F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing ‘The Great Gatsby’
Here's what F. Scott Fitzgerald thought about his classic American novel "The Great Gatsby."
While we can’t ask F. Scott Fitzgerald what he thinks about the latest adaptations of his work, we can know what he thought about a novel he considered to be his “imaginary eldest brother,” courtesy of excerpts from his letters collected in F. Scott Fitzgerald On Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillipps. “From the start Fitzgerald wanted The Great Gatsby to be a ‘consciously artistic achievement,’ something ‘beautiful and simple and intricately patterned,’” according to the book’s forward, written by Charles Scribner III. (Every writer should own a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald On Writing; better yet, write out the entire novel of The Great Gatsby, like Hunter S. Thompson did to learn what beautiful writing felt like. Then, get Trimalchio, an early version, to read all the fat Fitzgerald cut.)
Though he had high hopes and put his entire heart into writing it, Fitzgerald would be shocked to see the immortality this novel has been granted, other than being the highlight of his epitaph. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, when Fitzgerald was 29 years old, and had mixed reviews and mediocre sales. Fitzgerald was only 44 when he died an alcoholic, struggling to write and stay relevant, as unsold boxes of Gatsby rotted away in a warehouse. Five years later, the U.S. military saved the book from obscurity by ordering 150,000 copies for the troops, likely to promote the romanticism of a young war veteran who, though tragically, achieves the American dream. On average, 500,000 copies are sold each year, and sales are way ahead of reaching that number this year thanks to the film.
Part of its enduring legacy is due to The Great Gatsby being a Rorschach test. Some see it as a celebration of the decadence of wealth, and others see it as a fable warning of the repercussions of that shallow lifestyle. But everyone gets it all wrong, according to what I personally take away from the book. Here's one of its greatest and most overlooked quotes: “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly inadaptable to Eastern life.” Being a Northern Californian, from a small cow town no less, living in New York for the past seven years, this, to me, is what the book is all about. But judge for yourself.
Now, in the author’s own words, here’s Fitzgerald on critics, how to succeed in the publishing industry, and writing The Great Gatsby:
“While I have every hope and plan of finishing my novel [The Great Gatsby] in June, you know how those things often come out, and even if it takes me ten times that long I cannot let it go out unless it has the very best I’m capable of in it, or even, as I feel sometimes, something better than I’m capable of.
To his editor Max Perkins, 1924
Letters, p. 182
“What I cut out of it [The Great Gatsby] both physically and emotionally would make another novel!”
In His Own Time, p. 156
“I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in and you felt it. If I’d known and kept it from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure, I’m going to tell more.”
To Max Perkins, 1925
Letters, p. 193
“My new novel appears in late March: The Great Gatsby. It represents about a year’s work and I think it’s about ten years better than anything I’ve done. All my harsh smartness has been kept ruthlessly out of it—it’s the greatest weakness in my work, distracting and disfiguring it even when it calls up an isolated sardonic laugh. I don’t think this has a touch left. I wanted to call it Trimalchio (it’s laid out on Long Island) but I was voted down by Zelda and everybody else.”
To Ernest Boyd, 1925
Letters, pg. 497
“If the book [The Great Gatsby] fails commercially it will be from one of two reasons or both.
First, the title is only fair, rather bad than good.
Second and most important, the book contained no important woman character, and women control the fiction market at present. I don’t think the unhappy end matters particularly.”
To Max Perkins, 1925
Letters, p. 201
“Suggested line for [book] jacket: ‘Show transition from his early exuberant stories of youth which created a new type of American girl and the later and more serious mood which produced The Great Gatsby and marked him as one of the half-dozen masters of the English prose now writing in America…What other writer has shown such unexpected developments, such versatility, changes of pace,’ etc., etc., etc. I think that, toned down as you see fit, is the general line. Don’t say ‘Fitzgerald has done it!’ and then in the next sentence that I am an artist. People who are interested in artists aren’t interested in people who have ‘done it.’ Both are O.K. but don’t belong in the same ad. This is an author’s quibble. All authors have one quibble.
However, you have always done well by me (except for Black’s memorable excretion in the Alumni Weekly, do you remember—‘Make it a Fitzgerald Christmas!’) and I leave it to you.”
To Max Perkins on The Great Gatsby, 1925
Letters, p. 211
“To circle nearer to this book [The Great Gatsby], one woman who could hardly have written a coherent letter in English, described it as a book that one reads only as one goes to the movies around the corner. That type of criticism is what a lot of young writers are being greeted with, instead of any appreciation of the world of imagination in which they (the writers) have been trying, with greater or lesser success, to live…”
In His Own Words, p. 156
“…In dealing with figures as remote as a bootlegger and crook to most of us [The Great Gatsby], I was not afraid of heightening and melodramatizing any scenes; and I was thinking that in your novel I would like to pass on this theory to you for what it is worth. Such advice from fellow craftsmen has been a great help to me in the past, indeed I believe it was Ernest Hemingway who developed to me, in conversation, that the dying fall was preferable to the dramatic ending under certain conditions, and I think we both got the germ of the idea from Conrad.”
To John Peale Bishop, 1934
Letters, p. 388-389
“I agree with you entirely, as goes without saying, in your analysis of Gatsby. He was perhaps created on the image of some forgotten farm type of Minnesota that I have known and forgotten, and associated at the same moment with some sense of romance. It might interest you to know that a story of mine, called ‘Absolution,’ in my book All the Sad Young Men was intended to be a picture of his early life, but that I cut it because I preferred to preserve a sense of mystery.”
To John Jamieson, 1934
Letters, p. 529
“[My books] have alternated between being selective and blown up. Paradise and Gatsby were selective; The Beautiful and Damned and Tender aimed at being full and comprehensive—either could be cut by one-fourth, especially the former. (Of course they were cut that much but not enough.) The difference is that in these last two I wrote everything, hoping to cut to interest. In This Side of Paradise (in a crude way) and in Gatsby I selected the stuff to fit a given mood or “hauntedness” or whatever you might call it, rejecting in advance in Gatsby, for instance, all of the ordinary material for Long Island, big crooks, adultery theme and always starting from the small focal point that impressed—my own meeting with Arnold Rothstein for instance.”
To Corey Ford, 1937
Letters, p. 573
"Books are like brothers. I am an only child. Gatsby [is] my imaginary eldest brother."
The Crack-up, p. 84
“I expect to be back on my novel [The Last Tycoon] any day and this time to finish, a two month’s job. The months go so fast that even Tender is the Night is six years away. I think the nine years that intervened between The Great Gatsby and Tender hurt my reputation almost beyond repair because a whole generation grew up in the meanwhile to whom I was only a writer of Post stories. I don’t suppose anyone will be much interested in what I have to say this time and it may be the last novel I’ll ever write, but it must be done now because, after fifty, one is different. One can’t remember emotionally, I think, except about childhood but I have a few more things left to say.”
To Zelda Fitzgerald, 1940
Letters, p. 146
Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.