Love it or hate it, The Great Gatsby is considered by many, including yours truly, to be the greatest novel of all time. As widely misunderstood and panned as it is praised, both the novel and its author owe its fame to a couple of World Wars–even though, interestingly, neither directly touched the conflicts that defined them.
To explain, let me go back to the beginning…
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul Minnesota on September 24, 1896. Yes, you read that right. F. Scott Fitzgerald was named after Francis Scott Key, the lawyer and writer who penned the lyrics to “The Star Spangled Banner” and the future author’s second cousin three times removed (whatever that means). Despite an early obvious talent for writing, Fitzgerald was a terrible speller and may have suffered from dyslexia, which may partly explain his poor grades in both grade school and college. He also, however, had a laissez faire attitude about attendance, often skipping classes at Princeton University. His record was so poor, in fact, that he was in danger of flunking out before abandoning his studies to join the military when the United States entered World War I in 1917.
It was during his time in the army that Fitzgerald began to write seriously. Worried he might die in battle, he fretted that his dreams of achieving literary glory would go unrealized. This fear, however, was unfounded, as he never saw battle–the November 1918 armistice was signed before he was shipped overseas. Nevertheless, his military career helped produce his first commercially successful book, This Side of Paradise, and introduced him to Zelda Sayre, the woman who would later go on to become his wife and his muse, his passion and his pain.
His life with Zelda and rise to fame inspired his most famous work, The Great Gatsby, a literary classic and staple of high school English curriculums everywhere. It is now widely known as the quintessential Great American Novel and the subject of unabashed bias on my part, as I readily admit it to my favorite book of all time. Even those who haven’t read it can usually identify a character or two, as well as the iconic eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg gracing the cover.
But Fitzgerald owes nearly all of these accolades to the military as well, the Second World War defining his life and career as much as the first, even though the United States didn’t even enter the war until after his death.
When The Great Gatsby was released in 1925, it was an undeniable flop. Despite winning rave reviews from the likes of T.S. Eliot and Edith Wharton, the novel performed poorly compared to Fitzgerald’s first two novels, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned, selling just over 20,000 copies, far fewer than Fitzgerald’s anticipated 75,000. It was also panned by critics. The New York Evening World called the book “a valiant effort to be ironical,” but “his style is painfully forced.” The daytime version of the paper ran a headline that called the book “a dud.” The Chicago Tribune pronounced it “no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that…. Certainly not to be put on the same shelf with, say, This Side of Paradise.”
But the criticisms didn’t stop with the book. They also attacked Fitzgerald himself. Ralph Coghlan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the book “a minor performance” and wrote “at the moment, its author seems a bit bored and tired and cynical.” The Dallas Morning News went one step further; Harvey Eagleton said the novel signaled the end of Fitzgerald’s success: “One finishes Great Gatsby with a feeling of regret, not for the fate of the people in the book, but for Mr. Fitzgerald.”
It’s no wonder that when Fitzgerald died in December of 1940, he was depressed, in debt, and struggling with alcoholism. In his estimation, he died without ever achieving the true literary success about which he’d dreamed.
But in the spring of 1942, an association of booksellers, publishers, librarians, authors, and others created the Council on Books in Wartime, a non-profit organization whose goal was to “channel the use of books as weapons in the war of ideas.” In short, it wanted to use books to influence the thinking of the American public, especially in regards to its involvement in the war, by buoying the notion of the American spirit and way of life. In addition to becoming an intermediary between book industry and the government by handling the distribution of reading lists, pamphlets, lectures, radio programs, and newsreels, the Council also created a “War Book Panel,” which chose titles officially recommended by the Council.
The Council’s most successful program, however, was the Armed Services Edition, a collection of small paperback books of fiction and nonfiction that were distributed in the American military in order to provide entertainment to soldiers serving overseas, while also educating them about political, historical, and military issues. Titles included classics, contemporary bestsellers, biographies, drama, poetry, and genre fiction (mysteries, sports, fantasy, action/adventure, westerns), and included works from authors such as William Faulkner, Jack London, Edgar Allan Poe, John Steinbeck, Bram Stoker, Mark Twain, H. G. Wells…
…and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
That’s right. Starting in 1943, over 155,000 copies of The Great Gatsby were distributed to U.S. soldiers overseas, and the book proved to be surprisingly popular among war-weary troops–and those same troops brought that love with them when they returned home. By the late 1940’s, a full-scale Fitzgerald revival had occurred. Posthumous editions of his novels, including Gatsby, were released to great public acclaim, and his works became the subject of both critical and scholarly study. By 1960–a full 35 years after its original publication–Gatsby was selling a steady 50,000 copies per year, outpacing even Fitzgerald’s wildest goal during its debut year.
And it all started with a couple thousand tired and bored soldiers picking up a free book, even one they may have possibly heard was terrible. As the iconic Nick Carraway states in chapter one: “Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.” Gatsby brought hope to troops, and they, in turn, brought posthumous hope back to his creator and to the millions of readers now enthralled with Fitzgerald’s writing.