In the time of the 1920s, America was booming: people were pushing boundaries, making wealth in whatever way they could. The First World War had just ended, stocks were soaring, and people lived in the moment. Fitzgerald set The Great Gatsby within his own generation, and this task was hard to tackle. It required more detail, more conscious effort to hold particularly close to the true fact, and brought on more criticism from his audience. The interesting thing is that, when reviewed in the year the novel was published, his Midwestern audience found a novelty in the book, while his Eastern audience found more of a mixed bag.
Based on my reading of selected reviews, it appears to me that audiences who found that the book hit closer to home in their very city did not want to accept the truth of the world Fitzgerald represented, but when the degrading materialism was set in a location distanced from the reader, the flashy nature wound up awing the reader.
The East Coast was a hard audience to please when it came to stories about their own place. On April 12, 1925, the New York World wrote “‘The Great Gatsby’ is just another 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 article continued, saying that Gatsby, although the title character, was not developed further in the story from the romantic, idealistic, out-of-touch materialist he has become after his first interaction with Daisy. He is “a swindler on a swagger scale…But there is no important development of his character and many other titles would be equally appropriate.” This article tears apart the main representation of society’s nature, possibly because they refuse to see the truth in his character.
Ruth Snyder, from the New York Evening World wrote that the book causes readers to “[wander] into a section inhabited by crazy people; crazy people swimming from page to page through one cocktail after another.” She and her other critics saw this world as something out of a novel made up from “crazy” ideals and fabricated events, though the 1920’s were called the “roaring twenties”, a time when Prohibition and jazz brought out such reactions as found in the book.
Ruth Hale, from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that she couldn’t “make heads or tails of him” and that Fitzgerald was “simply puttering around” with his work. She found that his use of “hifalutin words and hifalutiner notions to concoct there tales” was simply a diversion and certainly did not make him an author. Her review of his language and “tales” reveal her refusal to believe that such moments as told in the book even exist in her society.
On the other hand, columnists in the Midwest couldn’t stop raving about Fitzgerald’s new work, partly because of the very thing East Coast writers couldn’t stand. In the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, the columnist wrote that Fitzgerald’s “characters are so real that you have an uncanny feeling of having met them somewhere before.” This quality of “having met them somewhere” is important to focus on because it reveals the idea that these people are removed from the readers’ lives, a distant memory that seems pleasant and enjoyable, instead of the immediacy of the people on the East Coast.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press published an article that called the book “far the best of his novels” because of the “most graceful set of persons yet gathered on the pages of a novel”. Again, the Midwest critic finds a sort of removal from the story, no connection to the characters apart from marveling in their “graceful” nature. Pair this with the somewhat-dreary portrayal of the Midwest in the novel, with “well-to-do people” and family tradition that includes bragging about lineage when in fact your ancestor is a man who sent a substitute to the Civil War and started a hardware business, and the reader finds that this audience loves the work because of its awe-factor (Fitzgerald 3). It is so different from their own world that they cannot help but take it in at Fitzgerald’s word.
I think it’s fantastic to be able to look back at how Fitzgerald’s contemporaries took his book in comparison to how we look at the book today. I’m sure that some of us have identified with or oppose the views of 1925 critics and I’m interested to know in what ways. I also am providing the link to the full articles in case it peeks your curiosity like it did mine!
– Hannah F.
Editor’s Note: The PDF version of the selected reviews of The Great Gatsby was posted online as part of the content for a recent course at the University of Iowa called “Introduction to Book Studies,” taught by Professor Matthew Brown. We link to this document for educational purposes only and are grateful to have found it!