If there were ever a literary question that people could wager and lose money on, it is this: What is The Great American Novel? And has it been written yet?
I have my own answer, which you can find on this week’s Books page, and the link between that book and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” – always a contender for the title – was immediately recognized by the American poet T.S. Eliot in 1926, when “Gatsby” was published in London.
About Fitzgerald’s gem, Eliot said, “It seems to me the first step American fiction has taken since Henry James.”
For many American readers, “The Great Gatsby” is the clear winner, for two reasons.
First, it portrays the lure and tragic illusion of The Great American Dream: economic success and social mobility for everyone who chases after them.
And second, the novel resonates with Fitzgerald’s elegant, Old World prose – suffused with longing and desire, framed with irony and detachment, and startling us with its crime-noir depictions of violence.
This remarkably rare combination of points of view – a result of inspiration, Fitzgerald’s expatriate distance from America, and the discipline of the magazine short-story writer always in need of quick cash – elevates what otherwise might be a melodramatic love story to the level of Greek myth.
“Gatsby,” 87 years after its publication in the United States, still sells tens of thousands of copies each year.
The Great American Novel
Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is the one novel of the 20th century that best defines the American experience. It centers on Jay Gatsby, the nouveau riche protagonist, who likes to throw lavish, well-lubricated parties, and is still in love with his teenage sweetheart, now named Daisy Buchanan because she is married to another man.
With these elements, “Gatsby” shines. It rewards multiple re-readings; it holds up a mirror to our darkest ambitions; and it shows the masterful touch of an artist fully in control of his material.
That makes it the best choice yet for Wichita’s Big Read, which runs from Monday through Nov. 21. (Find a list of some of the Big Read’s major events in the accompanying box on this page.)
Likewise, in the box on 1C, you’ll find the rules for our contest asking for your assessment of “The Great Gatsby.”
Why Wichita’s Big Read works
Wichita is successful at the Big Read – a program funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts – because it has a large and diverse partnership: the Wichita Public Library, colleges and universities, museums and senior services, and other groups, said Jennifer Heinicke, special projects librarian for the Wichita Public Library. The Big Read includes readers in Sedgwick, Butler, Harvey, Cowley and Sumner counties.
One of the strengths of Wichita’s long-running Big Read, Heinicke said, is that it has “really great posters that are visually grabbing.” The posters tell their own story, she said, because the artwork relates directly to the specific time period of the book that South Central Kansans are reading. This year’s painting is “Man in the Green Suit” by Edouard Halouze.
No matter the book or artwork, however, Wichita’s Big Read has one overriding goal, Heinicke said:
“To get the entire community and region reading and discussing the same work with the same amount of passion that people do TV and sporting events. Studies by the NEA show that people who read are engaged in their community. They vote, go to sporting events, volunteer.
“We want people to read, to get involved, to talk to their neighbors and to have this shared experience.”
Why ‘Gatsby’ endures
“The Great Gatsby” stands out as a great choice because it is layered with rich paths of interpretation. I won’t spoil the plot for first-time readers, but Fitzgerald’s treatment of wealthy New Yorkers as the villains of his story lets his Midwestern narrator, Nick Carraway, set a tone for the novel that we recognize as our own.
Eliot could hear it. His boyhood in St. Louis, Mo., had given him an ear for Carraway’s familiar cadence: detached, measured, slightly cynical, but also emotionally involved in the story.
Carraway is observer and participant, a dual role that makes us trust him, yet judge his actions ultimately in a less than charitable light.
Such concentrated, dramatic tension gives “Gatsby” its lasting, mythic punch.
A dream dies hard
Fitzgerald knew firsthand that nobody escapes The Great American Dream unscathed.
Consider his rivalry – at times friendly, at times fiercely acrimonious – with Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s. Both hailed from the Midwest; both sailed to Paris to escape the stifling, bourgeois values of Prohibition-era America. Hemingway, however, went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, before taking his own life at age 61.
Fitzgerald died impoverished and largely forgotten, 44 when a heart attack felled him. Doctors said his death was likely the result of his lifelong battle with the bottle.
After writing “The Great Gatsby,” Fitzgerald drifted into hack work for Hollywood movie studios, and edged closer to madness.
But it is a mistake to judge a writer by his life, and not the strengths of his work.
In “The Great Gatsby,” Fitzgerald conjured up the way we wish we were, even though we know that the beckoning green light above the infinite ocean – the light that symbolizes all that Jay Gatsby longs for – signals “Go” to the death of a dream.
As Carraway tells us at the novel’s end: “As I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”
The Big Read will let Kansans get their hands on Gatsby’s dream – beautiful, haunting, disturbing, unforgettable – before it inevitably slips away, like the fading of the light.