Tuesday, April 10, 2018
April 10, 2018: Great American Novel Studying: The Great Gatsby
[On April 10th, 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Gatsby and other contenders for the elusive Great American Novel crown, leading up to a special weekend post on some recent contenders!]
On the limits of an unquestionably great novel, and how we can complement them.
First things first, both out of respect to the many wonderful teachers and scholars I know who love this book (including AmericanStudier pére!) and because I certainly do feel the same way: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) is, indeed, a great American novel. I don’t know if I can entirely agree with Random House’s Modern Library, who put it second on their list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century (it’s the only American novel in the top three); that kind of slight overrating is part of what I’m responding to in this post, I suppose. But there’s no doubt that Fitzgerald’s is that truly rare novel which is both formally and aesthetically perfect (that structure! that lyrical style! Nick’s novelist-narrator narration!) and thematically rich and resonant, both profoundly representative of its particular historical, social, and cultural moment and milieu and yet able to connect with deeply universal human questions and issues. If I were to make a list of 25 novels all Americans should read and then talk about—as part of my idea of a national Big Read, perhaps—The Great Gatsby would definitely be in contention, and would probably make the final list.
So how the heck, you might be wondering, can I have called Fitzgerald’s novel a non-favorite? Well, I will answer, the problem lies in his titular protagonist, Jay Gatsby (neé James Gatz), and more precisely in Gatsby’s motivations as a character. Gatsby has long been linked to the American Dream (to the point where there was an indie rock band named Gatsby’s American Dream), but his version of it seems so superficial: a nouveau rich monstrosity of a mansion, must-attend parties where all the most famous current celebrities can be seen, the adoration of all and sundry, and shady business deals with known gangsters which help fund that lifestyle. And when the curtain is pulled back and we learn the true motivation behind all of that, I don’t know that it’s necessarily any deeper: yes, it’s the love of his life; but a) that love is Daisy Buchanan, a complex character but one who overtly and unquestionably symbolizes extreme wealth and privilege (“her voice is … made of money,” Gatsby realizes at one point in the novel); and b) Gatsby only met and loved and was loved by Daisy once he had already remade himself into an imaginary man of extreme wealth and privilege in his own right, and he consistently pursues her as that faux-person, rather than as James Gatz. You can certainly argue that Fitzgerald wants us to analyze and critique these elements of his title character, but they nonetheless to my mind represent profound limits of Gatsby’s characterization, and especially of our ability to sympathize with him (or, really, with any character in the novel, as all of them are implicated in one way or another in the same issues).
None of that, to be clear and to echo my opening paragraph, would comprise reasons not to read Fitzgerald’s novel. But I would certainly argue that there are any number of early 20th century novels which offer distinct, and to my mind more meaningful and broadly resonant, images and narratives of American Dreams. There’s Janey in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), searching for relationships (including romantic ones to be sure) and communities where she can successfully be the strong black woman she is. Or Irene and Clare in Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), two African American women struggling with the question of whether and how to “pass” for white in a society far too defined by race and color. Or Sara in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925), trying to balance her highly Orthodox Jewish father’s Old World demands with her evolving life and goals as an ambitious young woman in New York City. Or Ántonia in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918), an immigrant woman battling the elements and social prejudices on the Nebraska plains. Obviously it wouldn’t be possible to read all these books in place of (for example) Gatsby’s frequent location on syllabi—although of course groups of students could be assigned different texts and then could come together to talk about similarities and differences. Or even brief excerpts of each could be presented alongside Gatsby, to highlight and discuss the era’s many distinct identities, communities, and dreams. In any case, all of these works and characters importantly complement Fitzgerald’s novel, and could help make our conversations about it more of a favorite for this AmericanStudier.
Next novel tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other nominees for the GAN?