Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is widely seen as the quintessential "great American novel," and the extensive body of criticism on the work bears out its significance in American letters. American Icon traces its reception and its canonical status in American literature, popular culture, and educational experience. It begins by outlining the novel's critical reception from its publication in 1925, to very mixed reviews, through Fitzgerald's death, when it had been virtually forgotten. Next, it examines the posthumous revival of Fitzgerald studies in the 1940s and its intensification by the New Critics in the 1950s, focusing on how and why the novel began to be considered a masterpiece of American literature. It then traces the growth of the "industry" of Gatsby criticism in the ensuing decades, stressing how critics of recent decades have opened up study of the economic, sexual, racial, and historical aspects of the text. The final section discusses the larger-than-life status Gatsby has attained in American education and popular culture, suggesting that it has not only risen from the critical ash heaps into which it was initially discarded, but also that it has become part of the fabric of American culture in a way that few other works have.
Robert Beuka is Professor of English at Bronx Community College, City University of New York.