Criticism: Robert Crooke
Gatsby Goes Public
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s highly-praised and ultimately best-selling novel entered the “public domain” as of January 1, 2021, after 95 years of copyright protection. What happened to Fitzgerald and his subtle, gossamer web of a story during that century is as interesting as the novel itself, given how perfectly the real-life tale confirms the book’s tragic-poetic vision of the American Dream.
Fitzgerald had rocketed to fame and modest fortune in 1920 with publication of This Side of Paradise (49,075 copies sold in 12 printings over two years) and to greater fame and fortune in 1922 with The Beautiful and Damned (50,000 copies sold quickly after a lucrative magazine serialization).
So when The Great Gatsby appeared on April 10, 1925, Fitzgerald, his editor Maxwell Perkins, and his publisher Charles Scribner, expected its initial print run of 20,870 copies to sail out the door. Instead, the copies lay moored on book store shelves and in Scribner’s warehouse. By October, the book still had not entirely sold out. A courtesy second printing of 3,000 copies in August—orchestrated by Perkins and Fitzgerald to generate a small advance for the financially profligate author—never sold out in his lifetime.
Confusion reigned at Charles Scribner’s Sons over The Great Gatsby’s relatively modest performance, especially in the wake of positive critical reactions to the book, and the praise Fitzgerald received directly from Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, T.S. Eliot, and other contemporaries. Even the transparently envious Ernest Hemingway managed a compliment about the book, all but hidden within a generally critical—and disingenuous—letter chiding Fitzgerald for his profligate lifestyle, sensitive persona, and far too complex stance toward the rich and elegantly educated.
By year-end, Fitzgerald had earned about $2,000 from direct sales of his book, though he had sold film rights to Paramount (for $16,666), and theatrical rights to a production consortium which mounted a Broadway play whose 1926 run (directed by George Cukor) generated respectable profit-share royalties. Reviews noted the play’s emphasis on garish party scenes and humorous dialogue. Paramount’s silent film version, released the same year, starring Warner Baxter as Gatsby, stressed the character’s shady, gangster persona without the veneer of fake respectability. This would be the first of now five incredibly literal, and lifeless, film adaptations.
According to the late Matthew J. Bruccoli, a noted Fitzgerald scholar, the author’s lifetime earnings from book sales, film, and theater adaptations were roughly $60,000. Though Fitzgerald would publish numerous short stories and one complete novel, Tender Is the Night, during the remaining 15 years of his lifetime, the aura of failure clung to him.
But immediately following Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, the influential author and critic Edmund Wilson started a revival of his old Princeton classmate’s reputation. Wilson’s first step was to edit and champion The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald’s fully-outlined but half-written final novel, which Scribner published in 1941. In 1942, some 155,000 copies of The Great Gatsby were included in an Armed Forces program which distributed American novels to U.S. soldiers overseas. The Great Gatsby proved particularly popular with GIs. By the late 1940s and 1950s, university scholars and literary critics such as Alfred Kazin, Arthur Mizener, and Malcolm Cowley were still burnishing Fitzgerald’s reputation largely on the basis of The Great Gatsby.
This led to a veritable Gatsby industry—or rather, a set of interconnected Gatsby industries—encompassing universities and schools, the rights licensing industry, the film industry (in particular Paramount, which produced both the 1949 and 1974 film adaptations), and the book publishing industry (in particular Scribner, now a division of Simon & Schuster).
Through 2020, according to Scribner, some 20 million copies of The Great Gatsby have been sold in North America alone, with another 10 million sold elsewhere around the world. The book dependably sells 500,000 copies annually and remains the most popular title in the Scribner catalogue.
Though precise earnings figures for the book are difficult to come by, we can be assured that The Great Gatsby has generated many millions of dollars per year for Scribner, and many hundreds of millions of dollars from its licensing to other media since 1925. Even the disappointing film adaptations generate lots of money. The film rights for the stilted, 1974 Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version went for $350,000. The dreary, CGI-laden 2013 version, in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan seem to be caught inside a fish tank, actually generated $353.6 million in worldwide gross revenues and earned a profit of $58.6 million.
This is the context, then, of mournful media reports about the lapsed copyright of The Great Gatsby, other Fitzgerald works, and similarly notable works of his contemporaries including Hemingway, Wharton, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, E.M. Forster, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Virginia Woolf, Somerset Maugham, Thomas Mann, and Franz Kafka—a veritable who’s who of the Modernist Era.
“Experts are warning that the freedom for anyone to reproduce or reimagine books once they are out of copyright is corrupting classic texts – all for the sake of making a quick buck,” writes Dalya Alberge in The Guardian.
“Alarm over the poor-quality editions of The Great Gatsby has inspired a study by James West, general editor of the Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and emeritus professor of English at Pennsylvania State University,” Alberge adds. “He said that Fitzgerald would have been ‘appalled’ by inferior editions: ‘The composition of The Great Gatsby was his finest hour. It’s a delicate work of literature and you hate to see it treated so roughly.’
“In his study, to be published next month in the F. Scott Fitzgerald Review, West contrasts the focus on accuracy of Fitzgerald’s publisher, Scribner, with today’s ‘textual instability incarnate.’
“He pored over 34 new print editions released in the past year, from established and independent publishers and some that list neither the place nor publisher, although there are further digital ones,” Alberge observes. “‘Six are competently done, but the rest are rather careless, done just to pick up a slice of the yearly sales. While it was still in copyright, Scribner’s sold about half a million copies a year, which is remarkable for a backlist title.’”
On the other hand, the absence of copyright prohibitions might just as readily produce something wonderful speculates Annabel Gutterman in TIME. “That freedom could yield works that add to The Great Gatsby’s legacy—see what Wide Sargasso Sea did for Jane Eyre.”
Nick, Michael Farris Smith’s prequel to The Great Gatsby, published by Little, Brown and Company just days after The Great Gatsby, entered the public domain last year, has garnered a respectable readership, and received generally good reviews. Ben Fountain in The New York Times called it “an exemplary novel.”
And so, the situation may not be is as dire as some suggest. Scribner will still be able to sell its version of The Great Gatsby, and do so with the reasonable claim of having the most textually authentic and authoritative version in the market. Scholars like Professor West will always be able to edit, publish, and even copyright new editions of The Great Gatsby, based on the copyright protections they will claim for their own scholarship in their versions.
And who will want to buy and read the inauthentic, fly-by-night versions that a lapsed copyright allows? There may be some initial confusion among us about which versions of The Great Gatsby are authentic. But it’s likely that the market will resolve this situation.
It may become a bit more difficult to license new film versions of the book in an uncertain market, but does that really qualify as something tragic? Frankly, more than a few of the textual and artistic abuses committed by money-making hucksters in some new “public domain” editions have already been done under copyright protection by licensed adapters, authorized by Scribner, Fitzgerald’s heirs, and Fitzgerald himself—mainly for revenue.
Film, TV, and theatrical versions of The Great Gatsby have almost invariably been too literal in their conception and presentation. As a result, they have mainly succeeded in hurting the book by bringing its significant but well-hidden flaws to the surface. It is, after all, a tawdry tabloid story of a racketeer carrying a torch for an old girlfriend from a seemingly finer, yet possibly more gangster-like, stratum of society that can barely be seen beyond the blue lawns and green-gold haze of Long Island Sound. It just doesn’t work without the writing itself, and the spell that writing induces. Lifeless movies and poorly-edited paper and eBook versions will inevitably send us back to Fitzgerald’s text. And there, he will succeed in the public domain as he ultimately did under copyright.
Robert Crooke’s latest novel, Letting the House Go, will be published on August 2, 2022 by Unsolicited Press.