Revised and Expanded
There are, in my opinion, several good books in the American literary tradition worth reading. Let me save you some time, however, by recommending F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)’s immortal classic, The Great Gatsby (1925).
Penned at the height of the Jazz Age (a term Fitzgerald himself coined), Gatsby is so perennially-popular that it attracted stars from Robert Redford to Leonardo DiCaprio.
But don’t put much stock in a movie, because there’s a secret: The Great Gatsby casts its spell though the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It comes to life in your mind’s eye far more beautifully, and sadly, than any film could attempt. Every aspect of the novel is a treasure in its own right, like Cugat’s modern, mysterious jacket cover (see above) or the haunting green light on Daisy’s shore. Fitzgerald works his magic from the moment you meet Jordan Baker until poor Nick finally goes home. As an added bonus, recent editions of the novel are particularly keen, meticulous as they are in rendering the author’s intended text.
A fair warning: much like its title character, The Great Gatsby will deceive you. Is Gatsby merely the tale of star-crossed lovers? Or are Jay and Daisy actually stand-ins for Scott Fitzgerald himself and his beloved Zelda? Could Gatsby’s demise and Daisy’s escape be the finale the Fitzgeralds desperately hoped for? After all, Scott was never a carefree playboy. He wasn’t cut down in his prime; he died desolate and forgotten. And Zelda didn’t remain fixed in gay Paris; she spent the majority of her life locked in a mental hospital, later dying in the fire that consumed it.¹
But Gatsby isn’t just a semi-autobiographical take on F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s really his master commentary on capitalism itself.² Jay Gatsby is a man built and sold on the “get rich quick” promise of the capitalist system. Everything he can claim, every trinket he can boast, is owed to the exorbitant loads of cash he’s mysteriously acquired. He lives and dies, quite literally, on his dollar. The house, the cars, the clothes, the glitz and glamour, all of these Gatsby collects with one sole intent: to win Daisy back by buying her back—which he calmly assumes he can do. Of course he can’t, as Fitzgerald painfully shows, capitalist success is ultimately an empty, vainglorious affair. Not only does Gatsby fail in making Daisy’s purchase; he is finally shot dead as the victim of mistaken identity. His whole life, really, is a mistaken identity. And while the Buchanans dash off to Paris, Gatsby’s name very abruptly and permanently fades into oblivion.
I have read The Great Gatsby more times than I can remember, and like the man himself, even I don’t know the full truth about it. In the end, perhaps we’ll all remain like Nick Carraway. Perhaps Gatsby really is as veiled as the smirk on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s face. But one thing we do know for sure: nearly a century after it was written, the world is still fascinated by this book.
When the neat summer heat
Comes boiling down deep
And your trousers are so hot
They’ll stick right to the seat
Come inside to my curtained suite
Fix something cold to drink
Into oblivion we’ll sink
And on the blessed heat
We’ll never have to think.
¹ In April 1930 Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (1900-1948) was diagnosed with schizophrenia while the family was living in France. In and out of various sanatoriums during the next decade, Scott Fitzgerald finally placed Zelda at Highlands Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1936 (he lived at the nearby Grove Park Inn during the period). On March 10, 1948 a fire broke out at the hospital; Zelda, trapped, was one of nine women who died in the blaze.
² While the pratfalls of Fitzgerald’s characters in his previous works can certainly be ascribed to the weaknesses of capitalism, in Gatsby we see the epitome of capitalist success and failure.
³ Notes on Publication: This post was originally published as “The Life of James Gatz” on January 3, 2006. It was revised and its title changed to “The Great Gatsby” in September 2009. The post was completely revised in June 2013, marking the release of Baz Luhrmann’s film, and republished on July 27, 2013. It was further revised in July 2014. In honor of our 11th anniversary, it was revised and expanded on December 31, 2016 to include a discussion on capitalism. “East Egg,” a poem inspired by The Great Gatsby, was written by the author and added to this post on February 12, 2010.