Great aspirations

Making a case for “The Great Gatsby” – the quintessential 1920s tale – as the great American novel

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And then one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

— The closing lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s

“The Great Gatsby”

We are borne back ceaselessly into “The Great Gatsby.”

Think of it:  There are five film versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel, the most recent being Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role; a 1999 John Harbison opera; three radio productions; as many plays and ballets; two computer games; and two novels that either take off on some of the characters (Chris Bohjalian’s “The Double Bind”) or reimagine them (Sara Benincasa’s “Great”). (No doubt there will be even more iterations as “Gatsby” and all other works published in 1925 enter the public domain a year from now.)

Fitzgerald could hardly have imagined such a sphere of influence. When the book was first published, it was greeted with mixed reviews and poor sales. Fitzgerald went to his grave — dead of a heart attack in 1940 at age 44 — thinking the book and himself a failure. Often, however, time and distance are required for greatness to achieve its true appreciation. As he was dying, Fitzgerald could not know that Gatsby was about to reach that orgastic green light, for the novel would take off in the 1940s — a favorite of World War II soldiers, who perhaps identified with Gatsby, a soldier in World War I. Since then the book has been Scribner’s bestseller — 25 million copies to date, 500,000 annually, 185,000 e-books in 2013 alone — and a regular candidate for the great American novel. For some, it is the great American novel. 

“By far it’s the single greatest American novel of the 20th century,” says historian Richard Deej Webb Jr., author of “Boats Against the Current: The Honeymoon Summer of Scott and Zelda,” which explores Westport as an inspiration for the novel. “Only Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ in the 19th century rivals it.”

But what makes it so great? As the closing lines quoted above demonstrate, Fitzgerald’s book achieves a kind of poetry in prose in the most economical way. Yet with the exception of English teachers, literature professors and writers, who thinks of Fitzgerald’s prose when they think of “Gatsby”? What has inspired a host of visual storytellers — indeed what resonates with us today — is the story Fitzgerald tells about America’s relationship to aspiration, money and love.

“It’s the perfect embodiment of what is the American Dream,” Webb says, “and Gatsby doesn’t get it, that green light at the end of (Daisy’s) dock.”

It was another terrific writer, the 19th-century French novelist Honoré de Balzac, who was said to have said:  “Show me a great fortune, and I’ll show you a great crime.” (What Balzac actually said was that a great fortune with no obvious cause was the result of a subtly, expertly executed crime.)

Fitzgerald gives readers a great fortune whose criminal link soon becomes apparent. The Jay Gatsby of the title is a wealthy, seemingly reclusive and mysterious Long Islander who has good reason for his elusiveness. His fortune is derived from bootlegging and his associations with a character based on mobster Arnold Rothstein, the man behind the Black Sox Scandal, the World Series fix of 1919.

Like some Americans, Gatsby wants money and he wants it fast. And though he may be vague about how he’s acquired it, he has no qualms about displaying its trappings. Fitzgerald’s descriptions of the lavish parties at Gatsby’s house and their Champagne-swilling, fountain-splashing, Charleston-dancing, roadster-careening, flappered and tuxedoed attendees — the quintessence of ’20s kick-up-your-heels hedonism — are among the most captivating for readers and “Gatsby” interpreters. Yet Gatsby is not interested in materialism for its own sake. No, what makes him such a romantic, haunted figure is that it’s all in service of Daisy Fay — the Louisville belle he’s loved and lost to the richer, more brutal Tom Buchanan.

Gatsby thinks that if he can acquire enough, including a bit of “old sport” polish at Oxford, that he can reinvent himself and win Daisy back. Sound familiar? We Americans are always told that if we just work hard enough, we can accomplish anything and be anyone — never mind the shortcuts and psychic airbrushing that some have used to achieve and portray success. But it’s not the speciousness of Gatsby’s affluence, the abandonment of his past or even the phoniness of his present that dooms him as much as the illusion of his dream. For the Daisy he longs for is no longer that girl who looked kindly on him as a poor soldier off to fight the Great War, if she ever was. The Daisy he loves is a self-involved socialite who will never forsake her husband or their social class. 

Gatsby can buy his way into their neighborhood, but he cannot buy his way into their circle. In a sense, he has more in common with George Wilson, the mechanic who operates a garage on a neighboring Queens ash heap (now the site of the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center, talk about your transformations), and George’s wife, Myrtle, who is Tom’s mistress. Gatsby’s possessions, George’s sweat equity, Myrtle’s sexual capital: None of them buy acceptance. There remains a gulf between the haves and have nots that reinvention cannot bridge, a tension that still plays out today when the 1 percent overwhelmingly control most of the nation’s wealth.

But such is the power of Gatsby’s dream that he cannot see this. He cannot understand that what he loves is not Daisy but his idea of her, his idea of himself. He goes to his death struggling to preserve that ideal.

And what of us? What of our dreams? Fitzgerald’s book suggests that while you can’t build a love and a life on a lie,  that will never stop people from trying.

And so we keep straining against the tide — and turning the page.

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