Saturday, August 12, 2023



In Taking Things Hard: The Trials of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Garnett doesn’t take the side of the fledgling philistine in the back row of your AP Lit class. But Garnett, professor emeritus of English at Gettysburg College, is hardly sympathetic to Fitzgerald scholars whose Talmudic readings of Gatsby often veer into the absurd. Instead, he offers a refreshingly intuitive explanation for Gatsby’s greatness and its author’s precipitous decline.

Part biography, part literary criticism, Taking Things Hard brings the reader through Fitzgerald’s life and career but always comes back to the book at the center of both. Supplementing extant scholarship with a close-reading of the author’s unduly neglected short stories, Garnett brushes away a century’s worth of analysis to show it was Fitzgerald’s raw talent and emotional sensitivity that both helped him write The Great Gatsbyand caused his tragic descent into alcoholism and hackery shortly after its publication. By looking past the accepted narrative and focusing on what Fitzgerald actually wrote, Garnett offers a refreshingly intuitive case for what makes Gatsby great.

Taking Things Hard opens with an act of creative destruction. Garnett notes that during Fitzgerald’s lifetime, “Gatsby was neither his best-known nor most popular” book. After an initial printing of 21,000 copies flew off the shelves in April 1925, a smaller, second printing of just 3,000 units “failed to sell out” until after Fitzgerald’s death—15 years later. It was around that time, in the wake of World War II, that Gatsby first became popular “with ordinary readers.”

The novel’s rapid success puzzled the midcentury literati, who quickly set about searching for “weighty meaning in a melodrama of mushroom millionaires.” Eventually, they “happily discovered” that Gatsby “was about ‘the American Dream,’” a term coined six years after the novel’s publication, and with which Fitzgerald would have been wholly unfamiliar. Once “the professors had what they needed,” the book became “classroom fodder,” and, ever since, the idea of the American dream in The Great Gatsby “has been poured or knocked into the heads of generations of students.”

As Kyle Smith wrote on The Great Forgetting: “Maybe we’ll remember one rock act. Who will it be? Maybe none of the obvious answers. It certainly wasn’t obvious at the time of Fitzgerald’s death that The Great Gatsby would be the best-remembered novel he or anyone else wrote in the first half of the 20th century.”