With its Jay-Z soundtrack, bizarre 3-D effects and commitment of Nick Carraway to a mental institution, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby has seemed to some critics insufficiently deferential to a precious cultural totem. But long before it won silver in Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English-language novels, writers in The Nation offered drastically different assessments on both the book’s meaning and its legitimate place in the literary pantheon.
Carl Van Vechten, a writer and photographer who later served as Gertrude Stein’s literary executor, reviewed The Great Gatsby for The Nation in the issue of May 20, 1925, just a month after the book’s publication:
Mr. Fitzgerald is a born story-teller…[H]is work is imbued with that rare and beneficent essence we hail as charm. He is by no means lacking in power, as several passages in the current opus abundantly testify, and he commands a quite uncanny gift for hitting off character or presenting a concept in a striking or memorable manner…
Up to date, Mr. Fitzgerald has occupied himself almost exclusively with the aspects and operations of the coeval flapper and cake-eater. No one else, perhaps, has delineated these mundane creatures quite as skillfully as he, and his achievement in this direction has been awarded authoritative recognition. He controls, moreover, the necessary magic to make his most vapid and rotterish characters interesting and even, on occasion, charming, in spite of (or possibly because of) the fact that they are almost invariably presented in advanced stages of intoxication…
In “The Great Gatsby,” there are several of Mr. Fitzgerald’s typical flappers who behave in the manner he has conceived as typical of contemporary flapperdom. There is again a gargantuan drinking-party, conceived in a rowdy, hilarious, and highly titillating spirit. There is also, in this novel…something else. There is the character of Gatsby…
But in a review the following year of a stage production of Gatsby, The Nation’s theater critic, Joseph Wood Krutch, mocked Fitzgerald’s blurring of the line between spectator and spectated, satirist and satirized. Almost ignoring the theatrical production entirely, Krutch instead skewered the book:
F. Scott Fitzgerald was born into the flapper age with exactly the qualities and defects which would enable him to become its accredited historian. Though granted just enough detachment to make him undertake the task of describing, he is by temperament too much a part of the things described to view them with any very penetratingly critical eye and he sees flappers, male and female, much as they see themselves. Sharing to a very considerable extent in their psychological processes, he romanticizes their puerilities in much the same fashion as they do; and when he pictures the manners of the fraternity house or the Long Island villa he pictures them less as they are than as their practitioners like to imagine them. He makes cocktails and kisses seem thrillingly wicked; he flatters the younger generation with the solemn warning that it is leading the world straight to the devil; and as a result he writes The Flapper’s Own History of Flapperism. Thus he becomes less the genuine historian of a phase of social development than one of the characteristic phenomena of that development itself, and his books are seen to be little more than documents for the study of the thing which they purport to treat.
The book, Krutch added, was “preposterously maudlin.”
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The Nation has had only distaste for both screen adaptations of Gatsby reviewed in its pages. Painter and film critic Manny Farber panned the 1949 Paramount adaptation as “a limp translation,” writing that the film’s purposefully antiquated style “takes on the heavy, washed-out, inaccurate dedication-to-the-past quality of a Radio City mural.” Farber also said that the actress Betty Field failed as Daisy because she was “no more marked by Southern aristocracy than a cheese blintz.”
“Respectful work and appalling” were the choice words Robert Hatch, a longtime executive editor of the magazine, had for the 1974 adaptation starring Robert Redford as Gatsby, Sam Waterston as Nick and Mia Farrow as Daisy, with a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola. “When it sticks to the original, it adds nothing; when it deviates, it puts a heavy foot into Fitzgerald’s magic,” Hatch wrote. “Overall, its most conspicuous weakness is that it cannot handle vulgarity or ostentation without becoming vulgar or ostentatious”—precisely the same complaint Krutch expressed about the book itself in The Nation almost fifty years earlier.
Other Nation articles about Fitzgerald include a 1945 essay by Lionel Trilling—putting him in the same category with Shakespeare, Dickens, Voltaire, Balzac and Goethe—and a 1996 appreciation by friend-of-the-magazine E.L. Doctorow, who wrote that “in its few pages” Gatsby “arcs the American continent and gives us a perfect structural allegory of our deadly class-ridden longings.” And as many have argued, the release of “Gatsby” should also be an occasion for renewed discussion of inequality in America.
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