Now that May, which was the month of Gatsby, has died down, I feel like it’s time for a different sort of discussion.
May was positively filled with articles discussing Gatsby, and rightly so. The discussions were dis-jointed: some focused on the novel, while many others centered on the film, the parties, the adaptive difficulties, or the cultural intrigue of the work. And indeed, Fitzgerald’s novel is also quite frequently the case in point when anglo book-fiends re-kindle the flames of debate surrounding the “greatest” of the American novels. Yet, it seems, the public — as a collective conscience — takes its greatest interest in Gatsby when headlines are made by other media sources. The last time Gatsby made headlines, it was 2011, and a large portion of the (as of May 2013) now more than 36,500 current Goodreaders had reviewed it with just one star. Now, Baz Luhrmann has resurrected this Great Debate with his star-studded film, and we are again flooded with rhetorical opulence as we all claim our share of the decaying Gatsby estate.
There are excellent points and tidbids abound everywhere you can see: Huffington Post has posted 15 Inspirational Quotes by F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as analysis of Gatsby’s greatness, countless outlets provided reviews and previews for the film , Buzzfeed posted a fun quiz comparing lines from Gatsby to Tumblr turns, The Atlantic challenged us to consider the appropriateness of “Gatsby parties,” Columbia University Press on Haruki Murakami’s Japanese translation of Gatsby, and countless more have wondered aloud whether Gatsby is indeed a “great American novel,” and if it is possible to appropriately translate Fitzgerald’s words to film.
These are all appropriate questions, and well timed at that; but they aren’t the question that interests me. The Great Gatsby has fascinated me since I first encountered it in 12th grade English, and its lasting allure for me are not Fitzgerald’s words, nor the plot. What I enjoy considering is why it (The Great Gatsby) is universally considered to be the Great American Novel.
For the benefit of this discussion, I’ll list the obvious responses one might come across, because all of them are tried and true: flawless prose and novel construction, Fitzgerlad’s demonstration of wealthy and reckless debauchery, the plot, which chronicles the rise and fall of Gatsby as a man, the self-made social identity of Jay Gatz, Gatsby’s enduring hope, a hallmark “American” naivety of the novel’s central characters, and the fickle nature of the American social conscience. Even the ideas and ideals of love from an American perspective. Yet all of these account for only a portion of the debate, and in that light, each response must remain inadequate to answer the question of why the novel is Great.
The truth is, Gatsby (the novel) is special to those who enjoy it for all of those reasons. AND thus, none of them. In fact, by my estimation, all of these reasons (and the 36,500 one-star ratings on Goodreads) are the only proper justification and argument of The Great Gatsby as the Great[est] American Novel. It’s a confusing thought, but it’s also the only one that addresses the best answer of “what it means to be American.”
Because the answer to that question has definitely changed over time. Being American in 1776 meant something different than it did in 1865, and both of those things were entirely different from Fitzgerald’s American Jazz Age. In 2013, our country only resembles these past assemblages of America at its core. The rest has changed. We have changed.
For instance, today, Americans hold almost no values universally. It’s a testament to our massive geographical, cultural, social, and religious diversity. And it’s the main reason I believe Gatsby is the Great American Novel. Because almost no two people can quite agree on why (or if) they like it. Not all of us even want to (or have) read it. It is, in all of its splendor, flexibility, and diversity, the perfect microcosmic example of our country.
We cannot agree on if it is the best any of us have ever written. We cannot even agree on if it is a novel at all (some do contend Gatsby is more appropriately a novella). When we enjoy it, we each have our own reasons. We can argue almost any discussion point in the book, and we can point to dozens of inadequacies or triumphs, depending on our individual perspectives and moods. Some of us might refuse to read it, and some of us might call any attempt at a film adaptation blasphemous. Yet, all of these things only further support Gatsby’s claim: because whether we arrive at Fitzgerald’s party with an invitation or not, whether we love the intimacy in the vastness of his vision or find it impossible to relate to, the American-ness of the novel shines: we are talking about it. It will come and go, and endure long enough to come again. And, if I had to name just one universally American characteristic, it is that we are enamored by discourse. The longer the better — and this discussion has been going on for eighty years.
When it comes to The Great Gatsby, we talk — about IT, and HIM, and THEN. We always have. I do not know of any other novel that has, for so long, sparked so fervent a debate over such few (and proportionally uncontroversial) words. And whether you feel love, or hate — boredom or excitement, at the thought of Gatsby, the point has been made: Fitzgerald’s work has made you feel something. To do that, all of these years later, must, above all else, make Gatsby great. And if you’re thinking to yourself that somewhere along the Mississippi River, Huck Finn is throwing stones from under a tree in Hell or Paradise, while Twain counts and re-counts until he arrives at 219, you’re probably correct.
I hope you disagree with me. I hope you can point to something I’ve overlooked. I hope you never ever have to read that trash, or that after reading it three hundred and ninety four times, you’ve figured out what “it” is. But until then, all that’s left now is for us to come together and drift apart, pointing to this book or that, edging towards the infinite (or ceaseless) current of time with the handful of stories that we’ll never quite know how – or where – to place, imagining (or, blindly hoping) for the wondrous moment when we can all agree on what the Greatest American Novel of All Time is. For now, I’ll leave you with one final thought:
No matter what the ink on the pages say, and regardless of who wrote it, Americans are aware of the importance of literature. And we all fight to protect the words we love — encrypting work so it cannot be erased, and protecting our pages from that famous flash point: Farenheit 451, when words melt into an abyss. Perhaps it is then, and only then, that a thing can become great.