dream, once revered as an attainable, an almost holy icon of American culture, now found itself subject to scrutiny. Gatsby exemplifies the man who obtains, at least for awhile, the outward trappings of financial wealth only to see the empire he envisions for himself ultimately fail to materialize. Leslie Fiedler, writing in 1951, posited that Gatsby needed time in order to "catch on" with the reading public and critics alike in large part due to "Fitzgerald's refusal to swap his own lived sentimentalities for the mass sentimentalities of social protest that swamp the later Hemingway" (Fiedler, 75). Fiedler's insight into Fitzgerald prefigures by a scant few years the emergence of feminism as a counter to the idealized image of woman as happiest in the role of housewife, a hallmark of the American Dream of her decade. Additionally, critics of this era started to view Gatsby through a wider lens, where previous studies looked only at issues of biography or Fitzgerald's place as an author in the Jazz Age (Perosa, 222). Fitzgerald exposes the darkest aspects of human nature in Gatsby—from the fragile, ephemeral nature of dreams to the inability of wealth to provide any sort of lasting happiness—and this resonated with critics of the 1950s. The 1960s, a decade of social protest, continued to tear down the myth of the American Dream and the acceptability of the status quo. With some four decades now passed since the initial publication of the novel, critics and readers alike seemed better able to recognize the universality of Gatsby's flaws without fixating on Fitzgerald's depiction of "unreal characters" (Tanselle, 181). Arguably, Fitzgerald never set out with the intention of writing a novel which strictly adhered to the tenets of realism, a discipline steadily giving way to the modernist-era by 1925. Yet his contemporaries seemed extraordinarily uncomfortable with the novel, perhaps less out of a dislike for its break with realism and more out of discomfiture at the possibility of the decadent world inhabited by Gatsby, the Buchanans, and Nick Carraway.
Jackson R. Bryer describes the 1970s as an era of "consistent and serious attention" to Fitzgerald's writings (248). Bryer himself is a critical figure in Fitzgerald scholarship, compiling criticism, book reviews, and scholarly pieces. He asserts that Gatsby benefits from critical focus much more so than all other Fitzgerald fiction but Tender Is the Night (259). The year 1973 emerged as a pivotal one for Gatsby studies. Scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli published an edited edition of Gatsby which included both rejected passages and emendations made to the text as it moved from manuscript form to publication in 1925. Bruccoli's painstaking work with Gatsby lead to many interesting points for textual study, including the discovery that Daisy's green dock light was not a part of the novel in its earliest form (Perosa, 233). In addition to the new edition of Gatsby, Bruccoli also contributed bibliographies, detailed listings of all of Fitzgerald's works, and editions of the author's letters. These scholarly works greatly facilitated those working in the field of Fitzgerald studies by providing a storehouse of information heretofore uncollected. From the 1970s to the present day, Gatsby criticism continues to branch out to include individual character studies, to close readings, to essays placing the novel in "the context of a wider vision of America and the American Dream" (Bryer, 262) freeing the work from the confines of the Jazz Age alone. By 1980, over fifty books "entirely devoted to Fitzgerald" had been published (247).
Critics continue to turn to Gatsby as a source of literary study. The complexity of the story and its biting social commentary lend itself to any number of critical perspectives, from New Historicism, to Feminism, to Queer Theory and beyond. Gatsby allows the reader to "clearly discern where we have been and where we have come from" (Garrett, 35) and the continuing healthy sales of the novel attest to its continuing power. Journal articles, books, and edited collections covering the spectrum of topics relating to Gatsby continue to emerge and the novel remains a critical component of literary studies, from the high school to collegiate levels. Critic Arthur Mizener, writing in the late 1990s, commented about the accessibility of Gatsby, since Fitzgerald so masterfully "makes the fate of his chosen people an image of the fate of Western society" (Mizener 1999, 93).
Gatsby eventually becomes the book "that would acquire classic status, and had written off those critics who had regarded [Fitzgerald] as too immature and unintellectual ever to produce a major literary work" (Hook, 79). Yet Fitzgerald did not enjoy such critical accolades during his lifetime, as the tide of opinion toward Gatsby turned only in the years following his death. Although members of the intellectual and literary elite immediately recognized Gatsby as a profound contribution, the public needed time and distance in order to come to the same level of appreciation. Recent decades have seen more copies of Fitzgerald's works, of which Gatsby remains a perennial favorite, sold each year than were sold during the whole of the author's lifetime. Publishing scion Charles Scribner III cautions that critics and readers alike should avoid approaching Fitzgerald's writings with the intention of looking for flaws. Instead, one should celebrate the poetic beauty of his prose, his ability to transform the ordinary and transport the reader (Scribner, 24). Rather than scorning the novel for its perceived lack of realism or complexity, readers and critics alike began from the 1940s onward to understand the profound social commentary embedded within the story of Gatsby's rise and fall. The varied and intensive scholarly study which continues to focus on the novel acts as a testament to the genius of its author.
Bryer, Jackson R. 1980. "Four Decades of Fitzgerald Studies: The Best and the Brightest." Twentieth Century Literature 26, no. 2, F. Scott Fitzgerald Issue (Summer): 247–267.
Fiedler, Leslie. 1963. "Some Notes on F. Scott Fitzgerald." In F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Arthur Mizener. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall. 70–76.
Garrett, George. 2000. "The Good Ghost of Scott Fitzgerald." In F. Scott Fitzgerald: New Perspectives, edited by Jackson R. Bryer et. al. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 28–35.
Hook, Andrew. 2002. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Mencken, H. L. 1991. "As H. L.M. Sees It." In F. Scott Fitzgerald: Critical Assessments, edited by Henry Claridge. Vol. 2. East Sussex: Helm Information Ltd. 156–159.
Mizener, Arthur. 1963. Introduction to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
____________. 1999. F. Scott Fitzgerald. 1972. New York: Thames and Hudson.
"New Novels." 1991. In F. Scott Fitzgerald: Critical Assessments, edited by Henry Claridge. Vol. 2. East Sussex: Helm Information Ltd., 176–177.
Perosa, Sergio. 1980. "Fitzgerald Studies in the 1970s." Twentieth Century Literature 26, no. 2, F. Scott Fitzgerald Issue (Summer): 222–246.
Scribner, Charles III. 2000. "F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Publisher's Perspective." In F. Scott Fitzgerald: New Perspectives, edited by Jackson R. Bryer et. al. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 22–27.
Stallings, Laurence. 1991. "The First Reader—Great Scott." In F. Scott Fitzgerald: Critical Assessments, edited by Henry Claridge. Vol. 2. East Sussex: Helm Information Ltd. 153–155.
Tanselle, G. Thomas, and Jackson R. Bryer. 1991. "The Great Gatsby: A Study in Literary Reputation." In F. Scott Fitzgerald: Critical Assessments, edited by Henry Claridge. Vol. 2. East Sussex: Helm Information Ltd. 181–194.
Trilling, Lionel. 1963. "F. Scott Fitzgerald." In F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Arthur Mizener. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall. 11–19.
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