Boats against the current
More than 90 years after it was published, The Great Gatsby has a more powerful grip on the imagination than ever. But what exactly is it about F Scott Fitzgerald’s American masterpiece that keeps us coming back? Sarah Churchwell spoke to Little Atoms about where the book came from and why it means so much
1. The modern prism
There’s a number of myths about the era, not least ones that have been brought about by the various film adaptations of The Great Gatsby and the like. Are there just lots of different areas of America and lots of ways in which they were different? And what was life in the 1920s for our heroes who are aspiring writers trying to get into that society?
And the Charleston hadn’t been invented...
That’s another one that surprised me. I did notice that it wasn’t in the novel. And I was going through the novel carefully for the umpteenth time and I thought, he never mentions the Charleston in the novel. Can that be true? And, sure enough, it is not in the novel. And then you think: “Is it just that he’s made a choice not to mention it?” And there could be all kinds of artistic reasons why he wouldn’t want to do that.
I went to find a history of modern dance in America. I found a couple and they gave slightly varying dates: one of them said the Charleston was 1923, one of them said the Charleston was 1924 and I thought, because I’m trying so hard to pinpoint what was happening in 1922, that’s enough of a discrepancy for me because (a) I want to know when it really did become a dance craze, and (b) I want to know if indeed it’s definitely, categorically post-1922. But could Fitzgerald have known about it when he was writing the novel in 1924? These are the kind of pedantic little questions that exercise my mind.
I got interested because I wanted to be exact. There was a kind of pleasure in that, in trying to say I want to have total precision about this where I can, and try to pinpoint the facts. So I’m going to go back to the papers because it was such a dance craze that clearly they will be talking about it when it happens. So I was looking and looking and I could find nothing in the New York Times from 1923 or 1924 about the Charleston.
It’s difficult to be definitive about it but I kept looking and kept looking and then in summer 1925 – The Great Gatsby is published in April 1925 – the New York Times started writing about this dance craze that had been sweeping the nation that summer called the Charleston. And then I was also checking the New Yorker which began in 1925 so once you’re post-Gatsby I can start to use the New Yorker as well, and they also that same summer talked about this new dance craze that had been sweeping the country that summer. Of course as with so much jazz in the 1920s it was originally a black dance from the South that is migrating and becoming mainstream, and so it does seem as if as with these other dance histories, the dance may have begun and been danced in various parts of the country earlier than 1925, but as far as I can tell, both the New York Times and the New Yorker are under the impression that in the summer of 1925 the Charleston has suddenly started sweeping America in a way that it hasn’t been doing before. So there is a good reason why nobody’s dancing the Charleston in the novel. Fitzgerald hadn’t even heard of it yet.
Let’s talk about what the literary world was like at that time.
American writers were self-consciously becoming aware of the sense that they were coming into their own, that American literature as a field of artistic endeavour was coming into its own.
For someone like me who’s been studying American literature for some time now, there are milestones and landmarks in the evolution of American literature. One of the most important is an essay that Henry James wrote at the turn of the century about American culture, America not having any culture to speak of compared to Europe, so as of the turn of the century Americans still have this real sense of inferiority and this sense that they are this new, raw nation that has not yet developed any literature worthy of the name.
There’s maybe a book here and a book there. Moby Dick hasn’t really been rediscovered yet at that point, though they rate Hawthorn and they rate some of Melville. So there’s a sense that there have been some good writers along the way but overall there isn’t a robust American literature worthy of the name. In the early 1920s that starts to change. Partly because of modernism, partly because of America’s sense of its own pre-eminence after the war, all kinds of reasons, but it just starts to come into its own.
Fitzgerald and his contemporaries were actively engaged in a conversation through the papers, through the magazines and in their correspondence, in talking about this sense that American literature might be something, that they might be doing something interesting. And that in fact the American century was at hand. They had this sense that it was about to come.
2. Zelda and Scott
Beyond the obvious fact that they’re written by Americans, probably about America, what were the things that were starting to be uniquely identifiable as an American literature at the time?
Well this is exactly what they were asking themselves: “If we’re going to claim that this is American literature, what is it that makes it American?” It starts to beg questions about what the definition of American is going to be.
And since it’s an immigrant culture that becomes complicated. What does it mean to be authentically American, if that’s already a smorgasbord? How do you talk about that?
That context makes Fitzgerald’s decision to make The Great Gatsby a story about all of America interesting. He knows that in order to write this story about modern culture and the jazz scene and all the chaotic life that he sees around him, part of the way that you stake your claim in the literature at that point – and he’s one of the first to do this – is to start to make claims about this being the meaning of America. And of course then he has that famous paean to America at the end of the novel.
And so I see that as being something that’s in conversation with these questions. None of them answered that question to their satisfaction because it’s not an easy question to answer.
It’s something that we still talk about when we do American literature. What makes it American other than they happen to be born within the confines of the United States?
Writers like Sherwood Anderson were trying to find ways to say: “Let’s think about the American vernacular, let’s think about idiomatic and demotic language, instead of writing in some kind of artificial and high-falutin’ way.”
Hemingway is an aspiring writer at this point, but he doesn’t burst onto the literary scene until after Gatsby. He’s 25 or 26 when he starts to make his presence known with authority. Hemingway later makes a famous statement that all of modern American literature can trace its roots back to Huckleberry Finn. That is something that has become a kind of truism for people talking about American literature today, but we forget that when Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby that statement had not yet been made.
Hemingway liked to present himself as a little bit more original than he was so they were all talking about the vernacular, and he’s very much in keeping with the trend there, which is to start to think about the role of the vernacular, an American vernacular, both in the sense of the idiom but also the broader sense of a vernacular as a national style. So the vernacular in every sense is making its way into American literature for the first time.
Introduce F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
They met in 1918 when he was stationed in Montgomery, Alabama. She was a southern belle and he was a lieutenant in the army. He was never sent abroad. The war ended before he saw any live action. They met and they fell in love and then they got engaged and then Zelda broke the engagement.
There are different accounts as to why she did that. Fitzgerald certainly believed that she did so because he was penurious and wasn’t going to be able to support her in the style to which she intended to become accustomed. That continued to be his belief although others – her friends and supporters – defended her and said it wasn’t quite that mercenary, but that she was just worried that they wouldn’t be able to make it.
Anyway, whatever her motivations were, she broke off the engagement and it spurred him, as broken engagements have spurred people before, to prove himself. And so he went off and re-wrote a novel that he’d been working on in the army. He spent the summer re-writing it, and called it This Side of Paradise.
At the end of the summer he found that Scribner’s, one of the most prestigious publishers in America, was going to publish his book. It came out in April 1920 and it took America by storm. It was an absolute cause célèbre. It was a huge success story, sold a lot of copies. He made a lot of money off of it and it made him an instant star.
He and Zelda got married seven days after its publication, and so they were honeymooning as the book was hitting the stands and selling out. It was selling like hot cakes. Its first printing sold out in 24 hours. The word of mouth was insane and everybody wanted to read it, and suddenly Scott and Zelda, who at the time were 24 and 20 years old, went from being totally unknown, completely anonymous young people, to being celebrities.
And they were beautiful. They both liked to drink, they both liked to party and they started to have an awful lot of fun. They also had a real sense for what we would consider modern media and PR and self-marketing, they were branding themselves in real kinds of ways. They understood that they could draw attention to themselves by behaving in “wild ways” and so they used to do things like go to the theatre and they’d start stripping, or, he danced in the fountain in front of the Plaza and she dived into another fountain in New York.
All of this stuff was good copy. And so it made them celebrated but it also, of course, made them seem a little bit silly to some people. So in one sense they were trivialising themselves, or risked trivialising themselves. His book was seen as a popular novel, which I think is important for people to remember when they come to Gatsby. Because we now see him as this revered and canonical figure, as such a serious writer, but he was not seen as a serious person by his contemporaries.
But his artistic ambitions were serious. He wrote This Side of Paradise and then he was writing commercial magazine fiction to pay the bills. These were frivolous stories but they were successful and people liked them.
He was an overnight sensation, and then Flappers and Philosophers, his first collection of short stories, came out at the end of 1920. Only a little bit over a year later he finished his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, which came out in early 1922, and then a collection of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age, which came out at the end of 1922.
So in the space of two years he’d written two novels and two short story collections. It was at that point that he started thinking about his third novel, which would become The Great Gatsby. At the end of 1922 he and Zelda returned to New York. They’d gone to the Midwest for a while and they came back to New York and they started the parties that he would later immortalise.
He was going to do something different with The Great Gatsby.
Yeah. He wrote to his editor Max Perkins announcing that he wanted to write something new (and he underscored new). He wanted to write something new, extraordinary and beautiful and intricately patterned. That letter has rightly been seen as this recognition in his own mind, his determination that he was going to demonstrate that he was a real artist and not just a purveyor of commercial stories.
At that point what this new intricately patterned, extraordinary beautiful novel was going to be remained to be seen. His contemporaries saw him primarily as a satirist. That was what he was known as.
The Beautiful and Damned is a tragedy that he wrote in what’s called the naturalist vein, in the vein of Theodore Dreiser or Émile Zola. Even with The Beautiful and Damned, he was starting to try to write something serious and tragic. But partly because earlier aspects of that book are indeed satirical but also partly because he was so categorised as a satirist, a lot of people thought that the ending of The Beautiful and Damned, which he wanted to be this great tragedy, was a parody.
So it was as if he couldn’t get anybody to take him seriously even when he tried to be serious. And that was something that he was acutely aware of. Even people like Edmund Wilson and his friend John Peale Bishop. The three of them had been friends at Princeton, and both Bishop and Wilson were better educated than Fitzgerald, who took a haphazard approach to his studies. Bishop and Wilson were much more serious about their education as young men. Fitzgerald caught up later but as a young man he was pretty frivolous and he didn’t really work hard – or rather study hard. He played hard and he worked hard at his writing but he didn’t work hard at his studies.
Bishop and Wilson liked to tease him for being ignorant and for being a writer who hadn’t actually read anything. And even they didn’t understand his ambitions until much later. Even though he wanted to make a lot of money and he wanted to write commercially successful fiction, and he liked being rich and famous, he also wanted to do something that was artistic and serious. The novel that eventually became Gatsby was from the beginning conceived of as his first attempt at real art.
He wrote an outline list to the plot in an old copy of André Malraux’s Man’s Hope after the book was published.
Malraux’s Man’s Hope was first published in November 1938 and Fitzgerald died in December 1940. And at the point, jumping ahead in the story, where it all gets sad, by that point his star had completely fallen. His life had fallen apart.
In 1930 Zelda had a terrible mental breakdown. People still argue about exactly what was wrong with her and some people try to say that she wasn’t really ill and that it was just society or her husband or something that drove her crazy.
Which is not to take mental illness seriously, in my opinion. She was seriously ill and although she was diagnosed at the time as schizophrenic some people now think maybe that she was bi-polar. In a sense, and I don’t mean this dismissively, at all – in the sense that she’s dead and we can’t treat her – it doesn’t matter what she had as long as we recognise that the mental illness was real. And she had to be hospitalised and she spent the 1930s in and out of hospitals and sanatoriums, mostly in.
And at the same time Fitzgerald’s alcoholism spiralled out of control. He was so much associated with the jazz age and the 1920s that as soon as the crash happened and the depression started he was instantly passé. Suddenly he couldn’t get anybody to publish his work.
By 1938 he was, as he wrote to Zelda, a forgotten man. He had published Tender is the Night in 1934 and it didn’t do well. At the end of his life he was trying to write another novel, The Last Tycoon, about Hollywood. He wrote in many letters around that time that he was trying to go back to the mode of Gatsby in The Last Tycoon, because Tender is the Night had been a departure in various ways. So it’s as he’s thinking about The Last Tycoon but ruminating on Gatsby and thinking about what he had done 15 years earlier that he grabs this book.
He must have done this sometime between 1938 and 1940 but we don’t know when because he didn’t date it. He picks up this copy of this book and on the back inside cover in the fly-leaf he jots down a list of nine notes, and they are at least some of the historical and biographical sources for his nine chapters in Gatsby. It’s a partial list and it’s a personal list. He doesn’t seem to be writing it for posterity, he’s just jotting it down. And it seems, it’s an aide memoire. He’s using it to remind himself of how he got to Gatsby so he can do something similar with The Last Tycoon.
It’s an outline list that scholars have known for a long time but nobody ever does much with. A kind of footnote at most. Some people think it’s an illegitimate exercise to be interested in the sources of fiction, as if fiction can only stand completely on its own. And yet Fitzgerald was perfectly happy to acknowledge what those sources were and he never pretended that he hadn’t been drawing on events and incidents and people around him. He was re-working it, and he was re-imagining it.
I’m not suggesting that The Great Gatsby was a true story; that would be a deeply silly thing to say.
But it’s equally silly to pretend that it had no relationship to his life when even he was happily acknowledging to anyone who asked that Gatsby was based on a bootlegger that he knew. And that Jordan Baker was based on a golfer named Edith Cummings and that Meyer Wolfsheim was based on a gangster called Arnold Rothstein.
He didn’t have any problem admitting that, so why should we create this kind of artificial construct as if it would somehow harm our appreciation of The Great Gatsby if we admit that there was anything so distasteful as actual history? It’s ridiculous.
Where does an author get his ideas from? Kurt Vonnegut was asked where his ideas came from, and he said “Cincinnati”, which I always think is really funny.
3. The Invention of Gatsby
The other obvious point is how much of the book parallels his own life and experience. Not even just the experiences he was going through and the people he knew, but it’s set in the exact same geographical area that they were living in. The East and West Egg is clearly a parallel of the Great Neck on Long Island where they were spending their time. So it does seem crazy to suggest that the whole thing must be a fiction.
Yes exactly. And so nobody suggests that but at the same time then they say but it’s not interesting to talk about Great Neck, to talk about what he was doing.
They moved to Long Island at the end of 1922 and they lived there for about 18 months and then in May 1924 they sailed for France and he ended up writing Gatsby in the south of France. And he later wrote an essay about that decision to leave for France and said: “We decided that I would take the Long Island atmosphere that I familiarly breathed and materialise it beneath unfamiliar skies.”
So it was a recent history. He was writing about his own experience only two years later and trying to crystallise his sense of what modern America suddenly looked like and to use the notion of the gentleman bootlegger as an exemplary representative figure of this modern America that was emerging.
You subtitled your book on Gatsby “The Invention of The Great Gatsby”. “Invention” is a very deliberate word.
It is a very deliberate word. I use it because it is the word that Fitzgerald uses twice in the Man’s Hope outline. He says the murder at the end of The Great Gatsby was invented, and he says the funeral of Gatsby was invented.
I thought it was a interesting word for him to use about his own memory of the way that he wrote his novel. The fact he was using the word “invented” rather than “imagined” or “fictioned” or whatever it might have been. Fitzgerald cared deeply about individual word choices. He always said he insisted on reading meaning into things so I think that’s what gives me permission to pay attention to the words he used.
So I became interested in this notion that it was something that was invented because, as he knew, in the Renaissance, invention meant exactly the same thing as discovery. So for me it’s asking a question about the relationship between invention and discovery and what we know about how art is invented. What does it mean to say art is invented?
I looked at that on a much more simplistic level than that in that the other aspect of that outline list – the Dwans and the Swopes and the whatever – were based on real events and the murder and the funeral were ones he made up.
I think that’s absolutely what he meant. What interested me about it, was that, if you look at it in reverse, what that implies is that nothing else is invented, right? It implies that only those two chapters are invented and that the rest of it is somehow closely based on history or actual experiences.
But then one of the things that became interesting to me was that the murder was in some ways not invented and the funeral that he does invent, you know claims that he invented, in an uncanny way prefigures his own. And so even the things that are invented that he states in this outline are invented have this remarkable relationship to real life.
So there’s a sense in which The Great Gatsby almost has this kind of magnetic attraction to the life around it; that it can’t ever quite be read apart from those contexts.
We’ll talk about why the murder wasn’t an invention, but for now let’s look at the critical reception at the time of The Great Gatsby. Because as usual in his life Fitzgerald was in for a massive disappointment when it came out.
In the last year of his life his final statement shows that he sold exactly nine copies of Tender is the Night, and seven copies of The Great Gatsby. I take a slightly vindictive pleasure when I tell this to audiences in Europe and they’ve said: “Well that’s because Americans didn’t understand what it was, but it did much better in Britain didn’t it?” And I get to say: “No. I’m afraid none of his books sold any copies outside of the United States at all in the last year of his life.” So it wasn’t just Americans being too stupid to appreciate a genius amongst them. Nobody did at that point.
So seven copies of The Great Gatsby were sold in the last year of his life and it had been put into the Modern Library collection and it had to be taken out because it didn’t sell – if you can imagine such a thing.
The amazing thing symbolically is that his final royalty statement was for $13.13. He was in such a streak of bad luck that it’s just kind of extraordinary that that could have been the total – but it was.
And so he died thinking that he was – I’ve already used this phrase but it’s so painful – a forgotten man. And he was. It wasn’t until after his death that Gatsby came to be viewed as a masterpiece. So he only gets the last laugh if we believe in an afterlife.
But these guys were the biggest celebrities in the world...
Well they were certainly up there, I mean they’re at the same time as Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who were bigger stars, and Charlie Chaplin, so the movie stars are a little bit bigger but they’re certainly up there with the most famous writers.
Zelda kept a little clipping from those early years that said something like: “We’re accustomed to this kind of attention to movie stars but to see it given to writers like Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda is something new.” They definitely were feted, they were celebrated, they were popular.
One of the things that people forget as well is that he and Zelda had an enormous amount of charm when they chose to exercise it, and they were both beautiful and well liked. They were popular and they travelled in the best circles and for a long time, they lived the high life.
But they’re also a real cautionary tale. There’s a real decline and fall in that story. It isn’t a more familiar story of a Van Gogh or someone, whose art is only recognised after their death. This is somebody who was celebrated. But the irony is that from our point of view Fitzgerald was celebrated for the wrong books. And the books that we admire they didn’t admire at all. So Gatsby and Tender is the Night, which we think are his two masterpieces, were the novels that didn’t do very well. And his first two novels, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned, which we think are pretty forgettable, were the books that they loved.
H L Mencken was one of the most important critics of the 1920s in America. When he reviewed The Great Gatsby, he basically said it’s OK but it’s not to be put on the same shelf with This Side of Paradise. From our point of view he gets it exactly backwards. He got it wrong.
Tell us about the murder of Eleanor Mills and Edward Hall.
Just at the same time as Scott and Zelda were moving back to New York and about to rent the house on Long Island, and start all the parties that would so influence Gatsby, there was this double murder that gripped America. It broke just as they were returning.
In New Brunswick, New Jersey, which is about 50 miles west of New York, and just up the road from Princeton where Fitzgerald had studied, two bodies were discovered in a field. They’d been shot in the head and the bodies had been staged. They’d been laid out side by side.
The man, Edward Hall, had his hand under the head of the woman, Eleanor Mills, and she had her hand resting intimately and suggestively on his thigh. Their love letters had been scattered around the bodies and his calling card was propped against his shoe, so the killer presumably wanted the authorities to know who they were and what their story was. The authorities didn’t quite work that out. They made the Keystone Cops look efficient and organised.
It turned out that the couple who had been murdered had been having an affair for at least three years. Both Hall and Mills were married to other people, and they’d been carrying out a flagrant affair. People think of the 1920s as being flamboyant but this is the early 1920s and so the mores are just starting to shift, and New Brunswick is a middle-class and conservative place.
Hall was also a minister, so that of course also increased the scandalous nature of their liaison.
So somebody had murdered this couple. The motivation seemed to be sexual revenge about infidelity because of the way that the love letters were there, the way that bodies were staged.
The bodies were found by a young couple in a field outside of a notorious lovers’ lane in the small hours of the morning a few days later, who claimed they were out mushroom-picking, but of course they were in the lovers’ lane for the same reason that people usually go to lovers’ lanes in the middles of the night. They stumbled across the bodies, which was a great misfortune for both of them because it proceeded to destroy their lives.
They reported the bodies and the news started to spread that these bodies had been found and so sightseers and gawkers started to congregate.
But the police made no effort to cordon off the scene. They were just a pair of local cops and there was no procedure, there was no sense of what one should do in such a case. The local cops and the local county physician who was called to the scene allowed all of these gawkers and sightseers to just mill around and to interact with the crime scene in a way that we all would find completely incredible today. They were allowed to pick up the letters and read them and drop them – and so who knows if anybody took any away. They were allowed to pick up the rector’s calling card.
The authorities – I can only use the word authorities with great irony – didn’t take any photographs, they didn’t interview anybody, they didn’t even draw a picture of what the bodies were like, how they were laid out. So the crime scene was so instantly and totally contaminated that there was no possibility that they were ever going to get any physical evidence. At that point the only way they were ever going to make a case was if they had a confession or an eyewitness. So they tried to get both. It became obvious to everybody how absurdly they were mishandling this violent murder.
And then it turned out that they’d got all kinds of things wrong. The doctor who was at the scene missed two of the three bullet holes in Mills’s head. They were in the front of her head, not even in the back of her head. So he missed bullet holes full in her face. How is that even possible? He also missed the fact that her throat had been cut from ear to ear. This slipped his attention and only came out when they exhumed the bodies.
The bodies of this unfortunate couple were buried quickly because they’d been decomposing in the field, and then they had to be exhumed because there was this growing rumour that there were more bullet holes in the woman’s head. Partly because so many people were around the scene who were able to see how many bullet holes she had in her head.
The physical evidence was so destroyed that the authorities were not ever going to be able to make a case. At one point they tried to pin it on the poor couple who found the bodies. That story was so ridiculous that even they had to concede that it was not going to hold up in court. And then they proceeded to try to indict the minister’s wife.
Looking at it now we can surmise that the only two reasonable suspects are either Hall’s wife or Mills’s husband. And so you have to believe, as the authorities eventually tried to convince a couple of juries to do, that this Edwardian minister’s wife with her hair in a bun who basically looks Victorian, colluded in or in fact herself shot her rival full in the face three times and then slit her throat or connived in having her throat slit.
And what became interesting to me about this case – well there are a couple of things. One is that details from the case make their way into Gatsby. In particular, the novel that Nick Carraway reads in Myrtle Wilson’s flat at the end of Chapter 2 in Gatsby is Simon Called Peter, a novel that figured heavily in the coverage of the case. In fact it was the favourite book of Eleanor Mills, the female victim. The minister gave it to her; it was seen as a salacious best seller.
The analogy that I’ve used in talking about it is to imagine a murder today, a double murder of a couple who were lovers where she had been reading Fifty Shades of Grey, and the murder seemed in some ways to mimic of Fifty Shades of Grey. You can imagine that the press would go nuts for that because Fifty Shades of Grey is already newsworthy in and of itself. So if you also have a murder that seems to be following, to be paralleling that novel... that’s what happened with Simon Called Peter, and it makes its way into Fitzgerald’s novel, and there are some other details from the case that make their way into the novel.
It seemed to me that clearly Myrtle Wilson and particularly her husband George are based on Eleanor Mills and the press descriptions of her husband James Mills, who is a dead ringer for George Wilson.
The story of the murders of Hall and Mills shines a light on different aspects of The Great Gatsby. We all focus on the glamour of the novel and on the parties and the magic and the enchantment. But it’s also a dark novel; it’s also a novel about poverty and about class resentment and about these kind of sordid lives lived on the margins of wealth. And that is a story that absolutely comes through in the coverage of the murders of Hall and Mills.
By using that story as a context it helps us focus on different aspects of The Great Gatsby and throw those into relief as it were. And not necessarily to make a case that this murder mystery must have consciously influenced Fitzgerald. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. But it shows us things about his world that we’ve forgotten and we don’t understand. And it sets a different kind of tone in thinking about Gatsby and reminds us that it’s a macabre novel in certain kinds of ways and a dark novel as well.
Fitzgerald didn’t live to see his own critical reappraisal. He died thinking he was a failure. Zelda did start to see it before her own terrible tragic ending dying in a fire in a mental institution. When did that start to shift?
After Fitzgerald died, his friend Edmund Wilson who by that point was a influential literary critic, was of the opinion that the unfinished manuscript of The Last Tycoon was worthy of publication. He thought that it deserved an audience.
But it was unfinished and it was brief, so in order to bulk it out he published it in 1941 with The Great Gatsby as a double, a bonus gift for any buyer. And that is what triggered the reappraisal.
Because it was Wilson, influential critics paid attention, they started re-reading. And by that point, it’s 1941, the second world war is raging and America’s lived through a decade and more of depression and is just starting to emerge from depression because of the economy created by the war. So they now had the perspective and the distance to see on re-reading Gatsby what Fitzgerald had got right.
When the novel came out first it wasn’t well received, because it was viewed at the time as being so close to its historical sources: it was dismissed as just a tabloid tale. They said this is just what you read in the newspapers. It’s like reading Hello! magazine. Why are we supposed to take this seriously as a novel? And they could see it was beautifully written, but the analogy I sometimes used is that because they saw the characters in it as being so definitionally trivial, it’s as if we got a novel today that was beautifully written about the Kardashians.
Most people would just think: “Why are you wasting all of this artistry on these essentially trivial and vacuous people? This cannot be a great novel because it is not about great people.” And that was the general feeling, particularly because it was so clearly modelled on these tabloid stories and tabloid figures that they couldn’t take it seriously as art.
But the other reason why they couldn’t take it seriously as art, or they weren’t in a position to recognise what we see as its greatness, is that it was a prophetic novel. It was absolutely prophetic about where America was going and what America was going to be like, and by definition you don’t know if a prophecy is right until hindsight has proven it correct.
And so by 1941, re-reading the novel, critics and readers were suddenly in a position to see what it was that Fitzgerald had predicted. And that he had understood that the party was going to come crashing to an end. But in 1925 they were in the midst of the party.
They didn’t think the party was going to end. Boom was going to last forever. And of course it’s only once bust comes that you start to see what it was that he understood. And so a real reassessment kicks off at that point and over the course of the 1940s Fitzgerald’s reputation starts to build and build and influential critics – including not just Wilson but also Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin, important mid-century voices in America – start to champion Fitzgerald as a great writer.
By the late 1940s he’s made his way into university syllabuses, he’s being taught in schools, particularly Gatsby, and by the early 1950s the first biography starts to emerge, the first critical study of him, by Kazin, and also MA and PhD students are starting to write theses about him, and then you know that somebody’s canonical: once the scholars get going then it’s official he’s become a canonical writer. By the early 1950s he was kind of entrenched. So it took about a decade.
But he could of course, despite the critical appraisal, the academic appraisal, have gone off, been ghettoised as an academic novel and a curiosity and forgotten. Yet the popularity of the novel has continued to grow. Nowadays a lot of people will cite it as the greatest American novel. Why is it so popular? And beyond… Well perhaps we should also ask what’s it about? It’s often described as being a novel about the American dream, a concept that didn’t even really exist at the time that Fitzgerald wrote it.
Exactly. He kind-of helps bring the American dream into existence in this novel. The notion of America as a land of opportunity in which one’s success would be measured by one’s character not by one’s social condition, is of course as old as the founding of the United States as this kind of social experiment. So that’s not a new idea. But the phrase “American Dream” is not a phrase that is available to Fitzgerald and his contemporaries. And it doesn’t become a phrase one until 1931, until the Depression, and it’s because of an American historian, James Truslow Adams, who writes a book called The Epic of America in which he says, the American Dream is that through hard work and determination you could make something of yourself.
He says that dream which has always been with the nation is now under threat because of the depression, which of course it was. And it sparks a real debate about much as is happening in America right now, the parallels are quite extraordinary, that when the economy shudders to a halt Americans start to ask with great anxiety: “What about this dream of equality and opportunity and what is going on? How did we get it so wrong?”
We’re now echoing almost exactly, precisely the conversation that they were having in the 1930s over this idea of the American Dream. And Fitzgerald anticipates that by six years in Gatsby. In fact he even uses the word dream to describe Gatsby’s own hope of what America could be. He says that the dream is behind him in the “dark fields of the republic”.
This is where Fitzgerald is so remarkable: he’s already seeing America as a broken promise, as a failed dream. As Gatsby’s green light that will always recede before him but he will never, ever capture. And this kind of will-o’-the-wisp idea that you keep chasing it but it will always elude you.
What interests me about the idea of the American Dream is not only that Fitzgerald anticipates it but that it’s only ever discussed as a failure.
So when you start to articulate the American Dream it’s because something has gone wrong, and it’s at that point that the story starts to emerge and that’s what’s so interesting about Gatsby; Fitzgerald got there first. He sees that there is a dream and he sees that the dream is a lie and a myth and that’s what the story is capturing and encapsulating.
At its heart I think that’s absolutely what the novel is about, but it communicates that, it conveys that with such power and such poignancy and such beauty that there’s this sense of the heartbreak of needing that dream and the importance of hope. So that it’s not simply a novel about disillusionment, it’s also a novel about the importance of illusions. That you have to have your illusions. You have to have your hope.
That hope is in itself a kind of artistry and that that is Gatsby’s greatness. His greatness lies in his capacity for hope but therefore the greater your capacity for hope the greater your capacity for disappointment. And then in that sense that he is the exemplary American because he so represents that archetypal American experience of having very, very great hopes and having them very, very greatly disappointed. And that that’s true not just of individual Americans but that it’s true of America itself.
That’s what Fitzgerald widens out to say at the end of the novel. America was always conceived of as this great hope, and it has always been a great failure.