Despite occasional detractors, The Great Gatsby remains a gold standard for American fiction…
Having read John Edward Williams’ magnificent novel Stoner a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that one reviewer referred to the novel as the “anti Gatsby.” That got me to do a little looking around – and I found some interesting things being said about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel (most in some way or another trying to tie in to the recent release of yet another attempt to make a film of what is damned near prose poetry). A couple of the more interesting essays I’ll mention here in the course of my own comments about the novel. And yes, I’ve gone off the reading list again to zip through Gatsby for the 20-something-th time. I wanted to read Fitzgerald while Williams was still relatively fresh in my mind.
Anyway, the talk about Gatsby – and the need reviewers and essayists felt to compare Stoner to The Great Gatsby – would lead one to conclude that there is some consensus that The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel®. This is, I admit, something of a surprise to me. I’d always assumed (and remember, friends, this is an English professor writing to you – oh, that’s right, credentials mean nothing on the Internet – never mind) that this book was the #1 contender for that amorphous (and perhaps dubious) distinction.
But it would seem I may be wrong and that West Egg’s gaudiest, gauchest gangster has supplanted the Mississippi’s most roguish and reflective rafter as the sweetheart of American literature. I don’t think that this is a good or bad thing. But I believe it may be of interest to consider why The Great Gatsby now seems to hold a higher place in the American reader’s psyche than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
It may be of interest to those who don’t know to hear a brief history of Gatsby’s rise to prominence. The novel was, as many readers may know, a failure upon publication in 1925. Fitzgerald was deeply bothered by this, and Gatsby’s failure may, in part, explain why it took him nine years to bring out another novel (the fascinating if flawed Tender is the Night). In fact, except for the intervention of the US military (on whose recommendation? these guys) who handed out 150,000 copies of the novel to troops near the end of World War II, a move which finally popularized the novel, it might have disappeared or been relegated to a minor status, studied by American literature scholars and few others. As it is, it currently is one of the most often taught novels in the American literary canon. And its reputation as the “perfect novel” is almost universally admired (more on dissent from this opinion later).
It seems logical at this point to note a couple of the novel’s most famous quotes to refresh everyone’s memory of the beautiful piece of writing we’re discussing here. The opening, for instance, both admonishment and foreshadowing:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’
And that haunting closing, so much the epitome of the Fitzgeraldean vision, that the last line of it is carved on Scott and Zelda’s tombstone:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic 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 one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
As anyone who has read The Great Gatsby knows, the novel is rife with rhapsody and prose-poetry alternating with Nick Carraway’s stolid (and not always accurate) Midwestern assessments of the people with whom he interacts. The plot, simple enough, concerns a poor boy, James Gatz, who refashions himself into an archetypal American capitalist (and Fitzgerald, through Nick, disapproves of Gatsby’s “whatever it takes” approach to capitalism) in order to “elevate” himself enough to be worthy of the woman he fell in love with some years before the novel opens, one Daisy Buchanan. The third person limited narrator, Nick Carraway, who is connected to the story because he is Daisy’s cousin, is unreliable. That is an important but too often overlooked aspect of the novel; not only is Nick unable to be everywhere (thus forcing us as readers to receive second hand reports of important events), his own prejudices (his fondness for Gatsby, his dislike of Tom Buchanan, for example) color his telling of the story in ways that attempt (and, I suspect, with many readers) make us accept, perhaps even like or dislike people for all the wrong reasons. Somehow, despite the fact that he’s a criminal and seeks to break up a marriage (lousy marriage though it is, to be sure), Gatsby comes across as admirable in a perverse sort of way. That’s quite a feat for Fitzgerald to have pulled off. Perhaps another unreliable narrator, Holden Caulfield, expresses the admiration one can feel for Fitzgerald’s accomplishment as well as anyone:
I was crazy about The Great Gatsby. Old Gatsby. Old sport. That killed me.
* * * *
One of the ways in which we measure a great work of literature is how well it can take having lesser minds screw around with it. Shakespeare’s works, of course, have been “improved” at various times throughout the 500 years since their composition. In the Restoration Period, for instance, King Lear was revised to provide a happy ending. More recently, political correctness (or whatever the latest incarnation of censorship posing as sensitivity is called) is “revising” Huckleberry Finn to eliminate “unacceptable” language. And of course there are rafts of literary criticism whose sole purpose seems to be re-interpret (and often castigate) works of literature in terms of contemporary social/political/cultural expectations. Gatsby has had its share of this sort of criticism. It’s even become fashionable to hate The Great Gatsby for being – well, The Great Gatsby, it seems.
And some of that criticism is justified, I suppose. Fitzgerald did admire the rich, probably too much – but he saw their limitations, too. Remember his final assessment of Tom and Daisy:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they 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.
Unlike too many of the messages in our current culture, Fitzgerald’s works about the rich (not just The Great Gatsby but The Beautiful and Damned, “The Rich Boy,” “Winter Dreams”) again and again show that money, while maybe not the root of all evil, is no guarantee of happiness or virtue or peace.
What matters to Fitzgerald is what makes those who are rich or who get rich tick. As Nick observes about Gatsby, one obsessed with the American Dream®, it wasn’t money that made Jay Gatsby – it was his dream of happiness, misguided though it was:
Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.
The Great Gatsby is about love and money and dreams and money and truth and money. It’s perhaps the quintessentially American novel for that reason.
* * * *
Finally, about that business I spoke of early on – why The Great Gatsby has perhaps overtaken Huckleberry Finn as the Great American Novel. I would offer two reasons – one social-historical, one cultural.
First, as we all know (or should know), Huckleberry Finn is a novel about race. Huck’s realizations about Jim’s humanity become (or should become) our realizations about the humanity of anyone who might be classified by that occasionally useful psychological term, “the other.” Twain makes us think about who we are, who other people are. He forces us to ask ourselves difficult questions about good and evil, friends and enemies, law and justice. In a real sense, what we see in Huckleberry Finn is the main character’s transition from boy to man – he learns about the terrible costs of prejudice, dishonesty, and hatred – and he learns to make and stand by his own decisions based on his own assessments of right and wrong, good and evil, fair or unfair – whether those decisions meet social or legal expectations or not. Huck’s decision to help Jim become a free man is one of the most powerful in all of literature. It is an act of justice and love – and done because it is just and loving, not for any other reason. It is a novel that makes any serious reader question his/her own beliefs.
In simple but troubling terms, it is not (maybe it never has been) a novel that fits in well with past or current American attitudes about social justice. It is discomfiting in ways we as a nation are failing to deal with – or do not wish to deal with, perhaps.
The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, is not so easily understood. As one reviewer complained on Goodreads, “It’s all about ritzy partying, about the things that happen to people who party a lot. That’s the great American dream — sappy unrequited love before and after partying.” And it’s not just Goodreads casual reviewers. In an article I cited earlier, the author argues that in Gatsby there is no criticism of what it purports to criticize – there is no “there there”:
There’s a reason Gatsby contains the best party scenes in American literature. But when you combine the two—when you apply a strict moral code to the saturnalian society to which you are attracted—you inevitably wind up a hypocrite. Jonathan Franzen once described Gatsby as “the central fable of America.” If so, it is the fable of the fox and the grapes: a story about people who criticize precisely what they covet.
One of the things that makes The Great Gatsby so powerful (and, I think, the essayist quoted mistaken) is that Nick Carraway does what he says he was taught to do by his father: he “reserves all judgments.” Since we see the events of the novel through Nick’s eyes, of course we’re not going to get complete descriptions or examinations of the characters. Nick’s biases become our biases – until we tease out for ourselves what we believe to be the characters’ qualities and flaws. As with Huck Finn, another unreliable narrator, we get only part of the experience; we must infer the rest based on clues Fitzgerald drops through the novel. Perhaps we get our best clue in the last thing Nick says to Gatsby:
‘They’re a rotten crowd,’ I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’ I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end. First he nodded politely, and then his face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we’d been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time.
Combined with the observation he offers above about the characters of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Fitzgerald offers us a powerful, though often misconstrued lesson: The rich are different from you and me – but not really. Fitzgerald wants us to understand this important lesson in The Great Gatsby that we have yet to learn: Having money does make people better or smarter or more admirable than not having money. It simply makes them richer.
Maybe this lesson, and it is an important one – resonates with us more than the more difficult one about justice and love that Twain offers in Huckleberry Finn.
The cultural reason for Gatsby’s ascension past Huck Finn may be explained, I believe, rather simply. Huckleberry Finn is a longer novel than The Great Gatsby. Despite the current success of novels-in-series, it may be simply that readers find tackling what they perceive as a “hard” (read: literary/academic/school assigned) short novel easier than tackling a longer one.
That may be a point that will cause arguments, but I’m betting it has real validity.
So ultimately, what makes The Great Gatsby such a success story in American literature is not its beautiful writing, its haunting images, its subtle, troubling critique of American values. What may make it the Gold Standard for popularity in serious American fiction is that it’s a quick and easy read. Whether that is the case or not, The Great Gatsby remains one of the most compelling and important works of fiction of the 20th century.
So we can all feel okay with having read it. Anyway, to paraphrase Fitzgerald’s friend and rival, it’s pretty to think so.