Speaking of the Roaring Twenties …

The Great Gatsby

By F. Scott Fitzgerald

Writers in the 1920s produced many fine top-10 bestsellers that we still read or watch stage and film adaptations of today (such as Edith Warton’s The Age of Innocence, Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Edna Ferber’s Show Boat, to cite a few). Sinclair Lewis, however, outdid everybody with five bestsellers (Publisher’s Weekly) between 1920 and 1921: Main Street (1921), Babbitt (1922-23, discussed in a recent c/w post), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929). While bestseller status doesn’t guarantee a book’s merit, all these authors, and particularly Lewis, wrote first-rate fiction that survives them.

However, some authors whom we now regard as American literary giants writing in the 20s are conspicuous by their absence, and none more than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Here, of course, I’m thinking of The Great Gatsby. You certainly could argue that of all the bestsellers noted and all that you will find on the lists for the 20s, none has been read more than Gatsby.

And why not? Because Fitzgerald, in one magnificent novel, dramatized the major currents of modern American life—romantic, social, and economic—all of which continue to dominate, and often befuddle, our lives. And he managed to accomplish this in the most economical great novel ever written.

So, permit a few words about The Great Gatsby

The idea of romantic love enraptures us so much that we have an entire literary genre devoted to passion. Jay Gatsby worships an idealized love for Daisy Buchanan and the upper class lifestyle she represents. The driving force of his life, from poverty to showy wealth, not only springs from his hated of his impoverished early life but from his desire to possess Daisy.

While we like to believe that ours is a classless society, we all know that’s merely a pleasing illusion. Even when we manage to breakthrough to the top of the economic food chain we can’t count on acceptance. The newly wealthy in the late 19th century discovered the impenetrability of the 400 and it’s no different for Gatsby. Tom Buchanan, who constantly displays his superiority (in the opening with his racial prejudice, Fitzgerald’s allusion to Lothrop Stoddard), regularly demeans Gatsby. In the end, class wins out, as Daisy tosses over Gatsby, a second time, for Buchanan. And we won’t go into the psychological implications of Buchanan’s affair with Myrtle Wilson, except to marvel at the rich vein Fitzgerald has left us for conjecture.

While the lust for wealth isn’t anything unique to America, we Americans exhibit a keen zeal for it, and a wondrous capacity for achieving it, by methods fair and foul and in-between the two poles. Jay Gatsby is hardscrabble and comes by his through bootlegging and financial legerdemain. The Buchanan’s come by theirs through inheritance, the accumulation of which might have involved not a little bit of ancestral chicanery. Gatsby is nouveau flamboyant. The Buchanans, while more reserved, flaunt theirs, nonetheless.

Fitzgerald says a lot in few words. However, he also leaves much unsaid. This invites readers to fill in the open spaces from their various perspectives. Fitzgerald’s economy coupled with his astute understanding of American life are what keep The Great Gatsby as fresh and rewarding today as it was when published in 1925, while scores of other books have faded from our collective memory.

If you are a first-time reader of this novel, you are in for a treat. Those who have read it before, or a couple of times, can always find something new in a truly remarkable novel. It’s one of those novels you come back to often.

Babbitt, published in 1922 (and discussed in an earlier post), the year in which Fitzgerald set his tale, also deals with disillusionment with American life, in particular conformity and the achievement of the American dream. Like Fitzgerald, Lewis also alludes to Lothrop Stoddard. Stoddard published The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy (currently available in print and electronically) in 1920. And like The Great Gatsby, Babbitt fascinates with its truths about American life, especially in reference to the fears of Americans, fears which still obsess many of us. c/w


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