When 44-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in 1940, less than 30 people attended his funeral. His alma mater, Princeton University, famously declined an offer from his widow to purchase Fitzgerald’s original manuscripts for $3,750. He had, for all intents and purposes, become an afterthought in literary circles — the poster child for exquisite talent ruined by alcoholism and hard living.
In 2013, however, Fitzgerald is revered as one of America’s greatest authors. For example, the manuscripts for which Princeton initially refused to pay any money now are known as the “F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers” — and today the university receives more requests to examine those papers than any other primary-source documents in Princeton’s vast historic archives.
The largest reason for the rise of Fitzgerald’s reputation has been the virtual canonization of “The Great Gatsby,” his 1925 novel about love, loss and longing set amidst the material excesses of the Jazz Age. When Fitzgerald passed away, the book had sold fewer than 25,000 copies. Today, though, “Gatsby” sales have eclipsed 25 million and continue growing at a rate of approximately 500,000 every year.
The novel ranks No. 9 on the Center for Learning and Teaching of Literature’s list of books most often taught in American high schools. If Shakespearean works are excluded, “Gatsby” rises to fifth place. And when Book magazine compiled its list of the “100 best characters in fiction since 1900,” Fitzgerald's eponymous protagonist Jay Gatsby occupied the No. 1 spot.
This weekend director Baz Luhrmann’s monolithic 3D adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” rolls into theaters. Fueled by a production budget widely estimated at $127 million — and showcasing the acting talent of Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire — this new “Gatsby” stands poised to make a big splash at the box office. But the film’s influence won’t end when the theater lights come back on. “The Great Gatsby” story is so ubiquitous in American culture that, via civic institutions like secondary schools and public libraries, Luhrmann’s new movie will likely spark meaningful discussion about themes tied to topics like aspiration and permanence.
Singular source material
“The Great Gatsby” is set in 1922. Jay Gatsby (played in the new movie by Leonardo DiCaprio) returned from World War I intent on winning back the affections of his former sweetheart Daisy (Carey Mulligan). She hailed from old money, but he was dirt poor, so Gatsby invested the better part of five years conjuring enormous wealth in order to be “good enough” for Daisy. But after she lost touch with Gatsby, Daisy married burgeoning aristocrat Tom Buchanan.
In essence, then, “Great Gatsby” is the story of someone trying to turn back the clock and regain the love of his life — even though she is now married to another man.
“Fitzgerald captures a sentimental poignancy that a lot of people can relate to,” said Kent Curnutt, vice president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society that promotes the study of the author’s life and works. “(‘Gatsby’) is about feeling more than it is intellect; it’s about loss; it’s about a beautiful sadness that people can really relate to. Everybody has had dreams dashed, and I think that’s the appeal of that book.”
According to a 1960 New York Times article commemorating the 35th anniversary of “The Great Gatsby,” it wasn’t until 1945 that Fitzgerald’s novel really began to vanquish the notion that it “was merely a period piece.”
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