To Its Earliest Reviewers, Gatsby Was Anything but Great

The canonical novel, published 90 years ago today, was initially deemed "unimportant," "painfully forced," "no more than a glorified anecdote," and "a dud."

Actress Betty Field dances the Charleston during a poolside party scene from the 1949 movie The Great Gatsby. (Bettman / Getty)
"To make Gatsby really Great," Edith Wharton wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald on April 8, 1925, "you ought to have given us his early career (not from the cradle-but from his visit to the yacht, if not before) instead of a short resume of it. That would have situated him & made his final tragedy a tragedy instead of a fait divers for the morning papers."
It was too late, at that point, for Fitzgerald to take advantage of his friend's advice; when Wharton offered her criticism of its title character, The Great Gatsby had already been published. Fitzgerald's novel(la) was released to the public 90 years ago, on April 10, 1925. It would go on to enjoy, at first, famously middling sales—only 21,000 copies in its first year, less than half of the first-year sales for This Side of Paradise or The Beautiful and Damned. This was a source of frustration to Fitzgerald, who had been hoping for a commercial success, but remains a source of solace to every author whose Amazon dashboard has ever brought sad tidings.
Gatsby's initially poor sales were, at least in part, the result of some initially poor reviews. Though at the outset Fitzgerald's novel had its share of fans—the New York Times's Edwin Clark called it "a curious book, a mystical, glamorous story of today," one that "takes a deeper cut at life than hitherto has been enjoyed by Mr. Fitzgerald"; the Los Angeles Times's Lillian C. Ford called it "a revelation of life" and "a work of art"—many of their fellow critics found themselves less enchanted by Fitzgerald's effort. H.L. Mencken, writing in the Chicago Tribune, scoffed that "Scott Fitzgerald's new novel, The Great Gatsby is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that." He elaborated:

This story is obviously unimportant and, though, as I shall show, it has its place in the Fitzgerald canon, it is certainly not to be put on the same shelf with, say, This Side of Paradise. What ails it, fundamentally, is the plain fact that it is simply a story—that Fitzgerald seems to be far more interested in maintaining its suspense than in getting under the skins of its people.

Harvey Eagleton, reviewing the book for the The Dallas Morning News, was similarly dismissive. "One finishes Great Gatsby," he wrote, "with a feeling of regret, not for the fate of the people in the book, but for Mr. Fitzgerald." He was poetic in his pan of the author and the novel:

When This Side of Paradise was published, Mr. Fitzgerald was hailed as a young man of promise, which he certainly appeared to be. But the promise, like so many, seems likely to go unfulfilled. The Roman candle which sent out a few gloriously colored balls at the first lighting seems to be ending in a fizzle of smoke and sparks.

Isabel Paterson was only slightly kinder, writing in the New York Herald that "this is a book for the season only." (She explained, rather elliptically, that “what has never been alive cannot very well go on living.”) The New York Evening World granted that Gatsby was “a valiant effort to be ironical,” but noted that “his style is painfully forced.” (The daytime version of the paper, Melville House Books notes, ran its review with a headline that called Gatsby, in the end, “a dud.”)
As Ralph Coghlan, St. Louis Dispatch's critic, summed it up:

Altogether it seems to us this book is a minor performance. At the moment, its author seems a bit bored and tired and cynical. There is no ebullience here, nor is there any mellowness or profundity. For our part, The Great Gatsby might just as well be called Ten Nights on Long Island.

Fitzgerald, for his part, turned to a tried-and-true explanation for the dismissals of his novel: "Of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic," he wrote to Edmund Wilson, "not one had the slightest idea what the book was about."
In that, perhaps, Gatsby was in good company. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Tropic of Cancer, The Handmaid's Tale, Brave New World, To Kill a Mockingbird, On the Road, Gone With the Wind, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita … all found themselves, upon their first publication, on the business end of some bad reviews. (Lolita, the New York Times's Orville Prescott wrote, "is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately, it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn't worth any adult reader's attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.")
An ad for Gatsby and its publisher, from the July 1925 issue of The Atlantic Monthly

Book reviews are, at their best, nuanced and complicated things. One corollary to that is that even a bad review can be made, in other contexts, to look like a more positive one by way of selective quotation. The initial ad for Gatsby that ran in many publications of the time—including this one—featured snippets from critics praising Fitzgerald's latest effort. Among them was this: "The sentences roll along smoothly, sparklingly, variously ... It is quite a new Fitzgerald who emerges from this book and the qualities that she shows are dignified and solid."

The ad attributes the praise to H.L. Mencken: the same critic who had dismissed Gatsby, overall, as not just inferior to Fitzgerald's other works, but also as an "obviously unimportant" story in whose telling the author "does not go below the surface." Gatsby himself, Mencken wrote, "genuinely lives and breathes"; he is also, however, a "clown." And his supporting cast of characters, the critic concluded, "are mere marionettes — often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive."