Besides literary excellence, it seems to me that the great American novel would have to be one that is not only placed in a recognizably American setting, with characters who reflect an American spirit, and who speak the American language. But beyond any of these elements is the necessity that the novel address a uniquely American condition that serves as the central theme of the novel. Not all of the novels represented here tonight do that.
But what F. Scott Fitzgerald has created in The Great Gatsby is nothing short of being the American story. And because it ends in failure for the hero, we would be wise to give it our full attention.
In Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald has created the personification of the American Dream gone awry.
In the novel, Fitzgerald successfully identifies the drift in American aspirations from idealism to materialism. The late 18th Century had Benjamin Franklin; the late 19th Century Horatio Alger, whose inspirational rags-to-riches stories for boys preached the gospel of the Protestant ethic – success through humble diligence. Fitzgerald gave the early 20th Century Jay Gatsby, both to continue this tradition and to subvert it.
As a youth, James Gatz made use of a daily schedule, not unlike that of Franklin, who was still reigning as American history’s most successful figure. For Franklin, the daily schedule was designed to improve his moral virtue. For Gatz, his schedule had a more practical, material end. It was the first step toward his remorseless opportunism. Gatz, later Gatsby, exploited the myth of the self-made man made legendary by Franklin and Alger.
Like the nation he symbolizes, Jay Gatsby gives birth to himself. Fitzgerald tells us that out of nothing more than his imagination, James Gatz “invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”
Here lies the problem. America’s promise as a nation and culture should be loftier and more virtuous than that imagined by a seventeen year old boy.
We are a nation founded as a “City upon on a Hill”. We were to be a moral beacon for the world to see. We gave form to man’s highest aspirations: freedom, equality, human rights, justice, life, liberty, and happiness. But despite some laudable moments of fulfillment, we have, like Gatsby, wandered off course. Like him, America has become obsessed with the pursuit of a frivolous dream – the worship of prosperity and pleasure. Gatsby never caught on to the error of his misplaced quest. He sought the cheap, tawdry, and ultimately insubstantial. That was his tragedy. Hopefully, it won’t be ours.
Jay Gatsby is not heroic. But he is lovable. His rise to enormous wealth was accidental, swift and illegal. Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald’s narrator, says there was “something gorgeous about him”, he had “some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life … an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” We are sympathetic to Gatsby because he is instantly recognizable to us. He is, of course, the personification of the nation we love. A nation that was born to hope. With a people that think that all things are possible. Here lies our greatness. The only real tragedy in this mythology is in not having sufficient imagination, not dreaming big enough dreams. For then we really all become losers. If we imagine the good life with the same fancy that an adolescent is likely to use, then what we are all left with is an unfulfilled promise.
In the most significant paragraph of the novel, in Chapter 6, Fitzgerald writes, “The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s Business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.”
So why is Fitzgerald using these New Testament allusions? Well, to impress upon us the seriousness of his claim. That the American quest to build the “city upon a hill” has been postponed. Our new quest is something far less substantial. It is nothing more than the beautiful. And not even the delicate, ephemeral beauty that can move souls. No, our quest is “the vast and vulgar”. (Think of that shiny ’56 Buick with fins and chrome-edged air holes in the side. Think of the “spontaneous celebrations” during political conventions on primetime TV. Think of the McMansions which have defiled the simple beauty of the Cape’s landscape.) And finally, the beauty that our great God American culture gives birth to, is “meretricious”. Fitzgerald could not have chosen a more perfect word here. “Meretricious: alluring or attractive by a show of flashy or vulgar qualities; based on pretense, deception, or insincerity; pertaining to, or characteristic of a prostitute.”
This was Gatsby’s grail. It took the physical form of Daisy Fay. The Golden Girl that Gatsby set as his life’s pursuit when she rejected him as a suitor when he was a young, poor soldier with limited prospects. Instead, she chose the leisure class and a Yale-bred Neanderthal named Tom Buchanan. Gatsby had fallen hopelessly in love with a beautiful but bored, vacuous dim-wit who is dismayed by the fact that she looks forward every June to the longest day of the year and then misses it, presumably to wait for it again the next year. Gatsby was entranced. “Her voice sounds like money”, he tells Nick, as if to justify the purpose of his life. In the novel’s climactic scene in the sweltering Plaza Hotel, Fitzgerald brings the central characters together – Tom, the adulterer and cuckold; Gatsby, the naïf whose only real interest in life is the love of his “Golden Girl”; and Daisy, who on the tension-filled occasion is given the opportunity to right the wrongs of her past, and choose Gatsby, whose love is unquestioned, over Tom, whose capacity for love was shared between Daisy and his string of polo ponies. Sobbing, Daisy is unable to commit – to either man. “’Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby … “I did love him once – but I loved you too.’”
Not even this feeble performance discourages Gatsby from pursuing his worthless grail. He dies a day later – murdered in the swimming pool that he had never used before. The final irony that now makes perfectly clear that Gatsby was out of his element. The rich, awe-inspiring party-giver was dead. And none of the party-goers, including Tom and Daisy, bothered to attend his funeral. Save for one, a bleary-eyed drunk with thick glasses whom we had met chapters earlier during a party scene. He had marveled with admiration at the steps Gatsby had taken to make his library look real. When he discovered he was the only one who bothered to attend the funeral, he simply said, “The poor son-of-a-bitch.”
Like Gatsby, we are transients, moving at high speed, constantly re-inventing ourselves, reaching further and further for that distant green light, Daisy’s green light, that we are convinced will finally make us happy; and never quite getting it. We’re never quite able to accept the notion that, after all, having enough is enough. And that what we are is enough. We don’t need to be beautiful; we don’t need to be rich; we don’t need to be celebrities.
No novel can be considered great that does not contain language that moves us with both its meaning and poetic voice and cadence. Even the famed curmudgeon, H.L. Mencken said of The Great Gatsby: “There are pages so artfully contrived that one can no more imagine improvising them than one can imagine improvising a fugue.”
No passage is more moving or more meaningful than the last page. I consider the final page of The Great Gatsby to be the finest in all of American literature. He firmly places the events of his fiction at the heart of the American experience. And it closes with Nick expressing his admiration for Gatsby – not for the quality of his dream, but for his readiness to dream it. Anyone who loves this country and the role it plays in the world’s history and imagination, cannot help but be moved by these words.
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment, man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate with his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first 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. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
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 –
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
If you have not read The Great Gatsby, please do. If you haven’t read it for a while, revisit it and think about. It’s important.