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Opinion: 'The Great Gatsby' Enters Public Domain But It Already Entered Our Hearts

When F. Scott Fitzgerald published <em>The Great Gatsby</em> in 1925, it didn't sell many copies. Now it's sold nearly 30 million.
When F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby in 1925, it didn't sell many copies. Now it's sold nearly 30 million.

The copyright on F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby expired on the first stroke of 2021 and the book entered the public domain.

The classic 1925 novel of love foiled, ambitions foisted, class and betrayal sold fewer than 25,000 copies before Fitzgerald died. It has since sold nearly 30 million. I gave our daughter the copy I had in high school when she read it last year. The Great Gatsbyhas been turned into stage productions, an opera, five film versions,a Taylor Swift song and inspired innumerable prequels, spinoffs and variations.

In the public domain, Gatsby may now become even more familiar. Two new editions are about to come out and who knows what kind of projects — a Gatsby rom-com? Gatsby joins The Avengers? — might now get a green light, which recalls the imperishably eloquent last passage of the book: "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us."

Gatsby's Jazz Age Long Island may not look like a microcosm of contemporary America. Neither does Don Quixote, The Scarlet Letter, Macbethor Their Eyes Were Watching God. We want young readers to be able to see themselves in stories; but literature can also show us that people we don't think are much like us at all turn out to have some of the same heart, blood and dreams. That can be the power of empathy in art.

As we think of this past trying and tragic year, we might all imagine some names, many in high places, of those who disdained wearing masks and brushed aside guidelines to hold events when Fitzgerald writes of "careless people" that "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

Amy Jo Burns, who wrote the acclaimed novel Shinerlast year, told us this week she read The Great Gatsbyas a high school junior in Appalachia. "[W]e were sons and daughters of roofers, welders, teachers and truck drivers — people who knew what it meant to work hard and receive very little in return," she said. "We all loved that book. More than anything, I think we imagined Fitzgerald himself whispering to us from behind his own words, saying, 'Do you think the idea that you can 'have it all' is a lie? So do I. Let's press on it together and see if it cracks.' I think Fitzgerald wanted to break our hearts so we could remember that they were still beating inside our chests."

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.