Recently the radio program Studio 360 devoted its entire hour to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as part of its American Icons series. Various writers and scholars, including Azar Nafisi, author of the delightful Reading Lolita in Tehran, and the novelist Jonathan Franzen, waxed poetic about the book, which the Studio 360 website describes as “the great American story of our age.”
At some point in the program, one of the speakers — I think it was Franzen, but there’s not a transcript available and I’m not willing to listen to the whole show again to check — said something to the effect that Gatsby was a great dreamer. As I understood it, he thought the story was about someone with a great dream who got shot down for it.
“No, no, no,” I said to the radio (I yell at the radio a lot). “The trouble with Gatsby is that he had the wrong dreams. He wanted the wrong things.”
At least, that’s how I remembered the book. Gatsby’s obsession with being rich and being taken for a person with “old money” seemed to me to be worthless dreams. But the only time I’d read the book was back in high school and the only thing I remembered about it was Gatsby showing Nick and Daisy around his mansion.
Figuring that I might have missed something back then, I re-read it. And had the same reaction.
The Great Gatsby is a beautifully written novel — so short it’s barely more than a novella — about characters who range from bland to execrable and lack any capacity for introspection whatsoever. It reeks of corruption; only Nick, the observer and narrator, is not fundamentally dishonest. Gatsby has made his money through various crooked endeavors and Daisy and Tom Buchanan represent the epitome of the privileged people who assume rules are for everybody else.
Gatsby’s dreams, so praised on Studio 360, seem to be his love for Daisy — who is, at best, a trivial person — and his desire to be accepted as a wealthy person of substance even though he is making his money through fraud and other criminal activities.
Neither of those things strike me as a worthy dream. Love could be one, but Gatsby’s passion for Daisy seems to be completely tied up with her social position. He may really love her, but somehow I doubt he’d have gone so far if she’d been someone behind the counter at the Five and Dime. He’s made himself rich in part to get her, because he knows she’d never have run away with a poor man.
And making money just to be rich — this is a worthy dream? Please! Having a passion to make something, to build something, to create something, to explore something — these are dreams. Sometimes great, sometimes flawed, but all more substantive than the dream of pretending to be old money.
Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time considering a book about “old money” (old money that probably goes back a couple of generations max) and corrupt social climbers as an example of the Great American Novel. I’m probably an idealist, but I’d like to think that the American people have some redeeming characteristics and that a novel that gets at our essence should be about more than greed, corruption, and flawed dreams.
Not that novels about greed, corruption, and flawed dreams don’t have their place. Fitzgerald did capture the essence of a small slice of privileged people in the 1920s, that decadent decade that culminated in the Great Depression. Those people are still with us, and some of the real life ones make Gatsby look positively decent. Consider Donald Trump. It’s certainly worth re-reading with an eye to the wheeling and dealing that led to the Great Recession, a time we’re still dealing with.
Fitzgerald’s novel provides historical perspective — of the kind that fiction does so much better than dry facts — on the kind of elite that led one of our previous rounds of extreme income inequality. It’s an excellent depiction of the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition — though you need to be aware that Prohibition is in place, since no character in the book seems to have any difficulty obtaining a drink.
And the writing is exquisite. Fitzgerald knew how to construct a sentence, how to describe a room or a person. Here’s his description of Tom Buchanan, who played football at Yale:
a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anticlimax.
We’re all familiar with the idea of the high school or college athlete who never does anything else in his life — Bruce Springsteen has a great song about it, “Glory Days” — but few say it as well as Fitzgerald did. It could be that our awareness of this person exists in part because of him.
But it’s still not the Great American Novel. It’s a beautifully written period piece about dreadful people with too much money and too little depth.
Because if Gatsby’s dreams represent the essence of America, this country’s definitely on a road to ruin.