Ernest Hemingway once claimed “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn’” (The Green Hills of Africa, 1934). The statement by Hemingway was made nine years after his friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, first published his third novel The Great Gatsby. At the time of the publication, Fitzgerald was a struggling novelist, and thought his writing to be somewhat of a failure – a thought that plagued him until his death in 1940.
On April 10, 2012, the novel, once thought to be an incomplete failure by its own author, celebrated it’s 87th birthday being one of the most widely read, studied, and appreciated American novels of the twentieth century. It has been a continuous member of Classic Bestseller lists, it has been adapted into film six times (in process of its seventh, Christmas Day 2012), and it has been a strong presence in American pop culture since its revitalization around the close of the Second World War. While all of these attributes lay claim to Gatsby’s deserved reign as a great novel, there is something about it that requires a higher honor.
In my opinion, The Great Gatsby is the greatest, and most important, American novel written to date.
This statement, I’m sure, will sit sourly with a lot of readers of modern literature. There have been a slew of great American authors and novels that both predate and follow Gatsby. However, the story of Jay Gatsby provided a voice to the Lost Generation, and forged a new path for the American Hero. In writing Gatsby, Fitzgerald meticulously assessed modern society, gave a prophetic glimpse into the future of America, and simultaneously helped to set a precedent for the writing and editing process of modern novels. It is this well-rounded philosophical tending that makes Gatsby deserving of a higher pedestal, and to be revered as the greatest novel in American Literature.
To begin, the actual written words of the novel, coupled with the process Fitzgerald endured to edit them into what they became, cemented him as one of the most diligent and talented authors of his era. In her essay “Revisioning The Great Gatsby” (via The Writer’s Notebook, Tin House Publishing), Susan Bell describes in great detail Fitzgerald’s struggle to find the right words to build the story on, and the even greater struggle that he found in working with his editors to transform it into the beautiful prose it became.
Bell writes: “Finally and heroically, Fitzgerald manages to maintain compassion for a humanity he portrays in the most sinister terms” (The Writer’s Notebook, p. 38). Fitzgerald shows his ability to describe the subtle beauties of life in the most vivid detail, and simultaneously display the great tragedy and emptiness the lies just beyond them. The entire novel explores the tension between charming societies with their ornate lifestyles, and the utter hopelessness that is brought on by the pursuit of them. Fitzgerald said of Gatsby: “Gatsby was far from perfect in many ways but all in all it contains such prose as has never been written in America before. From that I take heart” (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, p. 221). There is something poetic about Gatsby, which speaks directly to the human soul. It moves beyond simple story telling. Fitzgerald found a window into the post-war American psyche that had not yet been opened, and he did it by means of brilliant, beautiful observation.
The meticulous work of writing Gatsby only tells half of the story. The true reason why it deserves to be called the pinnacle of American Literature is in the way that the characters and story tell the true tale of American life. Fitzgerald’s main concern is providing a voice to the Lost Generation, and disillusioning Americans from their ideal of the American Dream. He takes the quintessential self-made man, Jay Gatsby, and portrays him as a lovesick, depressed, monomaniacal child who throws a tantrum (or in this case, ornate parties) until he can meet his destiny face to face. This self-made man is cast upon the shadows of the wealthy, the poor, and the middle-class, all of which have fatal flaws that result in unhappiness and desolation. Fitzgerald describes Gatsby and his life, stating: “it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever” (Gatsby, p. 133). This critique of America portrays society as forever looking to the next greatest thing or rediscovering the beauty of the past – all of it is futile. Each individual is bound to their lives until death carries them away to a separate plane. The precious small time we have here should not be spent awaiting some grandiose emotion, or trying to build a material empire that is hollow and meaningless. The bright lights of the city can be mesmerizing at times, but in reality they are nothing. They don’t bring happiness, and we delude ourselves into thinking they do. Fitzgerald’s prose cries for a genuine humanity, genuine relationships, and genuine pursuit of truth – nothing else.
Fitzgerald used Gatsby as his grounds for reinventing prose writing in American literature, and to simultaneously reveal major flaws in the ideals Americans hold tightly. It would do our society well to continue pouring over Fitzgerald’s words, and contemplating his critiques of American life. The power behind these words is that which can bring people to their knees, and allow for a change. If only we would listen. That is the power of Gatsby.
So in this 87th year of publication, I hope for a newfound appreciation for The Great Gatsby. I hope that people find their own belief in the green light, and allow the wonders of this story to transform their life. There is transformative power in literature. Fitzgerald grasps that in this tale. For hopefully “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…” (Gatsby, p. 154)
Submitted by Trip Starkey.