“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Ah, Gatsby. We love revisiting a classic in our book clubs and right now is a great moment to take another look at perennial favorite The Great Gatsby. You may have first read this book in school, but we promise it will be a whole new reading experience now no matter your age.
In honor of our new edition, John Grisham wrote a new introduction that shares a bit of the history around the publication of The Great Gatsby that you might not already know. Read it below and pick up a copy of the book to spend a little time in West Egg this spring.
In his short life, F. Scott Fitzgerald published only four novels: This Side of Paradise (1920), The Beautiful and Damned (1922), The Great Gatsby (1925), and Tender Is the Night (1934). When he died at forty- four, his fifth, The Last Tycoon, was unfinished. It was completed by his friend Edmund Wilson and published in 1941. To survive financially, Scott, as he was called by everyone, wrote and sold more than one hundred short stories, most of which he disliked, and worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter, something else he detested. His final royalty check was for $13.13.
Success and money came early and did not last. His first novel impressed the critics, sold well, and launched what promised to be a notable career by a talented twenty- four year old writer. Two years later, his second novel made him even more famous, and he became the toast of the publishing world. He had married Zelda Sayre, a pretty and exuberant young lady with a bit of family money, and together they partied their way through the gilded social circles of New York. They were celebrities and considered the ideal poster couple for the Jazz Age, a term Scott coined.
In 1923, he began planning his next and most ambitious novel, one for which he had no title. He thought of several bad ones, including Trimalchio in West Egg, but Zelda and Maxwell Perkins, his longtime editor at Scribner’s, mercifully talked him out of it. Later, he was enthusiastic about Under the Red, White, and Blue, but thankfully, it came too late. The book had already gone to press as The Great Gatsby. He didn’t like that title and described it as “only fair, rather bad than good.”
At the beginning, he told Maxwell Perkins that his new novel would be a “consciously artistic achievement” and a “purely creative work— not trashy imaginings as in my stories but the sustained imagination of a sincere and yet radiant world.” In another letter to Perkins, he said that he wanted to write “something new, something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.”
He started to work on the book but quickly, and explicably, got sidetracked by a disastrous trip to Broadway. He wrote a bad play, The Vegetable, that bombed and consumed months of his time and most of his money. To pay his bills, he worked around the clock cranking out short stories for magazines. “All trash,” he called the stories. “And it nearly broke my heart.”
When his debts were paid, he and Zelda abruptly moved to the French Riviera so he could write without distractions. From August to October of 1924, he worked feverishly on Gatsby. He was driven by the anxiety of the time just wasted with his play and, more important, by the desire to establish himself not only as a serious writer, but one with a large following.
Fitzgerald wanted what every writer dreams of and almost none attain: critical acclaim, plus large royalty checks.
He knew the book was good but wanted it to be much more— an enduring work of fiction, a great American novel. In letters to friends he had no reservations about describing it as “great.” He worried, though, as most writers do, that reviewers and readers would not recognize the book for what it really was.
The Great Gatsby was published on April 10, 1925, and Fitzgerald, still in France, immediately began sending cables to Perkins to gauge its reception. He imagined mobs of eager book buyers flooding the stores and critics enraptured by his magnum opus. He was greatly disappointed.
The reviews were decidedly mixed. One critic called it “a curious book, a mystical, glamorous story of today.” One dissed it with, “One finishes Gatsby with a feeling of regret, not for the fate of the people in the book, but for Mr. Fitzgerald.” One raved with, “His style fairly scintillates, and with a genuine brilliance. He writes surely and soundly.” H. L. Mencken, a noted critic of the day, dismissed the book as lacking in substance.
Serious readers loved the book. The popular reviewers read it as a crime novel and generally disliked it. One New York tabloid couldn’t resist the headline “Fitzgerald’s Latest a Dud.”
What bothered Fitzgerald the most was “that of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea of what the book was about.”
While the critics went back and forth, the market was unimpressed by the launch. Scribner’s hoped to sell seventy- five thousand copies, a huge number in 1925, but the numbers fell far short and fizzled at twenty thousand. His first two novels had sold more. Scribner’s printed a second run, but many of those remained warehoused for years.
Fitzgerald was devastated. His masterpiece was misunderstood and unappreciated, and its failure would keep him from becoming the famous literary artist he longed to be. Admirably, he blamed himself and said the book’s poor sales were caused by the lack of strong, redeeming female characters. Daisy Buchanan, the lead, came off as a shallow and self- absorbed debutante torn between her husband, Tom, and her old boyfriend, Jay Gatsby. As a character, she is captivating but not likable, and since women drove the fiction market, the book did not appeal to them.
Gatsby earned Fitzgerald only two thousand dollars, and once again he was in debt. A stage version and a silent film brought in a few bucks, but the novel itself was quickly fading from view. Many critics dismissed it as a lovely period piece about privileged people with too much money and free time.
He was back at the typewriter writing short stories for two hundred dollars each. He struggled to find traction for another novel, and nine years would pass before he published Tender Is the Night, generally regarded as his weakest effort. Shortly before his death in 1940, he wanted to give a copy of Gatsby to a new girlfriend but couldn’t find one in any bookstore. It was virtually out of print.
The book, though, was not completely forgotten. When World War II started, a group of publishers and librarians decided that our soldiers needed books to read for entertain-ment and diversion. More than a thousand titles were reprinted, and millions were sent to soldiers at war. The Great Gatsby was chosen, and more than 150,000 copies of it were distributed. On D-Day, every GI who hit the beaches at Normandy had a book, an Armed Services Edition, in his pocket. Thousands of American POWs were given these books, and the stories from home kept up their spirits. Many read about Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan for the first time.
And Hollywood came calling again, as it would many times. In 1949, Paramount Pictures released the second adaptation of The Great Gatsby. It starred Alan Ladd, a big name in the day, as Jay Gatsby and was a moderate success.
More important, the serious readers who admired the novel continued to write about it. This small audience grew, and by 1945, the aging opinion that the book was little more than an interesting period piece was being replaced by glowing commentaries from respected scholars and writers. By 1950, Gatsby was beginning to be accepted as a classic. Clear proof of this was a rise in favorable academic essays by Ph.D. students, as well as being made required reading in high school English classes. By 1960, it was selling fifty thousand copies a year, and The New York Times declared it “a classic of twentieth- century American fiction.”
In 1974, Paramount was back again with another adaptation, perhaps the most successful one. The film starred Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy, and it was writ-ten by Francis Ford Coppola. It received mixed reviews, had a decent run at the box office, and was nominated for a couple of the lesser Oscars.
To date, The Great Gatsby has sold 30 million copies in fifty languages, and because it is required reading in so many classes, it sells five hundred thousand copies a year.
How did the book, panned when published, by a writer who died young, defeated, and broke, become one of the greatest of all American novels? And what, exactly, did its author intend for it to be about?
Huge forests have been cleared to produce enough paper for countless academics and scholars to analyze these two questions. The novel explores themes of class, gender, decadence, excess, race, betrayal, redemption, and the American dream (anything left out?). Libraries have been filled with scholarly works about Fitzgerald and his most famous work.
Though debates have been and will continue to be fierce, it is well accepted among scholars and serious readers that the book is a highly symbolic reflection of America in the 1920s. Fitzgerald portrays the era as a time of social and moral decay as evidenced by unbridled greed and the relentless pursuit of pleasure. The American dream— the belief that anyone, regard-less of how humble his or her background, can rise above it through hard work and determination— was being destroyed by the reckless desire for money and material excess.
Jay Gatsby turned to crime, made his fortune, and tried in vain to escape his past and beat his own fate. The odds were always against him, and he failed and died trying.
The last sentence of the book is its most famous: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Jay tried mightily to beat on, to fight the current, to rewrite his past but in the end could not overcome it.
That’s the beauty of the book. We are caught in our past and cannot escape it, but at least we try.
Excerpted from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald Copyright © 2021 by John Grisham. Excerpted by permission of Vintage. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.