‘The Great Gatsby‘ is a title F. Scott Fitzgerald once dismissed as “weak, since there’s nothing ‘great’ about Gatsby,” (Jan 24, 1925 in a letter to his long-time friend, publisher and mentor, Maxwell Perkins.) He preferred the more modest and honest ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’. Let us all, in unison, thank the book gods he didn’t get his way. The title of this novel is splendidly evocative. The irony is just extra.
The Great Gatsby, a tale set in the summer of 1922 on the twin islands of East and West Egg, New York, is a contemplative recount of the brief but profound friendship between Jay Gatsby and the narrator of the novel, Nick Carraway. Gatsby, a quixotic enigmatic millionaire who nightly throws his arms out to a distant green light across the bay between East and West Egg, and Nick, a laid-back mid-westerner newly come east, partly to explore the bond trade and partly to flee a loveless ‘attachment’, have an instant liking for each other. But neither can foresee the devastating carnage that waylays them in that sticky boozed-up libertine summer.
The Great Gatsby evolves into a caustic critique of the physical and metaphorical divide between old and new money, the inevitable desolation of the self-made man, and the destructive power of greed, deceit and betrayal. With tight witty prose (including hilarious ‘Oggsford’ accents and drunken diatribes), decadent mansions and sweeping landscapes, and vain blindly romantic characters, Fitzgerald effortlessly delivers a breathtaking art-deco masterpiece.
Which makes it all the more staggering that it was a commercial flop when it was first published in 1925.
Perhaps The Great Gatsby was swallowed whole by the new craze, i.e. the formless novel. James Joyce had recently dropped Ulysses on the literary world and stream-of-consciousness, peripatetic plots and the ‘serious novel’ were all the rage. A perfectly formed, circular, ‘trivial’ novel like The Great Gatsby may have been doomed, it certainly wasn’t on trend.
The intrepid author, however, knew he had a winner. In another letter to Perkins, Fitzgerald writes,
I think all the reviews I’ve seen have been stupid and lousy. Some day they’ll eat grass. May 22, 1925.
True to his -aah- expressive prophesy, The Great Gatsby has become one of the most celebrated American novels ever written. (Never mind that I’d neither read it nor seen the film adaptations, I knew the name and I’m catching up fast.)
The Great Gatsby is described as definitively Jazz Age, a term Fitzgerald is credited with, and is influential in creating a new wave of sexually empowered women as seen in the epigraph,
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!
the novel has been used as inspiration in other inter-textual and modernized novels such as Bodega Dreams and The Double Bind; there’s a Gatsby graphic novel; an opera; and even a video game. Which makes it all the more heart-breaking that Fitzgerald, having also written The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, died penniless at 44, believing himself a failure.
Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not when he is dead. The Great Gatsby p.103
So allow me to join Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway in professing the greatness of The Great Gatsby, no irony intended. It is a novel of the short and sweet kind, beautiful in every way, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.
i got rhythm-ella fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby is available free online.