In his 1944 novel The Lost Weekend, Charles Jackson permits his protagonist, Don Birnam, to fall into the fantasy of lecturing to a literature class (the novel’s time is roughly 1935):
He took down The Great Gatsby and ran his finger over the fine green binding. “There’s no such thing,” he said aloud, “as a flawless novel. But if there is, this is it.” He nodded. The class looked and listened in complete attention, and one or two made notes… “People will be going back to Fitzgerald one day as they now go back to Henry James.” He walked back and forth, tapping the book in his hand. “Pay no attention, either, to those who care for his writing merely; who speak of ’the texture of his prose’ and other silly and borrowed and utterly meaningless phrases. True, the writing is the finest and purest, the most entertaining and most readable, that we have in America today… but it’s the content that counts in literature… Apart from his other gifts, Scott Fitzgerald has the one thing that a novelist needs: a truly seeing eye.”
In Southern Women, Lois Battle’s novel published forty years after The Lost Weekend, four women discuss social relationships. They are going to a party in the Hamptons. Maxine speaks first:
“There’ll be a lot of new men at Mel’s tonight. You know Mel always entertains as though he was the reincarnation of the Great Gatsby.”
“Mel’s got style,” Estelle agreed.
“No. Mel’s got money,” Ginny said.
“Will Mel have food?” Cordy said.
“There’ll be everything you want there,” Maxine assured her. “Everything.”
Fifteen minutes later, as Maxine squeezed her car into a place between a BMW and a Rolls, Cordy saw that for once Maxine had not been exaggerating. Except for a twelve-foot satellite dish antenna sitting in the middle of the floodlit lawns, this really might have been the Gatsby estate.
In several ways, these two passages from American novels published subsequent to the death of F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1940 frame his impact on American literature. They help measure the endurance of his writing, particularly The Great Gatsby, in the tradition of American fiction. First, they establish chronological outlines, more or less. From even before his death (if we accept the reality of Don Birnam’s fictional “life”) through the present, American novelists have used Gatsby as a literary peg. In so doing, they indicate the persistence of that novel as both a benchmark of quality and a popular literary landmark, a work any reader sufficiently literate to be enjoying the novels from which they come is presumed to know and appreciate. The two passages also stake out the polarities of Gatsby’s presence. Jackson’s passionate, insistent tribute is that of a writer who recognizes in a predecessor magnitude of achievement—the application of craftsmanship in the service of sensibility that shapes the best art. Battle rather casually makes an allusive comparison that she knows will stimulate standard visions of grandeur, easily recognized by a wide spectrum of readers. Finally, the two passages help measure the growth of Fitzgerald’s reputation, in particular as it depends upon the stature of The Great Gatsby, in the four and a half decades since his death. Jackson—the passionate disciple whose novel is permeated by the influence of Fitzgerald’s style, tone, and moral vision—feels he must argue almost shrilly for the legitimacy of his mentor’s achievement. Battle can take that achievement for granted, drawing naturally upon Fitzgerald rather like Fitzgerald and his contemporaries had drawn upon Shakespeare or Keats.
Measurement of literary permanence is a risky undertaking, especially when it involves a writer whose work has not yet stood a substantial test of time. Nevertheless, few scholars or readers would deny that, by the usual criteria, Fitzgerald’s influence has made itself felt as strongly as has that of any American novelist. There are four main tests of Fitzgerald’s and Gatsby’s endurance: the ways the author and the novel have impressed themselves on the general public; sales figures; academic-scholarly activity, and—of special interest—the responses of other writers in their own work.
The first biography, Arthur Mizener’s The Far Side of Paradise (1951), in conjunction with Budd Schulberg’s novel The Disenchanted (1950)—which recounted the last days in Hollywood of a burnt-out Jazz Age novelist—had the effect of establishing a popular image of Fitzgerald that has only in the past few years begun to be dispelled. Fitzgerald himself had contributed to this intensely romantic, nostalgic, and sentimental image of the brilliant young chronicler of the 1920s—daring, adventurous, but self-destructive, who became the saddened, emotionally bankrupt Hollywood writer struggling against alcohol, illness, and failure to achieve final self-respect and artistic success. His public interviews in the 1920s, his self-examining essays in the 1930s (such as the “Crack-up” series in Esquire), his tormented marriage, and his self-doubting correspondence, as they all began to find publication following his death, made good material for journalists and even for some men of letters and academics who wished to see him as the ruined poet of modern American letters. He was for them the “poor Scott Fitzgerald” who had, he wrote in “Pasting It Together,” “become identified with the objects of my horror or compassion.” This was a pitiable but noble Fitzgerald, who had sacrificed all for glamor and success, then watched it slide from his fingers while the nation had watched the bright lights of the twenties dim into the Depression. Warm compassion for Poor Scott was reinforced by the general wave of nostalgia for the Jazz Age that swept the United States in the 1950s. That nostalgia helped establish a popular awareness of Fitzgerald that had a life related to, but not dependent upon, his novels and stories. Fitzgerald the romantic figure, as opposed to Fitzgerald’s work, was the subject matter of nonfiction books, thinly disguised novels, radio and television plays, and a film.
The popular image of Fitzgerald, something of a combination of the youthful Byron and the dying Keats, undoubtedly became fused, in many American consciousnesses, with images of his protagonists Amory Blaine, Jay Gatsby, and Dick Diver. How much this confusion reinforced Fitzgerald’s literary reputation as a slipshod caretaker of an unfulfilled talent is difficult to assess. Ultimately, it may have led readers to the novels and stories themselves and thus may actually have worked to establish his merit rather than obscure it. Certainly, this public Fitzgerald has played some part in consolidating in the American consciousness the permanence of Gatsby: both the character Jay Gatsby, whose shadow falls across the face of modern American fiction as does that of no other figure from American literature, and the novel The Great Gatsby, which is admired, emulated, and used as a basis of reference and allusion to an extent only a few works—Huckleberry Finn, The Waste Land, arguably Moby-Dick—can claim. The fusion, at some level of the public mind, of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jay Gatsby—mistaken and simplistic though it may be—has served to make Gatsby a figure of nostalgic mythologizing with power to stir imaginations that have never encountered the pages of the novel. America took Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to its heart, following the first wave of the Fitzgerald revival culminating in The Far Side of Paradise and The Disenchanted. In the subsequent thirty-five years, as overall awareness and appreciation of Fitzgerald’s fiction swelled, so did the appropriation into American literature of the images of the Fitzgeralds.
On the most superficial level, that appreciation has found expression in the countless “Scott Fitzgerald-look” clothing advertisements, or in the bars and nightclubs with names like “Zelda’s” or “Gatsby’s Place”; in less ephemeral and more dignified ways, the Fitzgeralds have come to be subject matter for American literature. The Disenchanted established a tradition much emulated. Schulberg denied identification between Fitzgerald and his novel’s protagonist Manley Halliday; nevertheless, that identification was firmly established by the parallels between events in the book and those described in accounts of Fitzgerald’s last years in Hollywood—especially after his companion Sheilah Graham published Beloved Infidel, her 1958 memoir of her life with Fitzgerald during his last years. Not only did the two books find wide readership during the 1950s, but each carried the tragic romance of Fitzgerald to the public in other ways. The Disenchanted was dramatized for the stage, opening on Broadway in December 1957, and Beloved Infidel was made into a 1959 movie. The film was not successful, but Sheilah Graham claims that it spurred the making of the long-delayed David O. Selznick film of Tender Is the Night, released at the beginning of 1962. The public identification of the principal characters with the Fitzgeralds—fallacious in part—nevertheless strengthened the growing hold Fitzgerald and his work were exerting on American culture.
Two teleplays of Fitzgerald’s short story “The Last of the Belles” are similar examples of the fusion of literary and biographical appeal. The first was presented on the “Kraft Theatre” series in 1957; the second appeared, with much advertising, as “F. Scott Fitzgerald and ’The Last of the Belles,’” an American Broadcasting Company (ABC) special presentation on January 7, 1974. The deliberate biographical identification evident in the title of the ABC version indicates an interest in Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, assumed to be models for characters in the story.
The dramatic interplay of the lives and careers of the Fitzgeralds has had even more direct appeal to playwrights of the past decade. Paul Hunter’s off-Broadway play Scott and Zelda had a deliberately brief run in January 1974, but it received favorable notices. Much more ambitious, if less successful, was Clothes for a Summer Hotel, Tennessee Williams’s exploration of the Fitzgeralds’ lives, and the interrelationship between life and art, which opened on Broadway on March 26, 1980. Subtitled A Ghost Play, it was less a tribute to Ibsen than to Strindberg in its dreamlike fusion of time, place, and character, as the Fitzgeralds recapitulated their lives within the framework of Zelda Fitzgerald’s asylum shortly before her death. More recently, a local ballet troupe in Montgomery, Alabama, birthplace of Zelda Fitzgerald, presented a ballet about her life, using a memory framework structure similar to that of Williams’s play.
But it is in fiction itself that the image of F. Scott Fitzgerald, as man and writer, has its most intriguing manifestations. As might be expected, his presence appeared earliest in works written by his contemporaries, particularly those on the Scribners list. His friend, rival, and literary touchstone Ernest Hemingway incorporated him by name, almost as a kind of taunting joke, into his 1936 short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” as an example of a once effective writer ruined by his fascination with the romance of money. The invented exchange between “Poor Scott Fitzgerald,” the worshipper of the rich, and Hemingway the realist (they have more money) has become one of the best-known anecdotes in modern American literary lore [for a full examination of the incident, see Matthew J. Bruccoli, Scott and Ernest: The Fitzgerald-Hemingway Friendship (New York: Random House, 1978), pp. 130-5.]. Hemingway’s treatment of both Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in his 1964 memoir-history A Moveable Feast is sufficiently dramatic and creative that, although assuredly based on fact, his characterization might be termed fictive in its power and in the part it played in shaping the myth of Fitzgerald during the 1960s. The character Hunt Conroy in Thomas Wolfe’s The Web and the Rock (1939) is also a fictional depiction of Fitzgerald.
More recently, as thinly disguised roman a clef characters, the Fitzgeralds appeared in George Zuckerman’s 1969 novel The Last Flapper. An exploitation of the legend of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life (with an F. Scott Fitzgerald character in the background), the novel betrays its flavor in the paperback cover blurb: “They were young, rich, successful, happy, and had a mad whirl through the wild, crazy, drunken 20s. It was a path that could only lead to destruction… Rannah O’Donell, beautiful and damned: The Last Flapper.” In James Aldridge’s One Last Glimpse (1977), Fitzgerald appears directly as a character, observed during a fictional 1929 automobile trip with Ernest Hemingway. Aldridge’s framework allowed him to explore the personal and professional relationships and tensions between the two. His narrative technique, focused through a young companion-narrator, was evidence of his admiration for Fitzgerald’s structure in Gatsby.
Whereas much of the material previously described reflects, with varying degrees of literary value, a fascination with the lives and legend of the Fitzgeralds, American fiction of the 1950s and 1960s also began to reflect deep admiration for the author of The Great Gatsby as a literary craftsman. Writers as varied as John Cheever, J. P. Marquand, Jack Kerouac, Vance Bourjaily, Raymond Chandler, and especially John O’Hara were admirers of Fitzgerald’s mastery of style, image, and subject matter—sufficiently so that their admiration appeared in their writing. Cheever’s tribute took the form of a contribution on Fitzgerald to the volume Atlantic Brief Lives, a compilation of biographical sketches of artists and writers. In illustrating Fitzgerald’s literary excellence, Cheever quoted Nick Carraway’s description of returning home to the Midwest from school in the East and emphasized Fitzgerald’s profound immersion in his time as the mark of a greatwriter: “In Fitzgerald there is a thrilling sense of knowing exactly where one is—the city, the resort, the hotel, the decade and the time of day. His greatest innovation was to use social custom, clothing, overheard music, not as history but as an expression of his acute awareness of the meaning of his time.” As has been pointed out elsewhere, John P. Marquand was also an admirer of Fitzgerald. His 1930 novel Warning Hill has Fitzgeraldian qualities, including an allusion to Fitzgerald’s short story “The Rich Boy” (1926).
One group of American writers who have a surprising affinity for Fitzgerald are those who seriously practice the craft of mystery writing, using the “hard-boiled detective” genre. One of the foremost of them, Raymond Chandler, was an admirer of Fitzgerald’s craftsmanship. In a 1950 letter Chandler described Fitzgerald’s literary distinction as “one of the rarest qualities in all literature,” a kind of “charm—charm as Keats would have used it. … It’s not a matter of pretty writing or clear style. It’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite, the sort of thing you get from good string quartets. Yes, where would you find it today?” A few years later, drawing another analogy to romantic poetry, Chandler alluded to Fitzgerald in The Long Goodbye: a farewell note from a man detective Philip Marlowe has been tracing is signed “Roger (F. Scott Fitzgerald) Wade.” The man’s wife tells Marlowe that her husband had been a great admirer of Fitzgerald, describing him as the “best drunken writer since Coleridge, who took dope.”
Jack Kerouac, quintessential 1950s Beat Generation social rebel, would seem an unlikely disciple of Fitzgerald’s work, but his 1959 picaresque work Doctor Sax bears this tribute:
It was a funny song, at the end it had that 1930’s lilt so hysterical Scott Fitzgerald, with writhely women squirmelying their we-a-ares in silk & brocade shiny New Year’s Eve nightclub dresses with thrown champagne and popples busting “Gluyr! the New Year’s Parade!”
Even in his identification of Fitzgerald with a bourgeois value system he was rejecting, Kerouac displayed a fasciantion with the romantic freedom Fitzgerald and his work represented to many younger writers. In a 1962 Life magazine tribute to a preparatoryschool classmate, Kerouac wrote: “Nobody’ll ever know America completely because nobody ever knew Gatsby, I guess.”
A more substantial and eloquent tribute was the 1964 story by Vance Bourjaily, “Fitzgerald Attends My Fitzgerald Seminar,” which concerns the efforts of a professor of English to interest cynical 1960-ish graduate students in the mood and style of the stories in Flappers and Philosophers, while imagining that Fitzgerald himself is looking on. The extent of Professor Short’s (and, by extension, Bourjaily’s) admiration for Fitzgerald’s work is evident, and the story demonstrates that, by 1964, awareness of Fitzgerald’s writings among young Americans went considerably beyond familiarity with one or two novels.
It is on the mind and heart of John O’Hara, however, that Fitzgerald made one of his strongest literary impressions and found one of his most vigorous champions. O’Hara had come of age under the influence of Fitzgerald’s work during Fitzgerald’s lifetime, and he had figured early and eloquently in the revival of Fitzgerald’s reputation in the 1940s. From the very first, he insisted, Fitzgerald had had a shaping influence on his work. When his 1934 first novel, Appointment in Samarra, was republished in 1953, O’Hara wrote a foreword in which he avowed that novel’s indebtedness to Fitzgerald and voiced again the fervent championing of Fitzgerald’s writing that had characterized such earlier comments as his 1941 New Republic essay “Certain Aspects” and his introduction to The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald (1945). In the latter he had declared: “All he was was our best novelist, one of our best novella-ists, and one of our finest writers of short stories.” The elegiac tone of Samarra, its respect for detail and event as keys to character and meaning, and its reflection of just how people really talk and act are all marks of Fitzgerald’s mature writing, qualities that would continue to appear throughout O’Hara’s work. In the 1961 short story “Mrs. Stratton of Oak Knoll,” O’Hara was more specific, permitting a character to make a ringing defense of Fitzgerald’s art—as distinct from the superficiality of the John Held, Jr., caricatures with which the popular mind too often identified it.
If Fitzgerald in general, in the popular imagination and in his overall literary achievement, looms large in contemporary American culture, The Great Gatsby in particular has become so much a fact of American literature—so much a permanent presence, a persistent influence—that it is almost impossible to imagine contemporary American fiction without Jay Gatsby. No other figure in our literature has become so eponymous.
As with the more general images of the Fitzgeralds and Fitzgerald’s work in American culture, the presence of Jay Gatsby can be measured in a number of ways, some superficial, others profound. Gatsby and the novel in which he lives have become firmly fixed in popular culture, in academic evaluation of literary achievement, and—perhaps most telling and most important—in the literature of other writers.
That ubiquitous presence is in part evidence of and concomitant with the popular image of Fitzgerald as writer, growing from and reflecting the widening outer circle of the Fitzgerald revival. If F. Scott Fitzgerald is, at some level of popular consciousness, America’s Chatterton or Keats, Jay Gatsby is his character most closely identified with both the glamor and loss of his romance. As such, Gatsby, and The Great Gatsby, again and again come to public attention in ways not necessarily dependent on having read the novel. They can be as ephemeral as advertisements and commercial exploitation: In 1964, for instance, an ad for the Plaza Hotel in New York, setting for the confrontation scene between Gatsby and Tom Buchanan, incorporated a passage from the novel. In 1968, the Eagle Shirt company marketed a Great Gatsby shirt, available in an appropriately rich array of hues, including West Egg Blue. In conjunction with the release in 1974 of the Paramount film of Gatsby, there was a veritable flood of Gatsby products, ranging from phonograph recordings of 1920s music to Gatsby sportswear by McGregor, coiffures by Glemby Hair Salons, Teflon II Cook-wear, and Ballentine’s Whisky.
A more serious measure of the impact of The Great Gatsby can be achieved by looking at the number and kinds of literary collections, anthologies, and studies of American fiction that have included excerpts from the novel as examples of good fiction. Fitzgerald’s bibliographer lists twelve that appeared between 1935 and 1977: The Great American Parade (1935), North, East, South, West (1945), I Wish I’d Written That (1946), Taken at the Flood (1946), Better Reading II: Literature (1948), These Would I Choose (1948), The Art of Book Reading (1952), The American Treasury 1455-1955 (1955), An Anthology of American Humor (1962), Advanced Spanish Composition (1971), In the Presence of This Continent (1971), and The Saturday Evening Post Automobile Book (1977). The nature of the use of excerpts from the novel may be surmised from the titles of most of these, but a closer look at some representative volumes from the list provides a sense of the values editors and compilers saw in Fitzgerald’s prose. The Great American Parade, for example, sought to present a variety of ways in which “leading modern authors” had written about American people and places. As “The Guy Who Fixed the World Series,” it incorporated Nick Carraway’s account of his meeting Gatsby in Manhattan for lunch and his being introduced to Meyer Wolfshiem. In contrast to this interest in character depiction, Clifton Fadiman and Charles Van Doren chose for The American Treasury 1455-1955 two brief passages intended to illustrate Fitzgerald’s command of imagery and symbol: one a description of caterwauling automobile horns after one of Gatsby’s parties, the other the closing paragraphs, from Gatsby’s belief in the green light through the eloquent cadences describing humanity as beating against the currents of time. This anthology also incorporated passages from other Fitzgerald works. The Art of Book Reading, an instructional text, used the selection describing the death of Gatsby in his swimming pool to illustrate how to read effectively at the climax of a novel. Most eloquent as a tribute, however, was I Wish I’d Written That, a collection of passages chosen by famous American Authors from works they admired. For it, John Dos Passos, Fitzgerald’s friend and contemporary who had been one of the champions of his reputation in the years following his death, chose the evocative description of the wasteland/ash heap lying between West Egg and Astoria, the “Valley of Ashes.”
If the drama of Gatsby has touched anthologists, it is not at all surprising that it has enthralled those involved with the American stage and screen. Productions have ranged from a 1956 musical adapted from the novel by the Yale Dramatic Association with book and lyrics by Aubrey Goodman, through a 1957 Playhouse 90 television adaptation, to the 1984 Broadway production of A. R. Gurney, Jr.’s, The Golden Age. The plot of the last, loosely based on Henry James’s The Aspern Papers focuses on missing chapters from The Great Gatsby. Hollywood film versions of the novel have also both contributed to and manifested the presence of Gatsby in the national consciousness. There have been three productions, beginning with the silent version in 1927 with Warner Baxter as Gatsby, continuing with the 1949 Alan Ladd Gatsby, to the 1974 Robert Redford impersonation.
It may be useful to address briefly the relationship among the realms of publishing, scholarship, and literary fiction during the 1960s and 1970s—when Fitzgerald’s reputation was being consolidated and Gatsby was being thrust, in a number of ways, upon the reading public.
During the 1940s, Scribners permitted other houses to publish Fitzgerald’s works, probably as a way of testing the legitimacy of the Fitzgerald revival. Gatsby was the most frequently reprinted novel. By 1951 the revival was well established, and Scribners assumed control of the canon. At first, Scribners combined Gatsby with other works, as in its 1953 Modern Standard Authors: Three Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, allowing Penguin to reprint Gatsby in Britain. In 1958, a separate Scribners Gatsby trade edition was reissued. At the same time, a new readership was being explored: The combination of paperbound technology and the growth of school-age readers during the post-World War II baby boom led Scribners to concentrate on reprints aimed at students. In 1957, a Student’s Edition was published. It was so successful that in 1960 it became the first volume in the Scribner Library series of quality paperback reprints aimed primarily at high school and college readers. In 1961, a School Edition, with guiding material aimed at high school students, appeared. The next years saw Gatsby included in The Fitzgerald Reader (1963), edited by Arthur Mizener, and the Quarto of Modern Literature (1964), edited by Malcolm Cowley, long a Fitzgerald supporter. (He had contributed to the consolidation of Fitzgerald’s reputation by editing both a revised Tender Is the Night and the Stories, including some previously uncollected, in the early 1950s.) In 1968 there was a large-type edition, and in 1970 a critical anthology incorporating Gatsby with research material, edited by Henry Dan Piper. That same year saw the distribution of a book club edition as part of a set issued by theLiterary Guild. In 1974, in conjunction with the Paramount film, Scribners permitted Bantam to publish an inexpensive paperback.
Throughout the period, Penguin continued to keep Gatsby available in Britain and abroad, issuing fourteen printings of its edition between 1950 and 1970. In 1948, Grey Walls Press had published a hardbound edition in England, which had modest sales through two printings. In 1958, perhaps encouraged by the success of the Penguins, The Bodley Head led off the first volume of its multi-volume collected works of Fitzgerald with Gatsby, together with The Last Tycoon, selected stories, and an introduction by J. B. Priestly. The Great Gatsby with notes was published by Bodley Head in 1967. The sales represented by the various Scribners versions climbed steadily, if at first slowly, averaging a few thousand volumes a year in the early 1950s. With the discovery of the college paperback market, however, Scribners’ sales of Gatsby began to rise rapidly: in 1957, 12,000; the next year, three times as many; by 1960, 100,000 or more a year; by the end of that decade, more than 300,000 volumes annually, a level that has been maintained. By 1974 Fitzgerald’s publishers could proudly assert that his works were required reading in more than 2,400 American college and university courses.
It is not clear to what degree each is cause or effect, but the rapid growth of readership of Gatsby was accompanied by an equivalent explosion of critical and scholarly commentary and analysis. Perhaps students read Gatsby because their teachers were investigating its literary merits; perhaps professors were drawn toward analysis because they wished to teach a book their students—and the general public—were beginning to recognize as an American classic. Probably each activity stimulated the other. Certainly the growth of both was concomitant.
The Modern Language Association International Bibliography has for the past two decades consistently shown Fitzgerald’s work to be among that of American authors most frequently examined, critiqued, and analyzed. In 1980 there were forty-two entries; in 1981, twenty-four; and in 1982, the most recent compilation, forty. Of those items (some of them in foreign publications, some in books or graduate research works, but the majority essays or articles in American quarterlies and journals), twenty-eight, oralmost one-third, were written in part or totally on The Great Gatsby. Only a few writers, notably Mark Twain and William Faulkner, receive more attention.
Between 1940 and 1950, perhaps fifteen articles on Fitzgerald that might be termed academic or scholarly were published. Many of them came from the pens of a few men, early associated with the Fitzgerald revival—Malcolm Cowley, Lionel Trilling, Arthur Mizener. In the next decade, approximately sixty scholarly or critical articles, excluding notes or queries, treated Fitzgerald’s work wholly or substantially. Of these, twenty-eight, nearly half, were concerned primarily with Gatsby. Between 1960 and 1968, approximately eighty articles or notes on Fitzgerald appeared, many of them in the Fitzgerald Newsletter. Again, nearly half (thirty-four) dealt wholly or significantly with The Great Gatsby. By 1970, the consolidation of Fitzgerald’s academic reputation was completed, but scholarly interest did not slacken.
The first biography of Fitzgerald appeared in 1951. There have been three more, as well as one of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, which concentrated on her relationship with her husband, and one that might be termed a study of both husband and wife. In 1957, the first nonbiographical book-length study of Fitzgerald appeared, James E. Miller’s The Fictional Technique of F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Hague: Nijhoff). By 1974, ten others had been published, as well as at least five collections of critical essays. Between 1969 and 1979, the Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual, under the editorship of Matthew J. Bruccoli, served as a focus for commentary, notes, and critical attention. Books of bibliographical, biographical, and critical focus continue to appear, some of them directed partly or entirely toward understanding or evaluating The Great Gatsby.
Inevitably, only some of this critical attention has been of lasting importance and insight. But because it helped focus attention upon the qualities that have made the novel worthy of acclaim as an artistic masterpiece, that criticism stimulated cultural permanence for Gatsby—and helps to account for it. Much of the broader critical attention useful in defining Jay Gatsby came early, in articles subsequently reprinted in widely available critical collections. Together, those articles helped delineate the major impact of Gatsby on the American consciousness. Essentially, the essays fallinto three groups: those that explore technique and craftsmanship, those that attempt to identify the symbolic power of Gatsby as a mythic figure, and those that insist that the novel’s greatest strength lies in its moral questioning of America’s involvement with the magic and power of wealth. [In addition to my own reading of much of the material, I have drawn upon Jackson R. Bryer, 'F. Scott Fitzgerald,' Sixteen Modern American Authors: A Survey of Research and Criticism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1974), pp. 277-321.]
Of the first category, particularly effective as well as representative were John W. Bicknell’s “The Waste Land of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Virginia Quarterly Review (Autumn 1954); Cleanth Brooks’s “The American ’Innocence’: In James, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner,” Shenandoah (Autumn 1964); and Robert E. Long’s two-part study “The Great Gatsby and the tradition of Joseph Conrad,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Summer-Fall 1966)—all of which examined Fitzgerald’s relationship with other major writers not primarily as influence studies, but as approaches in delineating craftsmanship. More extensive studies that have helped show Fitzgerald as a careful master of style, image, structure, and literary form in Gatsby include Kenneth E. Eble’s F. Scott Fitzgerald (New York: Twayne, 1963), as well as Eble’s valuable essay “The Craft of Revision: The Great Gatsby,” American Literature (November 1964); Robert Sklar’s F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoon (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), with its careful analysis of the narrative technique provided through Nick Carraway; and two textual studies by Bruccoli: The Great Gatsby: A Facsimile of the Manuscript (Washington, DC: Bruccoli Clark/Microcard Editions, 1973) and Apparatus for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1974).
The Great Gatsby came into critical favor at the height of the practice of the New Criticism, one emphasis of which was close readings of symbol and theme. It is not surprising that some of its best commentary was directed toward exploring the nature of Jay Gatsby as an embodiment of mythic and symbolic meaning. Some of that criticism—notably Robert W. Stallman’s “Gatsby and the Hole in Time,” Modern Fiction Studies (November 1955), and John Henry Raleigh’s “Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby,” University of Kansas City Review (June 1957)—place the novel in a universal mythic mode. Others—notably Floyd C. Watkins’s “Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatz and Young Ben Franklin,” The New England Quarterly (June 1954); Robert Omstein’s “Scott Fitzgerald’s Fable of East andWest,” College English (December 1956); and especially Marius Bewley’s treatment of Gatsby as a universal mythic hero, in The Eccentric Design: Form in the Classic American Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959)—helped formulate a sense of Gatsby as a kinsman of major American mythic figures, from Benjamin Franklin through Huckleberry Finn. The theme of the relevance of the American dream to contemporary life, as enunciated in Gatsby, also received substantial examination in The Eccentric Design and in Milton R. Stern’s The Golden Moment (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970).
Another measure of the extent of Fitzgerald scholarship is the number of American Ph.D. dissertations written principally or wholly about Fitzgerald’s work. The first one was completed in 1950. By 1982, seventy-four had been written [My count was made from The Critical Reputation of F. Scott Fitzgerald and from MLA Annual Bibliographies for the years 1967-82. A study of the range of Fitzgerald between 1950 and 1976 can be seen in Deborah A. Forczek, 'Fitzgerald and Hemingway in the Academy: A Survey of Dissertations,' Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual 1978, pp. 351-85.].
From this academic and scholarly activity can be drawn two conclusions that have a bearing on The Great Gatsby’s impact. First, combined with the publishing and sales history of the novel, the scholarship is clear evidence that articulate, educated readers coming of age in the past thirty years have had every opportunity to read and study The Great Gatsby. Second, the basic themes and concerns explored in the scholarship are those that have helped Gatsby captivate the American imagination: an extraordinary mastery of style, technique, image, and diction; a clear and detailed command of the nuances of the American fascination with success—not crass material riches but fulfillment measured by realizing a dream; a romantic purity undefiled by Jay Gatsby’s limitations when that dream turns to dust; and a sense of national mythos involved in a figure both pioneer and gentleman, both commoner and natural nobleman.
The degree to which academic judgment of a literary reputation influences either popular opinion or that of other working writers is a question not easily answered. Probably the influence flows both ways, although, as Professor Jay B. Hubbell observed in Who Are the Major American Writers?, in the United States authors of merit have frequently—in fact, usually—been recognized and appreciated by their fellow writers well before being accepted by the academic and critical establishment. Much the most important measure of the permanence and impact of a work of literatureupon its culture is the impression it has made upon later writers working within the same cultural tradition. Certainly, by that measure, The Great Gatsby has left its mark more deeply than any other novel of its century. Both in the number of writers touched by it and in the quality of some of the works that openly or tacitly acknowledge discipleship, the scope of Gatsby’s profound effect can be gauged. The Great Gatsby may be the only novel in American literature that, in the variety and number of its emulators, has spawned a subliterature all its own: the Gatsby novels.
Certainly, the widespread use of The Great Gatsby in university classrooms helped bring the novel to the attention of millions of young Americans of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, including some who would become writers of post-Fitzgerald literature; certainly, too, these younger writers were influenced by the critical interpretations and theories to which their teachers introduced them. To many writers of the postmodernist period, the grace, mythic scope, and moral earnestness of The Great Gatsby offered a pattern not always evident in much of their contemporary art. Perhaps Gatsby’s insistence that innocence is recapturable, that the edenic past can be remade, appealed to a time hungry for beauty, ideals, and a sense of connectedness with fundamental American traditions.
To be sure, the shadow of Gatsby had begun to spread over American fiction before the baby boom generation came of age. As indicated earlier, a first manifestation was in The Lost Weekend. That novel’s subject matter and theme—the abject failure of personality because of early inability to realize youthful romantic dreams, culminating in alcoholism—bear some resemblance to the popular image of Fitzgerald’s life, as it was perceived in the 1940s. A more widely known tribute to The Great Gatsby is expressed by Holden Caulfield, the urban Huckleberry Finn of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Holden himself has become one of the most enduring and endearing figures of American fiction, threading his way through the streets and the neuroses of modern America, as well as through—according to a recent paperback copy—thirty hardbound and eight-two paperback printings. A symbol of alienated youth to the young readers of the 1950s, Holden has come to be placed in a more romantic line of descentlinking him to Mark Twain’s Huck. That Jay Gatsby is also of that lineage, in Salinger’s eyes, is evidenced by Holden’s comments on the literary tastes his brother is attempting to develop in him:
I still don’t see how he could like a phony book like [Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms] and still like that one by Ring Lardner or that other one he’s so crazy about, The Great Gatsby. … I was crazy about The Great Gatsby. Old Gatsby. Old sport. That killed me.
That Holden was speaking for Salinger as well as for himself in his admiration for the (surprisingly) unphony Gatsby is reinforced by Gatsby-esque qualities in Catcher: a theme of revolt against the corruption of American innocence and a protagonist whose dreams are shattered by reality. Salinger’s admiration was further expressed in a letter to a friend: “Re-read a lot of Scott Fitzgerald’s work this week. God, I love that man. Damn fool critics are forever calling writers geniuses for their idiosyncracies [sic]—Hemingway for his reticent dialogue, Wolfe for his gargantuan energy, and so on. Fitzgerald’s only idiosyncrasy was his pure brilliance.”
Less impressive, perhaps, but no less useful as evidence of the novel’s persistence in the consciousnesses of American writers are tributes to The Great Gatsby that appeared in a scattering of novels of varied success over the decade after Catcher. In The Boy Who Made Good (1955), Mary Deasy’s admiration for the biographical saga of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, as well as for the structure and tone of Gatsby, was abundantly evident. There is a first-person narrator-observer and the use of displaced chronology and withheld information. The emulation of Gatsby is unmistakable in the opening paragraph:
The fall I went East to college for my freshman year, my father made a remark to me that I have never forgotten since.
“Never let it bother you,” he said, “if other people seem to get all the glory in life. Remember it’s not always the kid everybody is watching who gets the brass ring and the free ride on the merry-go-round.”
In 1959, Aubrey Goodman, who had adapted The Great Gatsby for a musical at Yale in 1956, published The Golden Youth of Lee Prince, which has been described as reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s novel. The next year saw the publication of a much more widelyread and well-received novel showing the influence of Gatsby: John O’Hara’s Ourselves to Know. Its structure echoes Gatsby in that it is narrated by an interested if skeptical investigator—in this instance a naive youth, Gerald Higgins, whose fascination with the shadowy figure of Robert Millhouser emulates (but not in exact parallel) Carraway’s interest in Jay Gatsby. Higgins discovers early that Millhouser has, in the past, killed his wife. As Higgins comes to know Millhouser and—growing up—to undertake a biographical exploration, he learns that, as with Gatsby, appearances deceive, and the effort to understand is a process of growth.
The mid-sixties saw absorption of The Great Gatsby into the work of another master of the hard-boiled detective novel (Gatsby is, after all, a novel of mystery, as laced with realism as it is with poetry). The enthusiasm for Fitzgerald’s work expressed by Kenneth Millar, who wrote as Ross Macdonald, was even less qualified than that of his predecessor and influence, Raymond Chandler. To the admiration Chandler had for Fitzgerald’s style, Millar—a Ph.D. in English who had written his dissertation on Coleridge—brought an ear finely tuned to the lyricism and romance of Gatsby. In his Notebooks, he termed Fitzgerald:
the last writer to embody the national fate, the last who swallowed whole the vast Platonic hubris of the Romantics, (Gatsby is said to have “drunk the Platonic milk of wonder”), the last who saw himself as a kind of dizzy philosopher-king at the apex of society, the last who projected his subjective life in fiction as a kind of tragic legend for his age and for future time.
As early as 1958, Millar had told a newspaper interviewer that he greatly admired Gatsby and frequently reread it, calling the novel “’the closest thing we have to a tragedy illustrating our secret history.’” In Black Money (1965), Millar put his admiration for Gatsby most clearly into his own work. In it Lew Archer, his private detective, investigates a mysterious and possibly criminal young man who has married a beautiful and sophisticated girl from a background of money and privilege. These elements of the romance between Gatsby and Daisy Fay are loosely adapted, but as Archer probes more and more deeply into the background of “Francis Martel,” alias “Feliz Cervantes,” the sense of layer upon layer of partly true, partly false identity echoes the experience of Nick Carraway, who found that Gatsby had indeed been an “Oggsford man” and a war hero. Archer ultimately establishes that, like Jimmy Gatz, Martel-Cervantes is really a poor boy, Pedro Domingo from Panama, who had fallen in love with a golden princess, worked mightily to refine and better himself by a combination of means both admirable and corrupt, and run afoul of his erstwhile benefactor, a Nevada gambler-gangster who combines aspects of Dan Cody and Wolfshiem. Martel’s golden girl proves as faithless as Daisy. Perhaps the most important resonance of The Great Gatsby in Black Money, though, is a thematic one: the effect of money, both on those who have it and those who, for whatever reasons, want it.
Later in the decade, another established novelist with a sense of social exactitude, Louis Auchincloss, paid his respects to The Great Gatsby in A World of Profit (1968).48 Auchincloss traces the struggle of a poor boy to win a place in the glamorous world of wealth, as represented by a Long Island mansion. Like O’Hara, Auchincloss shares a technical affinity for careful observation of social behavior with the Fitzgerald of Gatsby. In an essay entitled Three “Perfect Novels”: And What They Have In Common, Auchincloss cited Gatsby along with The Scarlet Letter and Wuthering Heights.
The permanent impression The Great Gatsby has made on American fiction, as might be expected, is more direct and pronounced in the novels of writers who came of age during the 1950s and 1960s. C. D. B. Bryan’s The Great Dethriffe (1970) was deliberately developed under the influence of the tone and mood of Gatsby and the aura of the Fitzgerald legend. Bryan, stepson of John O’Hara, created characters who are conscious of similarities between their 1950s and the 1920s, and they cultivate those parallels in an effort to create a Gatsby mood and tone in their own lives, as Bryan was doing in his novel. Like Fitzgerald, Bryan concentrated on capturing the mood of his times as his sensibility perceived and modified it. The lyrical quality of his prose and the use of a narrator-observer who develops into a central character bespeak the profound influence of Fitzgerald’s novel on Bryan’s, an influence directlyvoiced in several passages such as this one, contrasting the “real” F. Scott Fitzgerald of the 1930s with an earlier one:
And then there is the mythical Fitzgerald: the golden distillation of Antibes twilights, of travelling home from schools in curtained Pullman sleeping cars, of champagne and hip flasks … a Fitzgerald who is forever more Gatsby than Carraway, whose shirts were not simply Brooks Brothers button-down whites, but rather like Gatsby’s… shirts whose optimism Daisy Buchanan and an entire generation of her daughters might cry over. This was my Fitzgerald.
The kind of brief allusion that indicates the widespread awareness of The Great Gatsby occurs in Marion’s Wall (1973) by Jack Finney. In a novel about the ghost of a 1920s film starlet, Finney incorporated the discovery of a long-lost print (fictional) of a silent film of Gatsby, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and starring Rudolph Valentino as Gatsby, Gloria Swanson as Daisy, Greta Gar-bo as Jordan Baker, John Gilbert as Carraway, and Mae West, George O’Brien, and Harry Landon in supporting parts. In one of its party scenes appear Gilda Gray, Charles Chaplin and—best of all fantasies—Fitzgerald himself.
Ron Carlson’s Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1977) approached the image of Fitzgerald in general, and Gatsby in particular, from a different generational perspective: that of the Vietnam-era novel of black-humor protest. Carlson’s narrator-protagonist, Larry Boosinger, undergoes a picaresque sequence of adventures occasioned by an impossibly romantic sensibility developed under the sway of Fitzgerald’s literature. Neither the style nor the theme is directly patterned on The Great Gatsby, but from time to time a passage pays faintly (and fondly) mocking tribute, as in the opening paragraph: “’Blame is not important,’ my father used to say. ’Whose fault it is will not get anything fixed.’” Most Gatsby -esque is the general theme that Larry finds the world well lost for his ideals.
A recent detective novelist placed in the hard-boiled tradition of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald is Robert B. Parker. In A Savage Place (1981), detective Spenser seeks something to read: “I stopped at a drugstore on La Brea near Melrose and bought a copy of The Great Gatsby off the paperback rack. I hadn’t read it in five years, and it was time again.” A few hours (and pages) later, Spenser sums up his impression of Los Angeles as “a sunny buffoon of a city; corny and ornate and disorganized but kind of fun. The last hallucination, the dwindled fragment of—what had Fitzgerald called it?—’the last and greatest of all human dreams.’”
In that same year, 1981, appeared John living’s widely read picaresque tragicomedy The Hotel New Hampshire. More profoundly than any serious novel since O’Hara’s Ourselves to Know, it bears the mark of The Great Gatsby. Most directly, it contains references to Gatsby by a minor character, Fraulein Fehlgeburt, a student of American literature at the University of Vienna. She is a strong admirer of Gatsby, to which she introduces the narrator-protagonist John Berry and his brother and sisters, one of whom, Lilly, is led to become a novelist by the power and beauty of Fitzgerald’s novel. Fehlgeburt enunciates a theory of American literature as essentially romantic, with hints of a certain tragic suffering buried beneath the glamor of the romance. The Berrys, particularly Lilly, find the final passage of Gatsby, with its haunting images of fresh, innocent promise lost in the ceaseless current of time, so powerful that it haunts them. Lilly writes a successful first novel, but then struggles despairingly with her own impossible expectations, measured against the perfection of the ending of Gatsby, to continue her career. Unable to match Fitzgerald, who by implication has set an impossible standard for American prose fiction, she commits suicide in Manhattan, not far from the Plaza, where Gatsby and Tom Buchanan had their showdown.
The Gatsby references come late in the novel; only in retrospect is the reader likely to perceive less direct tributes and thematic resonances in The Hotel New Hampshire. Thematically, the novel traces the awful consequences of unbridled, innocent optimism, embodied in the quest of Win Berry, the clan’s father, to establish a glamorous resort hotel such as the one in which he worked as a young man and where he met his wife. A wry, inverted Gatsby allusion is established early, in the glamor with which Win Berry invests his memory of the hotel’s owner, a mysterious man in a white dinner jacket, who appears occasionally to dance the last dance at the hotel, like a feudal lord. At the end of the novel, theman in white is exposed as a mercenary old anti-Semitic Californian, but Win Berry, symbolically blind, never sees him as he really is. The capacity to dream, despite all the evidence that the world is a harsh and cruel place, Irving implies, is an invaluable quality, one that makes Win Berry and his children, like Jay Gatsby, worth more than all the rest of the people they confront. The point is made in another Gatsby-likeallusion, a passage in which John Berry encounters, in the middle of a New York street, the villain of the novel, the football hero and successful member of the establishment Chipper Dove, who many years earlier had led a gang rape of John’s beloved sister Franny. The chance meeting leads to a denouement through which Franny and John wreak a bizarre vengeance on Chipper Dove and thus is not similar to the final encounter of Nick Carraway and Tom Buchanan; but in the context of the rest of the Gatsby-esquematter that pervades The Hotel New Hampshire, John’s encounter with Chipper is surely not without its tribute to Fitzgerald.
Many other American novels pay homage to the impress of The Great Gatsby. Those works that are surveyed here, both major and minor, acclaim the qualities that Fitzgerald’s contemporaries and scholars and critics have found of high and lasting merit in Gatsby: a mastery of language as it is exhibited in style and technique; a brilliant capacity to make a fictive, imagined world come alive, both in its details and in its people. Perhaps nowhere in the novel does Fitzgerald exhibit these abilities more memorably than in the comic mock-encomium of the guests who attend Gatsby’s parties at the beginning of Chapter 4. One of the striking manifestations of force of The Great Gatsby in modern American fiction is that other novels have imitated the device of Nick’s guest list. To Gatsby’s house of fiction have come Thomas Wolfe in Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and James Baldwin in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968). William Styron came closest to Fitzgerald’s combination of irony and social realism in Lie Down in Darkness (1951). Here is Styron describing the guests at the wedding parties of his young female protagonist (ellipses are editorial):
There was Admiral Ernest Lovelace, who was the naval inspector at the shipyard; he had lost his wife in an automobile accident two years ago. There were the Muncys and the Cuthberts and the Hegertys… Old Carter Houston himself was there, along with his wife, who remained a Virginia belle at the age of seventy and pronounced Carter “Cyatah”… There were the Appletons and the La Farges and the Fauntleroy Mayos, who were F.F.V.’s; and the Martin Braunsteins, who were Jews… Doctors Holcomb and Schmidt and J. E. B. Stuart and Lonergan and Bulwinkle (they all smelled faintly of ether)—and there was Dr. Pruitt Delaplane, making his first hesitant public appearance after his trial and acquittal for criminal abortion…
The long shadow of Jay Gatsby has faded from the lawns of West Egg, but it falls more and more deeply across the hearts and minds of each succeeding generation of American readers and writers. Like Gatsby, even the most hardheaded Americans conceive of themselves (whether correctly is not the point) as idealists whose dreams can be made true, as eternal youths whose innocence can never really be lost, as magicians who can mesmerize the world into accepting their dreams. Fitzgerald, in tapping that cultural myth, made The Great Gatsby an American—indeed, a world—classic, a persistent and permanent presence in American culture.
Richard Anderson teaches English at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. His publications include several articles on F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Published in New Essays on the Great Gatsby Ed. By Bruccoli (Cambridge University Press, 1985).