This Penguin edition of The Great Gatsby was published in 1950; around the time that it became accepted as a great work of literature. The book is one of the few blockbuster titles in The Perfect Library and is widely considered to be a literary classic.
The term blockbuster first appeared in the American press a few years earlier to describe large aerial bombs capable of destroying an entire city block. It soon became the label for any very commercially successful play or film and has subsequently been applied to other forms of entertainment including novels and computer games.
In the US The Great Gatsby became a part of the High School curriculum in the 1950s and it has been filmed six times: first as a silent movie; most recently in 2013 when Baz Luhrmann raised the sexual tension, added a hip-hop soundtrack and filmed Gatsby’s sumptuous parties in 3D.
It wasn’t always that way. When it was published in 1925, Gatsby received mixed reviews and initial sales were modest. Fitzgerald died in 1940, believing that he was a failure and his work had been forgotten. That might well have been the case if his last minute attempt to change the title of the book to Trimalchio in West Egg had been accepted by his publisher; and if a group of publishing executives had not created the Council on Books in Wartime (CBW).
The CBW was a US organization founded by booksellers, publishers, librarians, authors, and “others” in the spring of 1942 to channel the use of books as “weapons in the war of ideas”. It aimed to influence the thinking of the American people about the war through the promotion of books; by building and maintaining the will to win, exposing the true nature of the enemy, disseminating technical information, clarifying war aims and, finally, by providing relaxation and inspiration. The Council co-operated with the Office of War Information and other agencies but, officially, the US government did not fund it. A similar scheme, funded by a fictional department of the British Secret Service, lies at the heart of the plot of Ian McEwan’s novel, Sweet Tooth.
I don’t know why the CBW chose The Great Gatsby. The only one of their criteria that it came close to meeting was to provide relaxation and inspiration. However, 155,000 copies of the book were distributed to American soldiers between 1942 and 1945. How many of these were actually read? Who knows?
Other Great American Novelists who wrote cautionary tales about living the American Dream saw action in World War II. I like to think that a CBW edition of Gatsby might have nestled in Salinger’s pack as he crawled through the Normandy hedgerows; or sustained Vonnegut as he sheltered in his abattoir outside Dresden; or flew with Heller on bombing missions over Italy. The alternative is that the paperbacks met a terrible fate in field latrines across Europe and the Pacific.