How WWII Saved The Great Gatsby From Obscurity

chris gash
chris gash / chris gash

F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel was a flop—until it was deployed overseas.

One day in 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald stepped into a Los Angeles bookstore hoping to grab a copy of The Great Gatsby. Scouring the shelves, he couldn’t find anything with his name on it. He stopped by another bookstore, and another. At each one, he ran into the same problem. His books weren’t in stock. In fact, they hadn’t been for years.

When The Great Gatsby was printed in 1925, critics roasted it resoundingly. “One finishes Great Gatsby with a feeling of regret, not for the fate of the people in the book but for Mr. Fitzgerald,” wrote Harvey Eagleton of the Dallas Morning News. “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Latest a Dud,” chimed the New York World. A critic from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was more pointed. “Why [Fitzgerald] should be called an author, or why any of us should behave as if he were, has never been explained satisfactorily to me.”

Readers agreed. The Great Gatsby sold a modest 20,870 copies—nothing like Fitzgerald’s previous best sellers, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned. The literary lemon put the brakes on the author’s extravagant lifestyle. As the decade wore on, his wife’s mental health deteriorated, his marriage collapsed, and his drinking became a disease. Three years after that disappointing visit to the bookstore, he died of a heart attack at 44. “The promise of his brilliant career was never fulfilled,” his New York Times obituary said. His funeral was rainy and poorly attended—just like Jay Gatsby’s.

History forgot Fitzgerald while he was still alive, so why do we think of The Great Gatsby as the enduring classic of the Jazz Age? That story begins, and ends, with a world war.

Fitzgerald started writing in 1917 because he thought his days were numbered. World War I was raging, and the Princeton dropout—now an Army infantry second lieutenant stationed at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas—was training to join it. “I had only three months to live,” he recalled thinking, “and I had left no mark in the world.” So every Saturday, promptly at 1:00 p.m., he headed to the fort’s officer’s club, a noisy room clouded with cigarette smoke. There he sat alone at a table in the corner and wrote feverishly. In just three months, he had finished the draft of a 120,000-word novel called The Romantic Egoist.

The story was largely based on his own heartbreak. For two years, Fitzgerald, who’d grown up in the Midwest and was the son of a failed furniture salesman, had traded love letters with a rich Chicago debutante named Ginevra King. But on a fateful visit to King’s estate, he reportedly heard her father say, “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.” Soon after, the two broke up and King married a wealthier man. The experience scarred Fitzgerald, who became fixated on the social barriers—wealth and class—that had undermined what he thought was love.

He couldn’t get the book published, and soon he was transferred to a new base in Alabama, where he met and fell for another rich girl: Zelda Sayre. They courted and got engaged. As soon as the war ended, Fitzgerald left for New York City.

There, he settled for a job writing advertising copy for $90 a month while trying to write more ambitiously in his spare time. “I wrote movies. I wrote song lyrics. I wrote complicated advertisement schemes, I wrote poems, I wrote sketches. I wrote jokes,” he recalled in his essay “Who’s Who—And Why.” But all he had to show for it were the 122 rejection slips pinned to his wall. When Zelda learned how broke he was, she ended their engagement.

So Fitzgerald did what any rational twentysomething would do: He moved back in with his parents and tried writing a best-selling novel to win her back. Channeling both heartbreaks, he rewrote The Romantic Egoist. The finished product was This Side of Paradise. When Scribner’s accepted the book, he begged for a quick release. “I have so many things dependent on its success,” he wrote, “including of course a girl.” When it debuted in March 1920, This Side of Paradise sold out in three days. A week later, Zelda married him. At 23, Fitzgerald was suddenly a celebrity. And he’d learned an important lesson: Art imitates life. 

Three years later, in the summer of 1923, Fitzgerald started planning his third book. He’d just written The Beautiful and the Damned, a story largely inspired by his relationship with Zelda, and it had been an instant hit. Now, he wanted to write a story set in the 19th-century Midwest. It would have heavy Catholic themes; the characters would include a young boy and a priest. But Fitzgerald needed money. He dismantled that draft, sold bits and pieces to magazines, and started mining life for new ideas. 

He carried a notebook everywhere, recording things he observed and overheard. Everyone he met became a potential character, every place a potential setting. He drove friends mad by stopping them mid-sentence and asking them to repeat what they’d said. He saved letters and used them for ideas—especially old letters from Ginevra, which he kept in a folder labeled “Strictly Private and Personal Letters: Property of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Not Manuscript.)”

That stack of papers included a seven-page short story Ginevra had penned. It was about a wealthy woman who ditched an inattentive husband to rejoin an old flame, a self-made tycoon. If that sounds familiar, a similar plot became the central yarn of The Great Gatsby. That wasn’t Ginevra’s only influence on his work. Fitzgerald modeled practically every unobtainable upper-class female character after her, including Daisy Buchanan.

Daisy, like Ginevra, was a coy heartbreaker who turned down love to marry someone rich. When Gatsby reinvents himself as a rich man, she remains impossible to have—just as Ginevra was to Fitzgerald. But she wasn’t his only muse; life with Zelda was just as inspiring. One of the most memorable lines in Gatsby came straight from her mouth: The day their daughter, Scottie, was born, Zelda, in a stupor, looked at her newborn and said, “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool.” In the book, Daisy says nearly the same thing.

Despite all the material, writing was slow. Fitzgerald sat in an office above his garage, working on the book while also cranking out short stories to pay the bills. The Fitzgeralds were rich, but their spending habits were out of control. The American economy, after all, was soaring. When the U.S. left World War I, it became Europe’s biggest creditor. People had more money than ever to spend on new amusements like dance halls and movie palaces. Lavish Long Island bashes and the lure of Manhattan speakeasies kept the Fitzgeralds distracted. The parties were wild. At one point, Fitzgerald even punched a plainclothes police officer. "Fitzgerald knocks officer this side of paradise," screamed a newspaper headline.

In a way, though, he was always working. Fitzgerald’s notes on New York’s decadent party scene would become one of Gatsby’s pillars. Fitzgerald apologized to his editor, Max Perkins, for the shenanigans. But he blamed the delay in his manuscript firmly on literary ambition. “I cannot let it go out unless it has the very best I’m capable of in it,” Fitzgerald told him. “The book will be a consciously artistic achievement.”

Fitzgerald had a hunch that to write the Great American Novel, he’d have to leave America. So that summer, he packed up his family, along with a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and sailed for the French Riviera. The trip afforded him the peace and quiet to finally commit Gatsby to paper. By September, the first draft was finished, and he was confident. “I think my novel is the best American novel ever written,” he wrote to Perkins.

Critics and fans weren’t so sure. Nearly everybody praised Fitzgerald’s lyrical style, but many, like Edith Wharton, didn’t appreciate that Jay Gatsby’s past was a mystery. Others complained that the characters were unlikeable. Isabel Paterson wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, “This is a book for the season only.”

For two decades, it seemed like Paterson was right. The book vanished into obscurity, taking Fitzgerald and his once-decadent life with it. Then, five years after he died, something unexpected helped launch Gatsby to the top of America’s literary canon—another war.

The United States had been at war for a year when a group of book lovers—authors, librarians, and publishers—had a brilliant idea. Wanting to promote titles that would maintain the country’s morale, they founded the Council on Books in Wartime. Books, they argued, were “weapons in the war of ideas.” In February 1943, they embarked on an ambitious effort: shipping titles to soldiers overseas. The concept was as simple as it was idealistic. While the Nazis were busy burning books, American soldiers would be reading them.

The program was perfectly timed. The latest innovation in publishing—paperbacks—had drastically reduced the cost of printing, and the first batch of Armed Services Edition (ASE) books were shipped to U.S. Army and Navy troops that July. Printed by magazine presses, the books were small enough to fit into fatigue pockets so they could be carried from the mess hall to the deck of a battleship to the trenches. A copy cost only six cents to make.

“Some of the publishers think that their business is going to be ruined,” broadcaster H. V. Kaltenborn said of the program in 1944. “But I make this prediction. America’s publishers have cooperated in an experiment that will for the first time make us a nation of book readers.”

He was right. Bored and homesick, servicemen and women devoured the novels. One GI stationed in New Guinea said the books were “as popular as pin-up girls” and read until they fell apart. Sometimes, GIs tore out chapters so their friends could enjoy them at the same time. Before D-Day, commanders ensured that every soldier had a book before setting sail for Normandy.

“You can find boys reading as they’ve never read before,” wrote one Army officer to the council. “Some toughies in my company have admitted without shame that they were reading their first book since they were in grammar school.”

There were a lot of books to read: Altogether, the council distributed 123 million copies of 1,227 titles— The Great Gatsby among them. In 1944, only 120 copies of Gatsby sold. But the ASE would print 155,000. Free to soldiers, the books dwarfed two decades of sales.

Gatsby entered the war effort after Germany and Japan surrendered, but the timing was fortuitous: While waiting to go home, troops were more bored than ever. (Two years after the war ended, there were still 1.5 million people stationed overseas.) With that kind of audience, Gatsby reached readers beyond Fitzgerald’s dreams. In fact, because soldiers passed the books around, each ASE copy was read about seven times. More than one million soldiers read Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel.

“There is no way to determine how many converts to literature—or less elegantly, to reading—were made by the ASE. The fix was free,” Matthew Bruccoli writes in Books in Action: The Armed Services Editions. “Moreover, it seems highly probable that some postwar reputations were stimulated by the introduction of authors in the ASE to readers who had never read them before.”

For Fitzgerald, it was a great reawakening. The author’s death in 1940 had rejuvenated academic interest in his work, and many of his literary friends were already trying to revive his name. But the military program sparked interest among a wider, more general readership. By 1961, The Great Gatsby was being printed expressly for high school classrooms. Today, nearly half a million copies sell each year.

These new converts—and the generations that would follow—saw in Gatsby something that Fitzgerald’s contemporaries had dismissed as short-sighted. Now that the Roaring Twenties were nothing but an echo, the value of Fitzgerald’s work became obvious. He had captured an era that was long gone, but still loomed large in the American psyche. Few people had written about the Jazz Age so colorfully, and few people had captured that feeling of longing for something you couldn’t have. Fitzgerald did it all so well because he had lived it.

Perhaps that feeling of longing resonated with soldiers. Far from home, surrounded by the remnants of war, a book like Gatsby was a means to escape. It had the power to transport a reader back to a prosperous, hopeful world where the champagne flowed freely. Even now, nearly a century later, it still does.