The introducer of “The Great Gatsby” (1925) began by asserting that Ernest Hemingway, one of the literary heroes of this book group, had a rather low opinion of Scott Fitzgerald. He exemplified this by reading passages from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and Kenneth Lynn’s 1987 biography of Hemingway. Judging from the quotes, Hemingway thought Fitzgerald a bit soft. I have reproduced some of these quotes in a little Appendix below.
The book deals with American society during the Jazz Age of the 1920s, a period when the USA became the richest country in the world. A class of super-rich people emerged, employment was high and ownership of cars and property was booming. But there were gangsters and much illegal activity associated with bootlegging. The Prohibition (1920-1933) failed to prevent people from partying with liquor, and some bootleggers became millionaires.
As for the story: the mysterious Gatsby hails from the west but has moved east; he now owns a mansion on Long Island where he regularly throws lavish parties for all and sundry. His idea is to impress and attract a particular married woman, Daisy Buchanan, who lives across the bay, and with whom he had fallen madly in love years ago. He is still obsessed with the memory, and besotted with her. But when they do finally meet (through an elaborate plan that he has devised) the magic of the past relationship has gone; moreover the story ends tragically with the death of major characters including Gatsby himself, whose wealth is apparently derived from ignoble activities. As we had all guessed, he is not what he appears to be, but a flawed character. Ironically, he is ultimately undone not by his illegal activities but by his romantic aspirations.
‘Yet Gatsby is the central and noble theme, a dramatic and interesting character resonating with the age and country in which he lives’.
So said one of our members. However, for all its praise from the critics, the book was not immediately popular in the USA, perhaps because at one level it is a harsh critique of the American Dream, wherein Gatsby is the metaphor that suggests the Dream to be false, unattainable, a convenient illusion. Or perhaps the book was too vague, as suggested by the publisher after reading the first draft. For whatever reason it was not widely read until the 1960s. But now The Great Gatsby ranks second in the top 100 of the Modern Library (http://www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-novels/), behind James Joyce’s Ulysses and in front of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Most of us enjoyed the book, especially for its style and fine writing. We would not however place it in our top 100! Some of our members saw the work as almost poetic, or at least ‘within poetic territory’. Comparison was made with Shakespeare. Others were less sanguine and remarked on how American authors are often obsessed with style (Chandler, Hemingway, Capote). One member expressed disappointment:
‘What is all the fuss about, I thought it was rather shallow?’
‘That’s because you read it on a Kindle’.
We all liked the imagery. For example, Gatsby’s mansion with its bright (electric!) lights and colour; the contrast between that and the Valley of Ash (presumed to be an influence of T.S. Elliot’s poem The Waste Land); the huge pair of eyes on the billboard (of God, watching?); the yellow Rolls Royce. And the imagery in the famous aspiration ‘to suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder’. That line might have been written by Shakespeare. In fact, breasts feature quite a lot.
It is Fitzgerald’s representation of the roaring 20’s, with his sharp imagery and real understanding of high society in this most charismatic decade that has led to several successful Great Gatsby movies, notably the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. The relationship between Fitzgerald and Hemingway, whilst they were together in Paris, is also the inspiration for Woody Allen’s brilliant 2011 movie, Midnight in Paris.
There were disturbing symbolic elements, particularly the deaths of Myrtle (gruesomely killed by the yellow Rolls Royce) and Gatsby’s own death (shot whilst on a mattress floating in the swimming pool). We were intrigued to see a number of comments which would now be judged anti-Semitic, and use of the words swastika and holocaust twenty years before the Holocaust. And why did so many of Gatsby’s house guests have animal or plant surnames (Leech, Civet, Blackbuck, Fishguards, Whitebait, Ferret, Bull, Catlip, Endive, Orchid, Hornbeam and Duckweed). To be sure, the book is rich in symbolism (although our members might not have all interpreted the symbols in the same way!). Isn’t the yellow Rolls really the rich society that destroys people in cold blood, and don’t the families with animal names represent the animal forces of capitalism? But perhaps the author is merely being playful with names: it is unlikely that Fitzgerald had read Das Capital; Orwell had not yet written Animal Farm!
The decadent lifestyles depicted in the book reflect to some extent the way the author himself lived, and there may be some autobiographical elements. But his life was marred by his addiction to alcohol and difficulties with his wife Zelda, who suffered from schizophrenia and spent her last years in mental institutions whilst he formed a relationship with the New York gossip-columnist Sheilah Graham (British, Born in Leeds), who loved him dearly and cared for him until he died of cancer (or alcohol) when he was only 44. Obituaries speak of his fine writing but unfilled promise. He completed only four novels, of which The Great Gatsby is considered to be his masterpiece. The Herald Tribune said
‘Fitzgerald understood this world perhaps better than any of his contemporaries. And as a literary craftsman he described it, accurately and sometimes poignantly, in work that deserves respect’.
Notes on Hemingway’s comments about Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald and Hemingway both travelled to France and were members of the American expatriate community in Paris in the early 1920s, and they had the same publisher (Charles Scribner’s Sons). When they met, few had heard of Hemingway while Fitzgerald was already famous, and helped Hemingway directly by suggesting improvements to his writing and indirectly by introducing him to those whose views were important. But over the next 20 years Hemingway eclipsed Fitzgerald. They were friends and helped each other with short stories, but later (1936) in his book A Moveable Feast, Hemingway portrays Scott Fitzgerald as rather a weak character who could not spell and had a shaky marriage, as illustrated by these passages.
‘Scott was a man who looked like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty. He had very fair wavy hair, a high forehead, excited and friendly eyes and a long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have been the mouth of a beauty. His chin was well built and he had good ears and a handsome, almost beautiful unmarked nose. This should not have added up to a pretty face, but that came from the coloring, the very fair hair and the pretty mouth. The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.’
‘I knew him for two years before he could spell my name, but then it was a long name to spell and perhaps it became harder to spell all of the time, and I give him great credit for spelling it correctly finally. He learned to spell more important things and he tried to think straight about many more.’
Scott’s wife Zelda had complained that Scot’s penis was too small to satisfy her. Scott confided in Hemingway on this matter, and Hemingway took Scott to the Louvre to examine the male genitalia of statues. Hemingway assured him ‘It is not basically a question of the size in repose, it is the size it becomes. It is also a question of angle’.
Scott Fitzgerald admired Ernest Hemingway, who was much more famous although three years younger. But the two men were as different as chalk and cheese, as exemplified by this extract from a famous letter from Hemingway to Fitzgerald, recounted by Kenneth Lynn in his 1987 biography of Hemingway.
‘I wonder what your idea of heaven would be – a beautiful vacuum filled with wealthy monogamists, all powerful and members of the best families, all drinking themselves to death…To me heaven would be a big bull ring with me holding two barrera seats and a trout stream outside that no-one else was allowed to fish in and two lovely houses in the town; one where I would have my wife and children and be monogamous and love them truly and well and the other where I would have my nine beautiful mistresses on 9 floors.’