(by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
The Great American Novel is an absolute synthesis of all that’s great and rotten at the height of the Yankee century.
America is so accomplished and competitive that one tends to overlook the result: a defeated majority. Hence the American theme of ‘starting over’ in a different place, exemplified in the go-west mantra of the 1800s and the eastern push of the 20th century. Gatsby emblematised this push, a doughboy made ‘good’ in the new desert of Dr T.J Eckleburg’s New York.
Born 1896 in Minnesota, F.S.F. grew into a world of American hegemony but dreamed of earlier times; he had a romantic notion of the world and this romance informs both novel and central character, who is a sort of Minnesota farm boy with pretensions. But whilst romantic, this is no romance. It is a tragedy of complex pattern with a coat of hard varnish. Fitzgerald’s (& Gatsby’s) nostalgic reverie is shattered by a post-war world; the shards are shiny and sharp.
Fitzgerald’s original version, like his prototype Tender is the Night, was big and wordy, called ‘Trimalchio’, for the man (in Petronius’ Satyricon) to whose entertainments everyone wishes to attend, who “has a clock in his Dining-Room, and on one purpose to let him know how many Minutes of his Life he had lost.” His editor, Maxwell Perkins, was able to flitch off the fat, leaving the sparse bones and the lush flesh, a spare work of, in Conrad’s phrase, “light, magic suggestiveness”.
Gatsby is hard to pin down. The list of ungrateful guests at the start of chapter four has been compared to the display of naval forces in the Iliad; yet it stays and what’s more, it works. What appears episodic in Gatsby actually serve as the wheels under his yellow limousine, hurtling towards his violent destiny. Each shedding of his assumed persona combine in an apotheosis of tall poppy syndrome, a decline and fall of a class-conscious Icarus.[NB: the graphic adaptation by Nicki Greenberg, rendering the characters as creatures great and small, but faithfully adhering to the novel, is well worth a look]