Happy Birthday, Gatsby!

Portrait of F Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald/David Silvette, 1935/Oil on canvas/National Portrait Gallery

April 10, 2008, marked the eighty-third anniversary of the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, considered by many critics to be the greatest American novel. Interestingly, although most students of American literature over the past half-century will attest to having read Gatsby, it was not nearly as popular in its own day.

In 1935—10 years after the publication of The Great Gatsby—David Silvette painted this portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  At the time, Fitzgerald was suffering from an emotional breakdown. He agreed to pose, however, and considered this a "swell" portrait. His career as chronicler of the dreams and disappointments of contemporary life was cut short by his death five years later. This portrait is now part of the National Portrait Gallery's collection, and is on display in the "Twentieth-Century Americans" exhibition, on the museum's third floor. 

In his biography of Fitzgerald, Jeffrey Myers writes of The Great Gatsby, “All the finest authors and critics of the time had admired The Great Gatsby, believed that Fitzgerald had fulfilled his artistic potential, and agreed that he had finally produced a great novel. But the sale of about 25,000 copies (far less than his first two novels) did not match his expectations and barely paid off his advance.”

Is The Great Gatsby the great American novel? According to NPG historian David Ward, “Yes. It is the first novel to deal in adult fashion with the end of the Victorian age and the beginning of the modern age, and it is perfectly written crystalline American prose and quite moving. Also, socially and politically, it discusses the tragedy of American life in much the same way as Herman Melville did with his whale; like Gatsby’s dream and the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, so many dreams we all have come to naught and we are compelled to start all over again.”

And although Fitzgerald never lived to see Gatsby taught in virtually every college and university in the nation, he must have taken some solace in the copious amount of praise given the work by such contemporaries as T. S. Eliot, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway—the latter a man known to be slow to applaud.



Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers
David C. Ward