As Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic bursts on to our screens, it’s not hard to see why this cautionary tale of the decadent downside of the American dream has returned to haunt us, writes Sarah Churchwell.
They called him an “ultra-modernist” and dismissed his books as overrated and forgettable, just “so much unnecessary evanescence travelling first class”. When his third novel was published, on 10 April 1925, a characteristic review complained: “The boy is simply puttering around. It is all right as a diversion for him, probably … But why he should be called an author, or why any of us should behave as if he were, has never been satisfactorily explained to me.” At the last minute, he had asked his editor if they could change the new novel’s title to Under the Red, White and Blue, but it was too late. F Scott Fitzgerald’s ultra-modernist novel about jazz-age America would be called The Great Gatsby, and one anonymous reviewer spoke for most of its first readers in describing it as “one of the thousands of modern novels which must be approached with the point of view of the average tired person toward the movie-around-the-corner, a deadened intellect, a thankful resigning of the attention, and an aftermath of wonder that such things are produced”.
The Great Gatsby would indeed create an aftermath of wonder – in ways that its initial audience could not have imagined. Almost 90 years later, Gatsby is regularly named one of the greatest novels ever written in English, and has annually sold millions of copies globally. This slim novel of fewer than 50,000 words, a story of secret visions and gaudy revels, of sudden violence and constant envy, shimmers with a magic that readers have long recognised. But over the past two years, both The Great Gatsby and its author have been seeing a marked resurgence of interest. In the last 12 months in Britain alone, there have been stage versions at Wilton’s Music Hall and the King’s Head theatre in London, the eight-hour reading, Gatz, was staged by the American Elevator Repair Company last year to rave reviews, and the Northern Ballet’s dance adaptation will open soon at Sadler’s Wells. Some of Fitzgerald’s long-overlooked poems, letters and stories are suddenly being published and are circulating online. Several new books are in the works, one about The Great Gatsby‘s enduring appeal, and two about Fitzgerald’s time in Hollywood, while my own book, which traces the genesis of The Great Gatsby, is about to be published. Gatsby has been thoroughly inspected and crawled over, lifted up and shaken out for every last detail it can surrender to its fascinated readers, but this remarkable novel has some surprises left.
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