Expert Comment: The Greatness of GatsbyFriday 17 May 2013
As Baz Luhrmann's new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby divides critics and audiences alike, Dr William Blazek looks at the history of this influential book.
F. Scott Fitzgerald would have loved the type of publicity buzz that has been surrounding Baz Luhrmann’s new film of The Great Gatsby. In early 1920s New York he and his wife, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, were the great celebrities of the Jazz Age, representing youthful energy, talent, and success. The author’s wildly popular first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), and his short stories, especially those published in the trendy monthly magazine The Smart Set, made Fitzgerald the voice of his generation, and it became increasingly difficult to separate his life from his writing. A comic essay that he wrote in 1924, “How to Live on $36,000 a Year”, begins “‘You ought to start saving money,’ The Young Man With a Future assured me just the other day. ‘You think it’s smart to live up to your income. Some day you’ll land in the poorhouse’”. But the effort of the narrator (it’s hard not to think of Fitzgerald taking on a cool persona here) to order his finances is hindered by a fatal miscalculation—that success in America is attainable for anyone with enough ambition, drive, and imagination. When challenged, the writer exclaims “‘Why, it was impossible that I should be poor! I was living in the best hotel in New York!’” Making money came easily for Fitzgerald in that decade, when he could earn $4,000 for a single story in The Saturday Evening Post (about $35,000 in today’s money). With celebrity success came great excess, and Fitzgerald’s avid readers easily associated newspaper accounts of Scott and Zelda diving into the Plaza Hotel fountain or their comments on contemporary fashion or manners with the glamorous but fated main characters, Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert, in his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922), and with the Prohibition breakers and Charleston-crazed dancers of his first two short story collections, Flappers and Philosophers (1920) and Tales of the Jazz Age (1922).
Fitzgerald became desperate to escape his ties to the youth culture he helped to create, the public perception of him as the chronicler of the Jazz Age (“I claim credit for naming it”, he declared), and the popular literature he increasingly felt obliged to deliver. He sailed for Europe in 1924 and worked that summer on the French Riviera writing The Great Gatsby, and there he met experimental European modernists such as Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau. Under their radical aesthetic influence he started rethinking the form and technique of his fiction. Flush with confidence, he wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins: “My book is wonderful” and “I think my book is just about the best American novel ever written”. Sales were only moderately successful, however—a lasting disappointment to the author—yet acclaim from his fellow writers gave him great satisfaction. Fitzgerald particularly treasured a letter from T. S. Eliot, who acknowledged the novel’s innovations: “It seems to me to be the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.”
By the time of his death in 1940, aged only forty-four and financially bankrupt, Fitzgerald was the forgotten man of American letters, an antique remnant of a hedonistic and misguided era. Yet a revival of interest in his work began during World War II, when 150,000 copies of Gatsby were distributed in a cheap edition to U.S. troops, and what the critic Ruth Prigozy wryly calls his “posthumous life” began. Because of its technical virtuosity, especially the use of the character-narrator Nick Carraway, together with its layered evocation of Jay Gatsby’s personal and national American dreams, and the way it captures in nostalgic tones the glamour of wealth alongside the hollowness of decadent pleasure, The Great Gatsby has become The Great American Novel of the twentieth century. Around a half-million copies are sold worldwide each year.
Early and late in his career, Fitzgerald worked in Hollywood, but his lyrical style of writing did not translate very well into snappy dialogue, and he rankled over directors and producers who chopped, changed, and threw out his scripts. Yet, he remained fascinated by the potential for movies to convey ideas and stir imagination, even as he despaired at the commercial motives that turned most of Hollywood’s products into superficial entertainment for the eager, easily pleased masses. The first film of The Great Gatsby, adapted from a Broadway play script, appeared in 1926, and Fitzgerald received $45,000 for the film rights. You can watch a one-minute trailer, the only remaining fragment of this otherwise lost silent-era production, by going to the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society website <fscottfitzgeraldsociety.org>. Alan Ladd starred as Gatsby in a 1949 version, a wonderfully inauthentic adaptation of the novel, with film noir elements and shootouts between rival bootlegger gangs. The 1974 film, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, focuses on glamour and glitz over the novel’s more elegiac themes, and it forever fixed Daisy Buchanan as golden blonde (she has silken dark hair in the novel). An inconsequential television production slipped by almost unnoticed in 2000. And now a fifth adaptation has arrived, to remind us once again of the limitations of cinematic art, and to perform the invaluable cultural service of sending us back to read Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece.
Dr William Blazek serves on the executive board of The F. Scott Fitzgerald Society and is a founding co-editor of The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review, which is co-sponsored by Liverpool Hope University. The eleventh annual volume of the Review, published by Penn State Press, will be available this summer.