T.S. Eliot, Edith Wharton & Gertrude Stein Tell F. Scott Fitzgerald That Gatsby is Great, While Critics Called It a Dud (1925)

gatsby cover

This month marks the 90th anniver­sary of the pub­li­ca­tion of F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s mas­ter­piece, The Great Gats­by. Per­haps no oth­er book so embod­ies the ide­al of the Great Amer­i­can Nov­el as Gats­by — and yet, when it first came out 90 years ago, it was regard­ed as a flop. As a head­line writer for the New York World put it, “F. SCOTT FITZGERALD’S LATEST A DUD.”

Fitzger­ald had a lot rid­ing on Gats­by. He and his wife Zel­da were liv­ing beyond their means, and he was des­per­ate­ly hop­ing the book would bring finan­cial secu­ri­ty as well as crit­i­cal respect. On April 10, 1925 he wrote a let­ter to his edi­tor, Maxwell Perkins:

Dear Max
The book comes out today and I am over­come with fears and fore­bod­ings. Sup­pos­ing women did­n’t like the book because it has no impor­tant woman in it, and crit­ics did­n’t like it because it dealt with the rich and and con­tained no peas­ants bor­rowed out of Tess in it and set to work in Ida­ho? Sup­pose it did­n’t even wipe out my debt to you — why it’ll have to sell 20,000 copies even to do that!

The author’s fears and fore­bod­ings were more or less real­ized. The first print run of 20,870 copies sold slow­ly. A sec­ond run of 3,000 was ordered a few months lat­er, but many of those copies were still gath­er­ing dust on the ware­house shelves when Fitzger­ald died in 1940. And while a few crit­ics rec­og­nized Gats­by’s bril­liance, many missed it. H.L. Menck­en, for exam­ple, praised Fitzger­ald’s matur­ing crafts­man­ship as a prose styl­ist but sav­aged the sto­ry itself, call­ing it “no more than a glo­ri­fied anec­dote.”

It must have cheered the author up, then, to receive let­ters of praise from sev­er­al of the most influ­en­tial writ­ers of his time. Fitzger­ald had sent inscribed copies of the book to Edith Whar­ton, Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot — all of whom respond­ed. Of the three, Whar­ton was the most tepid in her praise, with echoes of Menck­en run­ning through her com­ments:

Dear Mr. Fitzger­ald,
   I have been wan­der­ing for the last weeks and found your nov­el — with it’s friend­ly ded­i­ca­tion — await­ing me here on my arrival, a few days ago.
   I am touched at your send­ing me a copy, for I feel that to your gen­er­a­tion, which has tak­en such a fly­ing leap into the future, I must rep­re­sent the lit­er­ary equiv­a­lent of tuft­ed fur­ni­ture and gas chan­de­liers. So you will under­stand that it is in the spir­it of sin­cere dep­re­ca­tion that I shall ven­ture, in a few days, to offer you in return the last prod­uct of my man­u­fac­to­ry.
   Mean­while, let me say at once how much I like Gats­by, or rather His Book, & how great a leap I think you have tak­en this time — in advance upon your pre­vi­ous work. My present quar­rel with you is only this: that to make Gats­by real­ly Great, you ought to have giv­en us his ear­ly career (not from the cra­dle — but from his vis­it to the yacht, if not before) instead of a short résumé of it. That would have sit­u­at­ed him, and made his final tragedy a tragedy instead of a “fate divers” for the morn­ing papers.
   But you’ll tell me that’s the old way, and con­se­quent­ly not your way…

Whar­ton made it clear she thought of Gats­by as a lit­er­ary advance only in respect to Fitzger­ald’s own ear­li­er work. Gertrude Stein allowed only that the new book was “dif­fer­ent and old­er”:

My dear Fitzger­ald:
   Here we are and have read your book and it is a good book. I like the melody of your ded­i­ca­tion and it shows that you have a back­ground of beau­ty and ten­der­ness and that is a com­fort. The next good thing is that you write nat­u­ral­ly in sen­tences and that too is a com­fort. You write nat­u­ral­ly in sen­tences and one can read all of them and that among oth­er things is a com­fort. You are cre­at­ing the con­tem­po­rary world much as Thack­er­ay did his in Pen­den­nis and Van­i­ty Fair and this isn’t a bad com­pli­ment. You make a mod­ern world and a mod­ern orgy strange­ly enough it was nev­er done until you did it in This Side of Par­adise. My belief in This Side of Par­adise was alright. This is as good a book and dif­fer­ent and old­er and that is what one does, one does not get bet­ter but dif­fer­ent and old­er and that is always a plea­sure. Best of luck to you always, and thanks so much for the very gen­uine plea­sure you have giv­en me.

The strongest and least equiv­o­cal praise came from Eliot:

Dear Mr. Scott Fitzger­ald,
   The Great Gats­by with your charm­ing and over­pow­er­ing inscrip­tion arrived the very morn­ing I was leav­ing in some haste for a sea voy­age advised by my doc­tor. I there­fore left it behind and only read it on my return a few days ago. I have, how­ev­er, now read it three times. I am not in the least influ­enced by your remark about myself when I say that it has inter­est­ed and excit­ed me more than any new nov­el I have seen, either Eng­lish or Amer­i­can, for a num­ber of years.
   When I have more time I should like to write to you more ful­ly and tell you exact­ly why it seems to me such a remark­able book. In fact it seems to me to be the first step that Amer­i­can fic­tion has tak­en since Hen­ry James.

Fitzger­ald was espe­cial­ly pleased with that last line. “I can’t express just how good your let­ter made me feel,” he wrote back to Eliot “– it was eas­i­ly the nicest thing that’s hap­pened to me in con­nec­tion with Gats­by.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

See F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Hand­writ­ten Man­u­scripts for The Great Gats­by, This Side of Par­adise & More

Sylvia Plath Anno­tates Her Copy of The Great Gats­by

Haru­ki Muraka­mi Trans­lates The Great Gats­by, the Nov­el That Influ­enced Him Most

83 Years of Great Gats­by Book Cov­er Designs: A Pho­to Gallery 

Down­load 55 Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es: From Dante and Mil­ton to Ker­ouac and Tolkien

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