“Maybe my book is rotten,” F Scott Fitzgerald told a friend, in February 1925, shortly before the publication of The Great Gatsby, “but I don’t think so”. If the first half of his sentence was perfunctory, the second half was the wildest kind of understatement. By that point, Fitzgerald knew what he had achieved. Six months earlier, he informed Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s, that his work in progress “is about the best American novel ever written”. And Perkins’s reaction had done little to shake his sense of confidence. He called the book “a wonder”, adding: “As for sheer writing, it’s astonishing.”
Fitzgerald’s manuscript went through a number of iterations on its way to becoming the nine-chapter, 48,000-word novel that still sells boisterously every year. It began as something on a Catholic theme, set in 1885. Along the way, material on Jay Gatsby’s humble Midwest origins was repurposed for the story “Absolution”. And even after Fitzgerald hit on the novel’s eventual form, he toyed with a number of titles, including “Trimalchio in West Egg”, “On the Road to West Egg”, “The High-Bouncing Lover”, “Gold-Hatted Gatsby” and “Under the Red, White and Blue”.
Fitzgerald, aware of his own capriciousness, unworldliness and intellectual limitations, recognised that he would never write an “objective magnum opus”, and welcomed the new emphasis on “form” and “art” in the novel. Derived from Gustave Flaubert and Henry James, though represented for Fitzgerald by Joseph Conrad and Willa Cather, theories about method emboldened his desire to compose something – as he put it to Perkins – “extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned”.
The power of The Great Gatsby derives in some degree from the resulting conceptual neatness. Fitzgerald hit upon something that virtually all novelists dream of finding: a structure that allowed him to be dramatic and allegorical, to write about society and psychology, collective forces and individual fates, without stinting either, and to compose a portrait of the age that is also a tragedy with archetypal themes. But Perkins’s emphasis seems the right one. The novel is primarily a linguistic achievement – an exercise in evocation, pitted with local glories. Perkins pointed to the wealth of phrases “which make a scene blaze with life”. If The Great Gatsby isn’t the best American novel ever written, it may be the best-written American novel.
Christian Gauss, one of Fitzgerald’s tutors at Princeton, noted that he too often used the image of “windows blooming with light”. But that’s a killjoy response to this rhapsodic and variously visual book. From the opening pages, Fitzgerald bombards us with “the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees”, the white palaces glittering along Long Island Sound, a lawn that jumps over sundials and burning gardens before drifting up the side of a house in “bright vines”, and – OK, yes – a line of French windows glowing “with reflected gold”.
Of course, all this natural and manmade splendour, the repeated images of life and luminosity, provide the backdrop to one of the most depressing stories ever told. It is 1922, and Nick Carraway, a 29-year-old Yale graduate working as a New York bond salesman, drives to fashionable East Egg to have dinner with his cousin, Daisy Fay, and her boorish husband, the Chicago scion Tom Buchanan. There he meets Daisy’s friend, the golfer Jordan Baker, who enquires if Nick knows his West Egg neighbour, Gatsby – a name that seems to startle Daisy. During the meal, Nick learns that, in Jordan’s whispered words, “Tom’s got some woman in New York”. One afternoon not long after, Tom introduces Nick to the woman in question, Myrtle Wilson, whose husband, George, owns a car repair shop.
Over the following weeks, Nick is befriended by Gatsby, who, he learns, via Jordan, now his sort-of-girlfriend, had been in love with Daisy five years earlier. Gatsby was awarded a medal for valour during the war and then proceeded to make millions of dollars – the air is thick with rumours as to how – and to buy his extraordinary West Egg mansion (ivy-bearded tower, marble swimming pool, 40-plus-acres of lawn) in the hope that Daisy would attend one of his regular lavish parties. Nick and Gatsby become good friends – though almost everything Gatsby tells him turns out to be nonsense – and with Nick as intermediary, Daisy and Gatsby rekindle their romance. On a boiling late-summer day that takes in visits to the Buchanans’ house, the Wilson garage, and the Plaza Hotel in New York, Daisy runs Myrtle over, Tom tells Myrtle’s husband that the car belonged to Gatsby, and George Wilson shoots Gatsby and then himself. Soon afterwards, Nick returns to the Midwest, his illusions in tatters.
On receiving Maxwell Perkins’s letter, Fitzgerald felt, he said, “like a million dollars”, and pretty soon, the book that probably wasn’t rotten received admiring responses from his Princeton friend, Edmund Wilson, and from TS Eliot, who said he had read The Great Gatsby three times and considered it the first step American fiction had taken since Henry James. By the end of the following year, there had been a stage play, directed by George Cukor, and then a film.
It may appear inevitable that The Great Gatsby should have achieved its now sacred status. Yet the security of Fitzgerald’s renown was a largely posthumous development. The book that John Updike deemed “superbly fortunate” in its execution suffered a period of eclipse. By 1932, Fitzgerald was complaining to Perkins that “there is a whole new generation who cannot obtain it”, and his much lobbied-for Modern Library reissue soon fell out of print. When Fitzgerald died, in 1940, aged 44, his most recent royalty cheque was for $13.13.
These are just some of the things that Greil Marcus doesn’t get round to telling us in his manic short study, Under the Red White and Blue. Though Marcus is surely right that the novel exists in “a cultural mirror” as well as “on its own terms”, it isn’t clear why one priority must come at the expense of the other. Marcus is a critic and historian widely celebrated for building arcane genealogies, notably in his books Invisible Republic (1997), about the “basement” recordings that Bob Dylan made with the group later known as the Band, and Lipstick Traces (1989), a so-called secret history of the 20th century that’s really about the avant-garde and punk. He’s less comfortable looking cultural artefacts dead in the eye.
At points, his book seems like nothing more than a Trojan horse for an energetic if vague tribute to Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation. Marcus claims that Luhrmann, by not seeming “afraid” of Fitzgerald’s novel, brought the story “to a fullness that, when the final note was hit, revealed that the movie was what the book had been searching for all along”. It is, in a crowded field, perhaps the most eccentric moment in the book.
It’s typical that Marcus registers no irony or sense of the ridiculous when suggesting that the “place to start” might be the bumpy reputation of a different novel altogether: Moby-Dick. Before long, a peculiar frame of reference emerges. Harold Bloom – whose views on Fitzgerald we do not hear – is quoted on the subject of the Band, because Ishmael’s account of falling in line at funeral processions reminds Marcus of the opening lines of their song “The Weight”, while Edmund Wilson features not as Fitzgerald’s adviser and executor, but because he published his account of Civil War literature, Patriotic Gore (1962), the year after the magazine TV Guide included a listing of John Huston’s film of Melville’s novel.
Marcus’s writing on Moby-Dick is pretty out there – does the sentence “Call me Ishmael” really contain “all possibilities”? – but at least he engages with the words. A chapter of Under the Red White and Blue promisingly entitled “Reading the Book” concerns people reading The Great Gatsby aloud: Andy Kaufman on Saturday Night Live, the theatre company Elevator Repair Service in their six-hour-plus rendition. Marcus hints at a central area of the book’s popularity when he says, in a footnote, that of all the characters, George Wilson is “the least cool”. Otherwise, he says little about why he and others might enjoy it. I was frequently reminded of Frank Kermode’s claim, while slamming a biography of Arnold Bennett, that Riceyman Steps is “a book easy, but not this easy, to commend”.
Perhaps Marcus felt that a conventional approach would fail to bottle the book’s magic and account for its place in the culture. But there’s another reason – related and more vexing – why he might have preferred digressions about Leonardo DiCaprio to a more direct reckoning: the novel doesn’t entirely stand up to close inspection. Fitzgerald’s grasp of practicalities is weak – the Buchanans’ daughter can’t be three, for example – and not all of his prose heroics work to the novel’s advantage. He conceded in a letter that he lacked the “ruthless artistry” to remove “an exquisite bit that had no place in the context”, and even the legendary final sentence (“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”) carries something of the rhetorical deus ex machina
The Great Gatsby was intended to mark a peculiarly personal kind of breakthrough. In contrast to Fitzgerald’s apprentice novels This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and Damned (1922), it offered a critique, not simply a reflection, of his romantic temperament. Instead of Fitzgerald expressing how things appeared to him, he aimed to scrutinise the pitfalls of that mindset. Perkins said that by “employing a narrator who is more of a spectator than an actor”, he had forged a “distance that gives perspective”. But what kind of perspective does the novel forge on Nick?
In Fitzgerald’s likely models, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, the onlooking figure, Marlow, is a raconteur, and while his testimony isn’t explicitly doubted, his word is far from law. But questions about reliability present themselves less readily when the narration receives no buttressing and the narrator himself is presented as a grounded witness, a still and notably sober centre (“I have been drunk just twice in my life”).
Our sense of Nick’s world-view, or our sense of his sense of it, comes mainly from the novel’s first 500 words – a narrative prologue that doubles as a credo. He introduces himself as someone with profound but not infinite sympathy for people more troubled than he is. So we are left wondering whether Fitzgerald intended the disparity between Nick’s opening claim that he is “inclined to reserve all judgements” and his confession that he drove away from the Buchanans’ house feeling “a little disgusted”.
A similar ambiguity hovers over Nick’s explanation that when he came back from the East, he felt that he wanted “no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart” – a reaction from which only Gatsby was “exempt”. But who else provided such glimpses? Paraphrasing Gatsby’s account of his past later in the novel, Nick says that “his heart was in a constant, turbulent riot”. Nobody is guiltier of the habits that Nick dislikes than the man who, as he puts it, “gives his name to this book”.
Unless Nick is fallible, or hypocritical, it would be hard to say why he finds Gatsby a cherishable figure and Tom Buchanan villainous. Gatsby, he says, “turned out all right at the end” whereas Tom forms part of “the foul dust” that “floated in the wake of [Gatsby’s] dreams”. Yet their similarities are striking. Both men are thoughtless womanisers defined by wealth they didn’t earn. Tom has hard edges and a soft centre (he cries “like a baby” after Myrtle’s death), Gatsby has soft edges but a hard centre. Tom’s arrogance is a matter of gesture and posture, but Gatsby possesses a deeper-seated entitlement, a sense that he was born to the wrong family and was destined for something greater. Nick senses that Tom “wanted me to like him”. Gatsby says, “What’s your opinion of me, anyhow?” If everything that followed Tom’s Yale football career “savours of anti-climax”, then the same applies to Gatsby’s brief entanglement with Daisy.
The presiding image of Tom and Daisy is that they are “careless people”. But Gatsby doesn’t seem any more humane or outward-looking. His world is defined by corruption and artifice, and his relationship with Daisy, though self-consciously hifalutin (“in her heart she never loved any one except me!”), is no less absurd – or prone to fantasy – than Tom’s affair with Myrtle. Though Gatsby has clearly exaggerated his connection to Oxford University, Nick expresses a desire to slap him on the back when he reveals that he was enrolled on an officers’ scheme for five months, thereby shooting down Tom’s claim that the only Oxford he knew was in New Mexico. Yet Nick is “shocked” Tom has lied to Myrtle, telling her that Daisy is a Catholic who doesn’t believe in divorce. Nick’s distaste for narcissism seems not to extend to perhaps the key narcissistic attribute: falsity. The man he loathes is far more authentic than the one with whom he seems besotted.
Yet Nick can also be very clear-eyed. He realises that what matters to Gatsby isn’t Daisy, but the idea of her, as manifested in the green light that shines from the Buchanans’ dock across the bay. Once the green light no longer embodies something tantalisingly out of reach, Nick concludes that Gatsby’s “count of enchanted objects had diminished by one”. In the novel’s final lines, another green symbol emerges: “[T]he old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes.” Nick says that the discovery of America was the last time in history that man came face to face with something “commensurate to his capacity for wonder”. The implication is that the green light, unlike “the fresh, green breast of the new world”, was a feeble pretext for the wonder it inspired.
Is Nick ambivalent, changeable, or just contradictory? And is it part of the novel’s design? He concludes his analysis of Gatsby by insisting, with an air of reverence, that he “believed in the green light”. But by that point we’re all too aware it is only a light bulb.
Fitzgerald himself thought he had failed to bring the book to perfection. He regretted in particular that he had provided “no account (and had no feeling about or knowledge of) the emotional relations” between Daisy and Gatsby. The fact he thought that this was any kind of problem – that there might be a relationship worth depicting – points to the real problem. A dyed-in-the-wool romantic will possess an unusual gift for creating romantic characters, but he may not be immune to their charms. In Lord Jim, Marlow tells his dinner companions, “He swayed me. I own to it, I own up,” and acknowledges that getting “interested” is a weakness of which his desire to memorialise Jim is an example. Nick offers no such clarifying mea culpa.
So Fitzgerald didn’t quite manage his great escape. If the novel is in some regards, as he put it, “ten years” ahead of what he’d done before, it was also prey to the same vices that had marked his earlier writing. During the editing process, he told Perkins that the title character “sticks in my heart”. For his creator, too, Gatsby turned out all right at the end.
In recent years, Fitzgerald’s novel has become a trusty reference point. The American political commentator George Will called Donald Trump “a Gatsby for our time”, shrewdly acknowledging what Fitzgerald obscured – the hollowness beneath the grandeur. But to Trump-loathing Fitzgerald lovers, the more comfortable Trump comparison is Tom Buchanan, the pampered white supremacist princeling who commends a “fine book” on the “rise of the coloured empires”, the man we can dislike from a reflexive resistance to inherited wealth and status.
Gatsby’s myth of self-invention, in spiritual as well as professional terms, carries a seductive power – and it’s easier to have illusions about Gatsby than Trump because Trump lacks his Carraway, an onlooker willing to present him from his point of view (both sympathetically and in his own words).
Still, Fitzgerald’s compromises – the brake he placed on his critique – cannot be blamed for the multifarious enormities of the Gatsby cult. The novel contains more than enough chilling details to have snuffed out the prospect of “a Gatsby type” ever being a compliment, or the idea that it might have been anything but pure hell to have attended one of his soirées. Despite what Marcus implies, nobody in the book is remotely cool.
Yet Gatsby’s quest has a sanctity for Fitzgerald, and for readers too. The notion that in some sense the Buchanans failed Gatsby – that the vulgar 1920s killed the American Dream, or something – remains crucial to the novel’s effect. And so while it seems bizarre there was ever a time when people didn’t recognise the book’s amazing qualities, we should be careful about feeling vindicated or smug. If it is now canonical, even ubiquitous, this may not solely be a testament to our wisdom and good taste.
Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of The Great Gatsby
Yale University Press, 176pp, £20
This article appears in the 23 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent