On this day, exactly 95 years ago, literature was forever changed by the publication of a book that would come to be widely known as one of the greatest of Great American Novels. Even before The Great Gatsby was finished, in 1924, it was described as 'about the best American novel ever written'... but then, that was by Fitzgerald himself, under the influence of a particularly heavy bout of hubris.
Yet, for a writer of his fame, sales were poor and reviewers of the time were largely unimpressed. Influential critic HL Mencken said it was 'in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that'. The Dallas Morning News, meanwhile, complained: 'One finishes Great Gatsby with a feeling of regret, not for the fate of the people in the book, but for Mr. Fitzgerald.'
But Fitzgerald took such criticism in his stride. 'Of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic,' he wrote to a friend, 'not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.' He had a point. How could they? America was at the time basking in a post-war economic paradise, and no one wanted to be told it was about to swerve into a ditch.
No, it took time to understand what Fitzgerald had eerily foreshadowed: the devastating financial crash of 1928 and the subsequent Great Depression. When that hit, people finally began to see The Great Gatsby for what it was, a prescient morality tale warning of the perils of boom and bust and that the unbridled hedonism that characterised the Roaring Twenties was doomed to end in tears.
And 95 years later, it has lost none of its sheen, reamining an intricate, tender and delicate novel giddy with its own beauty and style. The story follows Nick, a young war veteran who moves to New York to find work as a bond salesman. There he meets Jay Gatsby, a mysterious epitome of the 'self-made man' (read: a war profiteer) who introduces him to a consequence-free world of booze-soaked soirees, showy materialism and elasticated morality. Only, it turns out, life does carry consequences. And dire ones, at that.
When he was planning the novel in 1923, Fitzgerald told his editor he wanted to write 'something new - something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.' Well, he certainly pulled it off. The fact that The Great Gatsby remains one of the biggest-selling novels of the 20th century is testament to its enduring brilliance.
Fitzgerald apparently hated the title The Great Gatsby, and is said to have begged his editor for a last-minute change to Under the Red, White and Blue. But it was too late. Other early contenders included Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires, The High-Bouncing Lover and The Gold-Hatted Gatsby. He later harrumphed, 'the title is only fair, rather bad than good'.