Monday, March 27, 2017

Favorite Books (1): The Great Gatsby

Reading for Enjoyment

In last month’s post, “For The Love Of Literature,” I argued in favor of being a good reader, which is not the same as being a good literary critic. Here I briefly discuss one of my favorite books; this might be a continuing series.

I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

Celestial Blue Eyes: Francis Cugat’s original gouache painting for The Great Gatsby is shown on the left; and the cover of the first edition of the 1925 novel is shown on the right. Cugat, a Spanish artist, was paid $100 for his work. The book, published on April 10th by Scribner’s of New York, was done under the keen editorship of Maxwell Perkins.
Image Credit: University of South Carolina Libraries
Source: Smithsonian

The Great Gatsby (1925), by F. Scott Fitzgerald [1896–1940], follows the short and tragic life of one James Gatz, a person of no consequence who reinvents himself as Jay Gatsby, a wealthy man who becomes noticed and discussed. Not much is known about Gatsby, a shadowy but charming man, other than he is wealthy, has beautiful shirts and likes to throw lavish parties at his mansion.

In the absence of fact, innuendo takes its place. There are unconfirmed rumors on how he acquired his wealth, but it is gossip and insinuations mixed in with some fact and resentment. There is guilt by association (with Meyer Wolfsheim, a gambler responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series). It is about money, how it is acquired and who should “rightfully” acquire it.

The book was written during the Jazz Age of the Roaring Twenties; and this is when the action takes place: in the fictional town of West Egg, located on the wealthy enclave of Long Island in the summer of 1922. West Egg represents new money; East Egg old money, an important distinction. As is the demarcation point of the First World War, which ended a way of life for many. Gatsby is very much a post-war figure, part of the nouveau riche. He might have been new money, but his values were old money. Or so it could be argued.

Of course, it speaks about transformation and also about how difficult it is to be honest, how it is nearly impossible to say the obvious. Deception is preferred. Truly, few want to hear the truth; it is too shocking. So is love and being of pure of heart.

I first read this book in high school, in the early 1970s. I believe it was in Grade 10, but it might have been a year later. I have read the book a few times and it remains my favorite book. It speaks about the need and ability to achieve success, a passion that is strong when one comes from humble roots, but also of the obstacles and the cost of achieving this. For Gatsby, it was about (finally) becoming good enough to be with the object of his desire, Daisy, who would be his undoing; Daisy was careless with what she was given.

It is a typical American book, and one of the best books to define what it is that makes America the great nation of opportunity and invention, but also a nation that can quickly turn on the outwardly weak, a cautionary tale that makes hyenas devouring a lion evoke more sympathy. One can become whom one wants to become; the possibility is ever-present. Yet, old money is suspicious of new money, seeing it as an unwelcome intruder, a gate-crasher; some things never change. I suspect that for this reason alone this book resonates with many.
The book, however, was not a success during Fitzgerald’s lifetime, but became popular only after the Second World War, when it became a literary masterpiece. Timing might not be everything, but it is important. It remains popular today for reasons that need not be explained.