Today in Literary History – April 10, 1925 – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is published to not so great reviews

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece novel about the Jazz Age (a term he coined), was published in New York on April 10, 1925.

Unfortunately for Fitzgerald its original reception was disappointing. It sold only 20,000 copies in the first year, out of an expected 75,000. It did get good reviews from The New York Times and from The Los Angeles Times, but most other reviews were mixed or poor.

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H.L. Mencken, one of the most influential critics of the day, deemed it to be “in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that,” and “certainly not to be put on the same shelf with, say, This Side of Paradise.”

When he began writing Gatsby Fitzgerald told his editor, the venerable Max Perkins, that “I want to write something new – something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” Despairing of the book’s initial reception he later complained to Perkins that “All the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.”

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Sheila Graham recalled Fitzgerald wanting to give her a copy of Gatsby when their love affair was beginning in 1937 and tramping from bookstore to bookstore in New York without finding any that still carried it. In 1941, the year after Fitzgerald died, the critic Peter Quenell dismissed the novel as having “the sadness and the remote jauntiness of a Gershwin tune.”

There were, though, many writers and critics who remained fans of The Great Gatsby, and it received an enormous boost during the Second World War through a government scheme of supplying soldiers overseas with cheap paperback editions of books. Gatsby was among them. In all 155,000 copies of the novel were distributed during the war.

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From the 1950s onward The Great Gatsby has been a staple in high school and University literature courses. It has also been a consistently strong seller for non-academic readers. When the latest movie version of the book, starring Leonard diCaprio, was released in 2013 500,000 copies of the novel were sold, plus 185,000 e-books. As of 2013 The Great Gatsby had sold over 25 million copies worldwide.

Fitzgerald has finally been proved right about The Great Gatsby, but more than 75 years after his death.

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