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On this date in 1896, in the upper Mississippi River state capital of St. Paul, an upper-middle-class couple with Irish roots welcomed a son into the world. The proud father was Maryland-born and Georgetown-educated Edward Fitzgerald. A boy when the Civil War broke out, Edward moved to the North as a young man for a fresh start and a change of scenery. He had his reasons: He was only 12 when his cousin Mary Surratt was hanged for her involvement in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

Edward also wed a woman named Mary, although Mary McQuillan, the daughter of an Irish immigrant, went by "Molly." The couple named their boy after a distant cousin of Edward's – the author of the "The Star Spangled Banner" -- but Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald always went by "Scott" among family and friends. We know him as F. Scott Fitzgerald, a great American novelist and unparalleled chronicler of the Jazz Age.

* * * 

It's one of the inexplicable caprices of the book business, but "The Great Gatsby" wasn't a commercial or critical success when it was published in 1925. And when F. Scott Fitzgerald suffered a heart attack in 1940 at age 44, he died not knowing whether he had a place in the American literary canon.

"My God, I am a forgotten man," he lamented to his wife, Zelda, when his publisher allowed "The Great Gatsby" to go out of print. With its typical level of insight, the New York Times 1925 review of "Gatsby" carried this headline: "Fitzgerald's Latest A Dud." Fifteen years later, the NYT obituary said flatly that "the promise of his brilliant literary career was never fulfilled." Time magazine never even mentioned "Gatsby" in its obit.

In the days before musicians and actors dominated popular culture, writers could be rock stars, and Scott Fitzgerald and his talented but troubled wife fit the bill. It was a marriage destined to be shadowed by alcoholism, mental illness, infidelity, jealousy, and competition (what marriage wouldn't be?), but when he began writing "Gatsby," Fitzgerald was atop the world.

"This Side of Paradise," published in 1920, had made him famous, and the arrival of "The Beautiful and Damned" two years later solidified his reputation as one of the great voices of his generation.

Gertrude Stein, however, would dub Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other post-World War I ex-pats in Paris "a lost generation," a phrase Hemingway would make famous in "The Sun Also Rises."

But as he began writing "The Great Gatsby" in 1922, Fitzgerald didn't feel lost at all. He felt he'd found himself as a writer, and he intended to prove it to the world. "I want to write something new, something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned," he wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins.

What did it take for the world to finally see that he made good on this goal? The short answer is that it took another war.

During the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration had launched programs to employ writers, artists, historians, and photographers as a way of keeping them fed -- and getting good press for the New Deal. After Pearl Harbor, the same thinking went into the creation of the Council on Books in Wartime. The Nazis were burning books, so the U.S. government would print them. These "weapons in the war of ideas" would be shipped to the millions of Americans in uniform fighting overseas. Whether they were really weapons is debatable, but they were good for morale and they helped produce a generation of readers in this country.

Printed in a size that could fit in a GI's pocket, the first shipment of Armed Services Edition paperbacks went out in July 1943. "Some of the publishers think that their business is going to be ruined," said broadcaster H.V. Kaltenborn. "But I make this prediction. America's publishers have cooperated in an experiment that will for the first time make us a nation of book readers."

He was prescient. The books were as popular on ships and in the trenches as magazine pin-up photos. The soldiers and sailors who left England for Normandy on D-Day were given a book along with their rations.

Among the 1,227 ASE titles was "The Great Gatsby." It had sold a mere 20,000 copies when originally published. The government published 155,000 of them. It's never been out of print since. "Gatsby" is hardly an entirely positive portrayal of America. But it struck a chord of nostalgia with America's fighting men, even as it does today among new generations encountering it for the first time. As the book's narrator says at the end of the story:

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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