You might have seen the piece written by Sara Rimer in the New York Times about high school students (mostly smart immigrant kids going to schools like Boston Latin) who are reading The Great Gatsby and connecting with Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel and the famous image at the end of the book where F. Scott writes about the “green light” that lured the Dutch settler to the new land.
What struck me was not so much their interpretation of the famous ending of the book, but that Fitzgerald was even being read by this generation of first- and second-generation immigrants in America.
As the TIMES article points out Gatsby, the novel, “had fallen into near obscurity” by the time Fitzgerald died in 1940. It came back into vogue in the 1950s and 1960s when a trade paperback version was reissued. But also because of the biography of Zelda Fitzgerald written by Nancy Milford and published in 1970. I remember working as a college dean and having students discovering that Zelda had a husband who wrote novels!
Then in 1974 there was Robert Redford playing Gatsby and the novel had another life. Today over a half million copies are sold yearly, mostly to high school and college students.
In this article about high school students reading Gatsby in Boston, the common dream (the ‘green light’) of these kids is getting into Harvard, doing their parents proud, making money in America. (Which, of course, is not how Fitzgerald saw the ‘green light.’) None of the students talk (or dream) about Daisy Buchanan. What also is not mentioned are two other aspects of The Great Gatsby that make it one of the great American novels, that is (1) the structure and (2) Fitzgerald’s use of language.
The novelist and short story writer Irwin Shaw wrote a piece two dozen years ago about studying the original manuscript of Gatsby and being stunned by all the beautiful passages F. Scott dropped from the text so that the book would be a well made novel. (Anyone wanting to learn how to write a novel would do well to read and re-read Gatsby. There’s not a false step in the structure of this book.)
Edmund Wilson, who wrote some of America’s best literary criticism, went to school with Fitzgerald, and was brighter than F.Scott, but could not write a sentence with half the charm and grace and power of his friend. Few writers can match F. Scott’s gift even today.
Before The Great Gatsby was published, Jeffrey Meyers in his biography of Scott Fitzgerald, writes how Ring Lardner, F.Scott’s drinking buddy out in Great Neck, Long Island, where Fitzgerald was living when writing Gatsby, and knew how careless Fitzgerald and his famous editor, Maxwell Perkins, were, so he took the proofs of the novel and read it for mistakes. Lardner knew how great this book was and wanted to help his friend F. Scott. His reporter eye caught a number of errors about the levels in Penn Station, the elevated train in Queens, the “tides” in Lake Superior and the railroads that ran out of the La Salle Street station in Chicago.
In the mid-70s I was living for a time in Rockville, Maryland, in a house very close to Saint Mary’s Catholic Church and cemetery. At the time Fitzgerald’s daughter Scottie (who lived in nearby Georgetown) had managed to have Fitzgerald’s remains moved to the family plot in this cemetery so I walked over and searched the small graveyard until I found his grave. Scottie Fitzgerald had inscribed on his tombstone the final sentence of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”. It is still there today if you want to make the trip to Rockville.
And here we are in 2011, with young immigrants from China, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica trying to come to terms with their future in America by reading F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not a bad way for a book to be remembered. You might be tempted to call The Great Gatsby the Great American Novel. I would.