Opinion: 'The Great Gatsby' Enters Public Domain But It Already Entered Our Hearts NPR's Scott Simon reflects on the legacy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The literary classic's copyright expired on the first day of 2021.

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/952737126/952807092" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


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. "Gatsby's" been turned into stage productions and 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," "Macbeth" or "Their Eyes Were Watching God." We want young readers to be able to see themselves in stories, but literature can also show us people we don't think are much like us at all. They 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, quote, "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 "Shiner" last year, told us this week she read "Gatsby" as a high school junior in Appalachia. We were sons and daughters of roofers, welders, teachers and truck drivers, she said, people who knew what it meant to work hard and receive very little in return. 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.


SIMON: Some of Nelson Riddle's music for the film of "The Great Gatsby."

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.