- Gatsby Redux
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
In a lightning-quick slippage at the end of The Great Gatsby (1925), Fitzgerald famously turns his main character’s story into the story of all Americans. Gatsby’s belief in the future is his own, but it also belongs to “us”; and in this instant, an identification is forged between text and reader, one with manifold implications. To identify with Gatsby as the reader is asked to do requires understanding how a sense of the future brings the past into the present: how Gatsby’s dream connects backward to the first “Dutch sailors” and forward into the now. It is therefore to understand how narratives are created, how meaning gets made, and how a personal and national trajectory becomes coherent and sustaining. Yet, identifying with Gatsby also raises uncomfortable questions. Fitzgerald describes an iconic modern American and then holds the mirror up to us. Do we like what we see? Do we—present-day readers—represent the fulfillment of Gatsby’s “orgastic future”? Or are we as yet a way station on the road to “one fine morning”? And what do we do with the “foul dust” kicked up by this journey, with sordid, criminal Gatsby himself (6)? If we are Gatsby’s legacy, then we must confront the fact that his story—our story—is a narrative of not only extraordinary hope and optimism but also dissolution and decline. To identify with this story and its protagonist requires that we grapple with its dark lesson. [End Page 342]
Yet reading a slate of recent books on Fitzgerald, almost all of them focused largely or exclusively on The Great Gatsby, one might be forgiven for thinking that the larger questions that Fitzgerald’s work poses—questions of America, of modernity, of America as modernity; of the future; of the meaning and price of progress—are less important than a more sentimental story about the gorgeousness of Fitzgerald’s writing and the allure of his personal world. All of the books considered in this essay share a strong sense of attachment to Fitzgerald as lyrical spokesman of his age and to his novel as a classic statement of the 1920s, and thus they follow a long critical tradition. As one Jazz Age critic noted, “it seems impossible for Mr. Fitzgerald not to write well,” and this, combined with the glamor of Scott and Zelda’s lifestyle, seems too potent a combination not to define the majority interest in Fitzgerald to this day (cited in Cumutt 34). While the focus on Fitzgerald as a consummate stylist and “class secretary” to his era was initially put forth as a way of trivializing his work, the current critical emphasis rehabilitates this same critique without shifting its terms all that much (John O’Hara qtd in Mangum xxii). Fitzgerald’s work appears now to be most valued because of what it has to say about the context of the 1920s as a discrete moment in the distant past and because it does so in a hauntingly vivid way.
The books under consideration—Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby (2013); F. Scott Fitzgerald in Context (2013), edited by Bryant Mangum; Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures (2014); and John T. Irwin’s F. Scott Fitzgerald: “An Almost Theatrical Innocence” (2014)—all offer persuasive rationales to explain why Fitzgerald continues to be read. All acknowledge the power of Fitzgerald to speak across generations...