American Dream, American literary Canon, Capitalism, David L. Ulin, Deirdre Donahue, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Five reasons 'Gatsby' is the great American novel, Hunter S. Thompson, Icarian Games, Icarus, literary education, Literature, Love, Novel, Stephen Fry, The Great Gatsby, The Lost Art of Reading
This review won’t be what I want it to be, but that’s what I get for not answering the muse when it calls. You see last summer I read a book entitled The Lost Art of Reading, a nice little 180 page book which is really just a man musing on the future of what reading will mean and be to future generations. It may sound pretentious but it’s peppered with personal narrative and sentiment from the author’s, David L. Ulin (Say that three times fast, I dare you three nickels made of platinum), and it is worth your time, if only so you can laugh at its pretentiousness. Anyway, during the book Ulin discusses his son’s assigned reading of The Great Gatsby in high school and at one point he notes that there are websites that give students exactly what to write about in the inevitable High School paper. It’s what you usually think: Just write about how The Great Gatsby is a corruption of the American dream.
That’s what we’re selling to generation after generation of students, to the point, the mantra of standard interpretation is becoming stale.
Now this part saddened me the most because I love The Great Gatsby (there’s a regular reader of my blog who’s stuffing his face with cheetohs and speaking sarcastically to his cat and saying “who saw that coming?” The cat’s name by the way is Sir Pussenbottum. Spelled with a U. Yeah. THAT guy). I didn’t love the book the first time I read it, which was, surprise surprise, in High School. I had been aware of the book’s existence because my mother had read it in high school and still had her edition. The Blue-faced flapper goddess of Jazz shed a single tear of neon green light, while in her eyes naked humanoids were rocked to sleep by the orgasmic explosion of color beneath her. They recently changed the cover of the book, though I note with pride that that didn’t last long. Without the mourning lady on the cover, Gatsby isn’t Gatsby.
Now before I offer an alternative to the standard interpretation of this book, so the high school kid who found this article doesn’t have to actually read it for class (you should kid, shame on you, reading is cool!) I want to talk about the actual book itself. There’s a few interesting stories behind the novel few people ever get to actually hear or read about. For starters the book is Stephen Fry’s second most favorite book (yet another reason to adore the man) and Hunter S. Thompson supposedly re-typed the entire novel so he could understand what it would feel like to write it. Fitzgerald himself supposedly re-wrote the book 16 times before he could actually feel comfortable publishing it. When it was first published the book was actually a bit of a financial flop, selling only 20,000 copies in its first year, and while that sounds like a lot, take note that the second printing of the book remained in a warehouse until after Fitzgerald’s death. The Epigraph at the start of the novel (which I’ll address here in a minute) is not actually a reference to any actual poet; it’s a creation by Fitzgerald himself. I’ll stop there, but I’ve included a few links at the bottom in case you’re interested in more info about the book.
Now, just about every teenager will have to suffer through The Great Gatsby, and unfortunately the word suffer is the appropriate term. You see very few teachers have the time or energy to really dig into the novel. Even my own teacher, while she did a damn good job of making me appreciate the book, tended to focus on the capitalism/betrayal/American Dream interpretation. Now the first thing my reader may ask is, where the hell did this interpretation come from?
Well it really began when the book was first published. In an article in USA Today Deirdre Donahue writes:
“It’s the Great American Dream,” says Jeff Nilsson, historian for the bimonthly The Saturday Evening Post. Between 1920 and 1937, the magazine published 68 of Fitzgerald’s short stories, and has just issued a collection called F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby’s Girls featuring the first eight stories in book form.
“It is the story that if you work hard enough, you can succeed.”
Leading Fitzgerald scholar James L. W. West III agrees. He calls The Great Gatsby “a national scripture. It embodies the American spirit, the American will to reinvent oneself.”
West says it is no coincidence that The Great Gatsby is probably the American novel most often taught in the rest of the world. “It is our novel, how we present ourselves. … He captured and distilled the essence of the American spirit.”
Yet Gatsby also explores the dream’s destructive power. “Americans pay a great price for that dream,” says Nilsson.
From this point on it was established that the Story of Jimmy Gatz, a.k.a. Jay Gatsby, would always be about the American Dream, and while I’m not going to re-write well over a century of American scholarship in one blog post, my ambition for this site has always, and will always be, to offer alternative interpretations. The Great Gatsby to me has always been a story about love, and the dream of holding love so close that it breaks you.
The first clue is in the epigraph. For those who don’t know, an epigraph is a quote inscribed at the beginning of a novel to help establish theme or mood. Read any Stephen King book and there almost always will be at least two. In The Great Gatsby we have just one stanza:
Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high bouncing lover,
I must have you!”
Few teachers will ever take the time to really dig into that quote, and argue for its role in the book, because looking at it, it has very little, it seems, to do with the American Dream or the wealth system in our culture. That’s because it doesn’t. Fitzgerald creates the blue print for the love affair that will exist between Daisy and Gatsby in the book. If you don’t remember from high school Daisy is a rich white girl, and so she’s expected to fall in love with a rich white man. Gatsby, really a young a soldier by the name of Jay Gatz, falls in love with her but, to quote Mia Farrow’s in the 74 version of the film: “rich girls don’t marry poor boys.” Gatz spends the next few years acquiring wealth, buying a huge mansion across the river from her own New York Mansion, and throws elaborate dinner parties to gather her attention. Gatsby’s efforts are not seen then to be a desire for wealth since he couldn’t care about money. The real end of his desire, well, let’s let the book make the argument. When the narrator Nick first sees Gatsby he’s on the edge of his property looking out towards the sea:
But I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.” (21).
The green light has become a symbol for Gatsby’s “American Dream” but later in the text he remarks to Tom, Daisy’s cheating idiot sociopath husband:
Gatsby’s eyes followed it momentarily; he raised his hand and pointed across the bay.
The green light is Gatsby’s American dream, ONLY, in that his dream is Daisy. Many have argued that Gatsby is impaled by the economic differences that keep him from enjoying the life he would like to make with Daisy, but this interpretation is too rooted in Marxism I think to really get at the American Dream (Marxism in the traditional theory sense, not FOX news Socialism sense). It may because the American Dream is so rooted in capitalism that any other human drive or ambition becomes drowned out in the white noise. We Americans like our money, we enjoy our standard of living, so much so that we desire only to get more and be more. In today’s society money is a promise of fame, popularity, and comfort, therefore if you want to be a true American you should desire wealth. Gatsby acquires wealth, through the crime of bootlegging, and there is where the dominant interpretation comes in. Whether we like to admit it or not, there is a wealthy class of Americans, and while our founding fathers resisted the ideas of monarchy and dynasty, apparently, anyone would be a fool to suggest that Americans don’t possess royalty. The Koch Brothers, The Kennedy’s, The Clintons, we even ascribe dynastic ability to celebrity families, whether it be the Sheens, the Barrymore’s, the Baldwin’s, and the list goes on and on. The American dream was spoiled, because we created our oligarchy and crushed those beneath us.
This can be supported too. If we look at an exchange between Nick and Gatsby we see it:
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the symbol’s song of it…High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl….” (120).
Well there it is, my reader says, even the book supports this argument. This book is just about a guy trying to get money so he can get a girl. There’s nothing more to it.
Begin your pardon dear reader, but I call bullshit.
I’ve read The Great Gatsby at least six times now, and each time I find myself distancing from the Economic angle of the standard interpretation because it distracts from the man of Gatsby himself. That and the damned epigraph keeps buzzing in my skull. Gatsby wears his golden hat and bounces high for Daisy, not because he dreams of being a rich man with a pretty wife, but because he knows he’ll never get Daisy if he isn’t rich. After Gatsby’s shot in his pool by Wilson, who’s been sent by Tom to his place after he almost killed Daisy for killing his wife, his father comes for the funeral and shows Nick an inscription written in a book
Rise from bed … … … … …. 6.00 A.M.
Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling … … 6.15-6.30 A.M.
Study electricity, etc … … … … 7.15-8.15 A.M.
Work … … … … … … … 8.30-4.30 P.M.
Baseball and sports … … … …. 4.30-5.00 P.M.
Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it 5.00-6.00 P.M.
Study needed inventions … … …. . 7.00-9.00 P.M.
No wasting time at Shafters or [a name, indecipherable]
No more smokeing or chewing
Bath every other day
Read one improving book or magazine per week
Save $5.00 [crossed out] $3.00 per week
Be better to parents (173).
This list seems to have been completely missed by many high school educators because at first glance there doesn’t seem to be much you can do with it literarily speaking. At the high school level they tend to throw New Criticism at students, what does the passage mean symbolically, what does the rain symbolize, why does the author use alliteration. This list is important because we can see Gatsby trying to improve himself, to become a desirable man of means. That desire for self improvement is again, a key to attaining his dream of having Daisy. Of winning the love he holds in his heart and keeping.
But perhaps the best evidence I have is the long narrative of heir young love affair by the man himself. Between pages 148 and 154 Gatsby tells Nick about how he met Daisy and what her presence began to mean for him symbolically. Nick retells his retelling, and don’t worry, I ain’t gonna type out six pages of prose. I’ll just hit the highlights:
Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe, and proud above the hot struggles of the poor. […] On the last afternoon before he went abroad, he sat with Daisy in his arms for a long, silent time. It was a cold fall day, with fire in the room and her cheeks flushed. Now and then she moved and he changed his arm a little, and once he kissed her dark shining hair. The afternoon had made them tranquil for a while, as if it gave them a deep memory for the long parting the next day promised. They had never been closer in their month of love, nor communicated more profoundly one with another, than when she brushed silent lips against his coat’s shoulder or when he touched the end of her fingers, gently, as though she were asleep” (150).
While this sounds at first like the plot of The Notebook, the love of the one you almost had, that lives in your heart forever young and pure, is the strongest bond a human mind will possibly create. Gatsby, unlike most human beings, was unwilling or else unable to form a new attachment and settle, and this of course leads back to the title.
Was Gatsby THAT GREAT? I would argue yes, because he was a beautiful fool.
Gatsby wasn’t holding onto the American Dream, he was holding onto the dream of youth: the notion that we can attain young love, pure of the adult pragmatic concerns, and then live with it. And the fact is, the amazingly GREAT quality of his character, and what brings us back again and again to the slim 180 page book, is that he almost made it.
Jay Gatsby is more than just a rich man in a book that threw a lot of parties, he was a man of passion that almost won and held his dream.
The Great Gatsby has unfortunately fallen into disrepair because we keep selling the same interpretation to kids over and over again, telling them it means something, and that to me is the greatest violation of this book. We can discuss the issue of economic disparity in American culture, but we should also discuss the Icarian Game that is the plot. Much like young Icarus who flew too close to the sun and melted his wings, Gatsby came too close to the fire in his heart, and it broke him.
The Great Gatsby to me, is more than just the great American novel, it is a book singing a jazz melody to the human spirit.
And that’s worth your time dear reader.
I’ve included links to four interesting articles I found while working on this essay. They provide some interesting facts and analysis of the article just in case I’ve actually piqued your interest.
What Influence Did The Great Gatsby Have on American Literature?
Five reasons ‘Gatsby’ is the great American novel
24 Great Gatsby Facts
25 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘The Great Gatsby’
No I have not seen the Leonardo DeCaprio film, and I don’t intend to. #RobertRedfordGatsby4LIFE!
All passages were cited from the Scribner paperback edition of The Great Gatsby, full citation below.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925. Print.