The Great Gatsby (a book I read as a freshmen in high school, which literally makes no sense contextually to a fifteen year old) is a book that can be read in an afternoon. It personifies the Jazz Era in which Fitzgerald belonged. And, if one is a lover of this era as I am, Fitzgerald makes tangible all the embodiments that made the time fabulous. Of course this was the time period when 2.3% of Americans held around 70% of the wealth and others toiled in sweatshops all day with neither health insurance nor labor rights. I recall my grandmother telling me the story of her father’s struggle to survive, both his parents died in the 1918 influenza outbreak. He was in his early teens and went to live in the woods preparing meals and being a general servant to all the lumberjacks who worked in the Maine woods sending huge logs down the rivers to paper mills. It was a harsher time for the disenfranchised and when he married my great-grandmother in the 1920’s and became ill with children to support he sought help with an Uncle who promptly told him to go “beg to the town or cry to church.” So, it wasn’t all “Yes, we have no bananas today!” for everyone. And that is something to be kept in mind as one is envisioning all the glory that was the “Roaring Twenties”.
People generally know this story, have read the book or saw the pitiful (1974)movie with Robert Redford playing Jay Gatsby (appropriate), Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan (talk about melodrama), Bruce Dern acting as an incongruent Seinfeld Kramer/Tom Buchanan. Who was the casting director??? Sam Waterston chosen to play Nick Carraway and joined Redford as the only other successfully cast actor. And, Karen (Crazy Eyes) Black as Tom’s mistress Myrtle Wilson. There were also two other versions produced in 1926 and 1949. The first thing I had to do was obliterate these faces (except Redford of course) as I began the book. It took a few chapters before they ceremoniously disappeared. That is always a problem when seeing a movie and then reading the book.
A quick review of the story line (because it is available everywhere, see link to the right) Jay Gatsby, man of mystery moves to West Egg on Long Island Sound. He purposefully has no friends, only acquaintances. No one knows how he became ultra wealthy and rumors swirl as to his background. Nick Carroway (the narrator) lives in a little dump next to Gatsby ostentatious mansion where weekly parties last for days on end. Nick’s second-cousin Daisy and her husband Tom (picture Clark Gable not Brue Dern) live in East Egg (the more fashionable side of Long Island Sound). Rich New Yorkers escape the heat of the city and travel to their estates to socialize with the crème de le crème of society. Gatsby, once the beau many years ago of Daisy, secretly pines away for her across the bay. Everything he does is to recreate the past and hopefully reunite with Daisy. The story involves affairs, murders, unrequited love, scandal, and abandonment.
The Great Gatsby was dedicated to Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda who suffered from schizophrenia, this combined with Fitzgerald’s alcoholism caused tragic ends. I think in commenting on this book over the next couple days the focus will be more on the parallels between Fitzgerald’s life and his books versus a rehashing of a very well known and well read book. Fitzgerald’s life is very present in his writings as someone who lived among the upper crust but often did not have the means to do so. He understood being the toast of the town and he knew when the party was over.