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Some Books Weren't Great until Decades Later, Mr. Gatsby

by Keith Gatling | 4 years ago

When we think of certain authors, select books immediately come to mind. These are the books they’re best known for...their masterpieces. When I mention Herman Melville, you immediately think of Moby Dick. When I mention F Scott Fitzgerald, you immediately think of The Great Gatsby. But far from being their masterpieces, these were the books that killed their careers, and were only appreciated after they died.

That’s right, despite what you may think, and in spite of how many different high school and college English classes consider this to be required reading, Gatsby was not appreciated in its own time, and only sold about 20,000 copies.

In fact, it was World War II that made The Great Gatsby the phenomenon that it is today. Actually, World War II and the creation of the paperback book. The Council on Books in Wartime felt that providing servicemen with small, cheap books to read would be a morale booster...and it was. While some publishers complained that sending out cheap paperbacks would ruin their business, others predicted that this would turn us into a nation of readers. The latter group was right. Many men read a book for the first time since grade school.

By the time Gatsby was selected and sent to the troops, the war was over, but there were still over a million troops stationed overseas who were bored. In 1944 only 120 copies of Gatsby were sold. But in 1945, 155,000 copies of it were printed and distributed, free, to servicemen. And each of these men passed it along to an average of seven other people. This was an audience that Fitzgerald could only have dreamed of. And when the troops returned home, they were still talking about Gatsby, and recommending it to friends. And of course, some of those returning troops became English teachers and professors; who made sure that even more people read it.

So aside from the war and paperback publishing, why did Gatsby succeed in 1945 when it was a failure 20 years earlier? One theory is time. The Great Gatsby, written in the Jazz Age, about the Jazz Age, was not appreciated by the people it was about...especially since so many of the characters were, as many critics said, “unlikeable.” Perhaps the characterizations hit a little too close to home to the people reading books and shaping opinions then.

But by 1945, the Roaring Twenties were history, and this book was a glimpse back into that history, with all its excess and unlikeable people. Perhaps this was a book that could only have been appreciated at a distance.

For more information, check out this article about The Great Gatsby and World War II.