John William De Forest coined the term “the Great American novel” in an 1868 article in The Nation, while claiming that as of yet, no one had written one. According to De Forest, such a work of literature would provide “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” He found fault with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great novel The Scarlet Letter for dialogue that did not provide a true American voice, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s outstanding work about race, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for creating characters who were not authentic.
It is arguable that Herman Melville accomplished what De Forest imagined in 1851, with Moby-Dick. Melville’s novel portrays Ishmael, the humble narrator, in search of adventure and an escape from the gray New Bedford winter. What Ishmael finds instead, however, is a sea journey that challenges his very survival. In Captain Ahab, he witnesses an obsessive quest to obtain that which is unattainable — in this case, the great white whale. Ahab’s inability to conquer the whale becomes a testament to the impossible American quest to control the wilderness.
The quixotic nature of the quest may be the most common theme through all great American literature. Our most memorable heroes struggle for that which has been promised to them by a new nation: liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, these ideals are inevitably revealed as illusory.
By the end of the 20th century, multiple works met De Forest’s criteria. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, shows the pursuit of equality by a Black man who will never receive from white society the recognition he deserves. In Beloved, by Toni Morrison, Sethe will never achieve the life of security and serenity she seeks throughout adulthood while being discriminated against and dominated by men, both Black and white. In The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, Holden Caulfield will never be able to save all the children from growing up into what he sees as the corrupt adult world full of phonies. And in Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Huck accepts by the end of the novel that he is better suited to a life of adventure than the hypocrisy of polite society. None of these characters is flat or stereotypical: every hero has a unique voice that speaks to the American experience from a different perspective. In no other American work of the 20th century is that as perfectly illustrated than in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby.
Gatsby is the story of a man who strives to accomplish the American dream, only to find that it is both elusive and empty. It has a timelessness that resonates still with today’s readers. While grounded in a realistic portrayal of the 1920s and populated with characters who are influenced by their social class, Gatsby can also be read as an allegory illustrating the foolishness of attempting to defy economic, and racial structures — the limitations inherent to mobility in American life. Finally, it satirizes the endeavor itself, while showing the human impulse to repeat it as both inevitable and tragic.
The freedom to invent oneself is an American tradition that appears in literature as far back as Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, published in 1791. Franklin’s memoir tells the story of his life with a slant: he narrates over hundreds of pages many real events embellished with details that distinguish him as an innovative, moral, upstanding individual who met standards he never even approached in reality. Gatsby follows in that tradition, as the story of one man who sets out to reinvent himself as a member of a more educated and wealthy class.
Jay Gatsby, originally named James “Jimmy” Gatz, seems throughout the bulk of the novel to be the quintessential American success story. The truth is that he was born into a family of poor farmers in North Dakota. Desperate to escape his modest origins, Gatsby applied himself and was accepted to college, but dropped out as he could not bear the humiliation of doing janitorial work to earn tuition. Through performing a heroic life-saving deed that summer, his motivations took a turn from ambition to improve himself to desire to become wealthy at any cost. Having rowed out in dangerous conditions to inform a wealthy yachtsman of the oncoming storm, Gatsby is rewarded with a job as the assistant to the wealthy businessman, Dan Cody. After the inheritance Cody leaves him is spirited away by Cody’s mistress, Gatsby vows to earn his own fortune — and he does. However, concomitantly, he loses the inner moral core and sense of himself that led him to save Cody in the first place.
One of the themes of The Catcher in the Rye is that money corrupts. That novel’s narrator and protagonist, Holden Caulfield, observes the corruption of wealthy donors to private schools, the entitlement of elite private school students, and the coldness within his own privileged family, concluding that it is impossible to achieve happiness in American society, even more so among the upper class than elsewhere. A motif of this novel is that “phoniness” is inescapable when becoming an adult “big shot” and a member of what Holden sees grown-ups regarding as polite society. On his path toward experiencing what he sees as adult behavior — drinking, having sex — he learns that he wishes he could protect all children from losing their innocence. In the most famous quote from the novel, Holden sadly remarks that he “is standing on the edge of some crazy cliff,” the cliff representing the line between childhood and adulthood. “What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff,” he tells his sister. But Holden cannot prevent children from maturing — as witnessed by his frustration when he finds profane graffiti on the walls of his little sister Phoebe’s school, at the Museum of Natural History, and elsewhere. He tries to rub the words out, but eventually realizes that his efforts are pointless. There is no stopping the corruption of innocence.
What Gatsby has not yet learned as a young man, having come from a modest background, is how empty the life of the wealthy can be. No “catcher in the rye” steps forward to catch Gatsby as he loses his innocent misperception that accruing wealth will gain him entry to the upper class, and thus, in turn, happiness. Gatsby trades his youthful ideals for his own brand of corruption, never explicitly described, but rumored among his party guests to be nefarious — gambling, bootlegging, and drug trafficking through an association with the mob. For Gatsby, chasing the American dream requires succumbing to immorality. His wealth purchases him a false persona, but not his ideal happiness — in particular, partnership with the object of his romantic obsession, Daisy Buchanan. If money cannot buy happiness, it can also not buy love, and Gatsby, who has conflated the two, must discover how misguided his entire life’s work has become.
Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s narrator, first sees Gatsby as a shadowy figure in the night, standing on the lawn of his grand estate. Gatsby’s arms are raised, reaching out toward dark water and a green light that marks the end of a dock Nick later learns belongs to Tom and Daisy Buchanan. This early scene is pivotal, as it shows the already wealthy Gatsby still striving for something that is out of his reach. In the scheme of the novel, Gatsby represents new, fabulous wealth gained through ill-begotten means, and Daisy and Tom represent old money that carries with it the life to which Gatsby can only aspire, a life that on the surface is replete with the security, privilege, and partnership guaranteed to those born into the American upper class.
Tom Buchanan comprises all the unsavory characteristics associated with the American elite, both in the 1920s and today, including brutal dominance, racism, and entitlement. Nick’s description of Tom’s “[t]wo shining arrogant eyes” which “established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward” immediately establishes Tom as a powerful figure accustomed to feeling superior and in control of every situation. Tom’s racism becomes evident in the first chapter of the novel, when he tells Nick, Daisy, and Daisy’s friend Jordan about the book he has just finished reading, “The Rise of the Coloured Empires,” which is based on a real work, The Rising Tide of Color. “‘Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it,’” Tom says to his guests, adding, “‘The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged.’” Tom’s view of the lower classes as something less than human becomes evident through his treatment of Myrtle, the woman with whom he is having an affair. He abuses Myrtle both emotionally and physically. He strings her along with an elaborately constructed excuse for not being able to leave Daisy, and when she eventually loses patience and criticizes Daisy, Tom breaks her nose.
Myrtle Wilson and her husband George live in what is called the “valley of ashes,” a dull, dusty, rundown region between the elegance of West Egg and the glittering lights of Manhattan. The area has been laid waste by industrialization, and its inhabitants have come to expect nothing more than the dreary day-to-day of the victims of the high capitalism of the early 20th century in America. Everything about the Wilsons — their apartment over the garage, their clothing, their language — indicates that they live a world apart from the Buchanans and Gatsby, a life that hardly seems worth enduring, compared to the luxurious life of their upper-class counterparts. Victimized by Tom, oppressed by class and economics, it is hardly surprising that Myrtle loses her life — after all, she has little to live for.
And then there is her husband. George illustrates that capitalist society would not function without the lower classes; there is no wealth without the poor, there is no privilege without the underprivileged who serve them. Like the narrator of Ellison’s Invisible Man, George is the detritus of the machinery that produces wealth among the few and poverty among the many — his miserable existence is as much a factor of structural discrimination as is racism. He and Myrtle have no more hope of upward mobility than does a character like Sethe in Morrison’s masterpiece, Beloved. Fitzgerald, writing decades before either of these authors, deftly shows that there is only room at the top of the social structure for the white male, who has either inherited wealth or created it. To Tom, George is barely human. His concerns are as negligible as the servants who staff the Buchanan mansion or the African Americans who perform the jazz the upper classes dance to at Gatsby’s parties. In fact, George remains a cipher — he has no agency until the final act of the novel when he takes Gatsby’s life, and then his own, ultimately erasing himself.
Although there is nothing “ordinary” about the upper class as depicted in Gatsby, DeForest would have to agree that Fitzgerald has written a novel about emotion and manners, as twisted as they are in this novel. Every character possesses ways of being and feeling that fit neatly into an allegory of American life in the 1920s and today — a timelessness which in itself testifies to the greatness of the novel.
Although Nick works to make a living, his family ties to the upper class enable him to drift in and out of separate worlds, an observer of the tragic losses and emptiness of both upper and lower-class life. Although invited to witness the extravagance of the Buchanan and Gatsby lifestyles, he is not part of their clan; neither does he suffer the dehumanization imposed upon the Wilsons. Oddly, he is the only character who is not miserable in some way. Representative of the writer himself, Nick comes to understand the misery that surrounds him, while avoiding it in his own more humdrum life.
The suffering of those at the bottom of the capitalist ladder is obvious. That of the upper class is entirely different — not abject misery, but a hollowness at the center of superficial beauty. For example, all of Daisy’s riches bring her no great joy. As retold by her friend Jordan, on the day before her wedding, Daisy receives a letter that the reader is meant to assume is from Gatsby. Jordan comes across Daisy drunk, sobbing, and clutching the letter. Daisy has just discarded a gift from Tom — a pearl necklace worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — recognizing, perhaps, that it is worthless compared to the love she once felt for Gatsby. Still, she does not have the moral fortitude to relinquish the life she knows she will have with Tom in order to wait for Gatsby, still a student at Oxford in a program for veterans of World War I. Whatever attraction they may have initially felt, Daisy and Tom have lost it by the time Gatsby has found her again. Their marriage has become a perfunctory arrangement in which Daisy enjoys the privileges his wealth and social status provide, while Tom engages in a string of affairs he doesn’t even attempt to hide. They embrace not one another, but the illusion of a satisfying life.
Gatsby, on the other hand, suffers from the delusion that by “acquiring” Daisy — as if she is another object he can purchase with his newfound enormous wealth — all of his desires will at last be satisfied. Although proficient at buying his lifestyle, his needs remain bottomless. He desperately pursues all of Daisy’s attention, just as he did the extravagance that surrounds him. However, Daisy is a rounded character, as DeForest would celebrate — a complex human being with perhaps self-destructive agency, but agency nonetheless. In the difficult scene at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, when Gatsby asks her to deny she ever loved Tom at all, she cannot. When she confesses that she does love Tom, and once loved Gatsby, too, Gatsby is forced to confront the fact that she will never leave her life the way she has so carefully constructed it.
Daisy and Tom’s soulless commitment to one another is apparent in the scene in which they sit together at their kitchen table, as cool but as solid as their plate of cold chicken: “[Tom] was looking intently across the table at her … Once in a while she looked up at him and nodded in agreement.” There are no illusions between them, and they have chosen one another as partners in maintaining their common front.
Like all great American fiction’s heroes, Gatsby has striven to achieve what is just beyond his grasp — the feeling of belonging in a place he never will, of being loved by someone who cannot love him, of purchasing a place in a society that is, ironically, not worth entering. Gatsby was in love with the idea of being wealthy, the idea of being educated, and the idea of Daisy, and he ends up as lonely and hollow as T.S. Eliot’s “hollow men.” Before he dies, he is forced to recognize that what he has considered the American dream is just an illusion as elaborate as the life he has attained. This great American novel concludes with Gatsby’s quiet funeral, attended by just a few, including the father who still loves him, despite being long ago forsaken for what his son believed would be a better life. Nick, too, is present, witnessing the end of Gatsby’s illusions.
The great American novel has for more than a century now debunked the great American dream of obtaining both equality and happiness. In The Great Gatsby, the hero dies, paradoxically, due to having done an honorable thing — taking the responsibility for Myrtle’s death — while having lived a dishonorable life. Fitzgerald’s novel illustrates the impossibility of merging right and might, and the novel is prescient: in America’s 21st century, the same moral conundrum persists.
World Heritage Encyclopedia. Beloved. Article No. WHEBN0001268726. http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/Beloved_(novel) Accessed 7/12/20.
Eliot, TS. “The Hollow Men.” https://msu.edu/~jungahre/transmedia/the-hollow-men.html Accessed 7/12/20.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. https://www.litcharts.com/lit/invisible-man Accessed 7/13/20.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. https://www.planetebook.com/free-ebooks/the-great-gatsby.pdf Accessed 7/10/20,
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/20203/20203-h/20203-h.htm Accessed 7/12/20, Published by Project Gutenberg.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2701/2701-h/2701-h.htm Accessed 7/13/20.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved: http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/Beloved_(novel) Accessed 7/12/20.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/76/76-h/76-h.htm. Accessed 7/10/20.
Over her college teaching career, Lisa E. Paige, Ph.D., taught literature and writing at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. She holds her bachelor’s degree in German Studies from Harvard University and her master’s and doctorate from Bryn Mawr College, where she concentrated in American literature and contemporary American and British fiction. She has also edited print and online publications and is a freelance writer who focuses on gender and social justice issues.
This essay is part of a new edition of THE GREAT GATSBY, including contextual essays, ten new illustrations, and one piece of fan fiction, available from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08NH2ZTYB
First published in The Bookquarium Magazine.
What exactly is “The Great American Novel” anyway? The answer to that question lies at the heart of a kind of game we’ve been playing in literary circles (full disclosure: I spent sixteen years as a college English professor) for almost two hundred years. To some extent, that game might be said to have originated with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was among the first Americans to call for a literature that would specifically reflect the American character, a literature separate and distinct from its European forebears. The term was codified, however, in an essay by a minor and mostly forgotten novelist, John William De Forest, who argued that such a novel must offer a “picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” Simply put, “The Great American Novel,” as that phrase has been conceived, must capture something unique about the American character and do it in a way that leaves an indelible mark. Such are the rules of the game.
As might be expected, a number of novels have laid claim to the title over the years, everything from James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Perhaps the one work that gets mentioned most persistently in this game though is The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s novel is a favorite of English teachers (additional disclosure: I also spent four years teaching literature to high schoolers), for whom it serves as a useful illustration of a number of literary techniques, including the deployment of symbolism and the development of a distinct point of view. As a result, it has become one of the few books, along with The Scarlet Letter, that almost every high school graduate might be said to have read. This fact alone has helped to cement its reputation: while I’ve met few people who actually enjoyed the experience of reading the book, almost everyone seems to accept that if it keeps getting taught, it must have some inherent value. Teachers know best, after all.
Do they really though? Certainly Gatsby does have a number of admirable qualities. It was, for instance, one of the first American works to highlight the growing commercial character of the nation, with its empty, vapid characters and its image of T.J. Eckleburg looking down from his billboard onto a vast wasteland of consumed and discarded rubbish. It played an important role in developing the technique of the “unreliable narrator.” Nick Carraway romanticizes Gatsby throughout the novel, noting on the first page, for example that Gatsby had “an extraordinary gift for hope.” Yet by the novel’s end he also tells us he “disapproved of him [Gatsby] from the beginning to end.” The novel is valuable as well for capturing a very particular moment in American history, the “roaring 20s,” the “jazz age,” a time in the immediate wake of World War I when the country just seemed to be coming into its own, when life seemed like an endless series of parties, with speeding motorcars and gangsters brazen enough to fix the World Series. Yet in spite of these qualities, the book suffers from a number of fundamental flaws. These are apparent in the book itself, but they are most obvious when the novel is judged against other contenders for the title “Great American Novel.” When set within this context, Gatsby simply doesn’t measure up to a standard of greatness.
One of the book’s problems has to do with its portrayal of “others” — its focus is squarely on wealthy white Americans. Gatsby doesn’t speak in any way of the black experience, for instance, and, in fact, several of the white characters — most notably the Buchanans — espouse views that are not merely racist but versions of white nationalism. Tom notes, for instance, that whites must “watch out or these other races will have control of things,” while his wife Daisy, the novel’s putative heroine, goes further: “We’ve got to beat them down” (35). This might be excused as some version of irony, an attempt on Fitzgerald’s part to satirize and ridicule such benighted attitudes. If so, that effort falls flat in the absence of any characters with whom to contrast these attitudes. No one confronts the Buchanans up to and including Fitzgerald himself. And those minority characters who do appear in the novel are portrayed — not by the Buchanans, but by Fitzgerald — in grossly stereotypical terms. The Jew, Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s criminal mentor, is sketched as nothing more than a thug who seems to care for nothing but money and who uses Gatsby’s admirably romantic nature to lead him down dangerous paths. Our first glimpse of Wolfsheim? “A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril” (93). Meanwhile George Wilson, the “common man” most mistreated by the privileged white characters who populate the work, is described as “a blonde, spiritless man, anaemic, and faintly handsome” (46). He is a figure to be pitied, in other words, as opposed to admired. Even if we allow that this description shouldn’t be trusted because it originates with Nick, that doesn’t excuse it as any less clumsy. When the characterization of Wilson is contrasted by the “great” praise heaped on the romantic and virile Gatsby, it becomes difficult to separate out any irony on Fitzgerald’s part from genuine class prejudice. Furthermore, while it is Wilson who we should most pity by novel’s end, Fitzgerald undermines that pity by having him kill an “innocent” Gatsby, insisting that it is actually Gatsby who most deserves our sympathy as a man caught up in forces he cannot control.
Gatsby might also be criticized for many of the very attributes that have been taken as its virtues over the years. While the novel offers up a whole host of symbols, from yellow cars to the green lights that shine across the bay, they all tend to be far too simplistic and one-dimensional. They lack subtlety and complexity. Ultimately, they demonstrate a lack of sophistication on Fitzgerald’s part, an inability to trust his audience to draw their own conclusions. Meanwhile, the writing style itself can be hopelessly vague and confusing. While Nick has been praised as one of literature’s first unreliable narrators, he is so muddled as to be almost unreadable. Fitzgerald’s language throughout the novel is, as one critic has described it, “flabby, imprecise prose” (Bland):
He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about … like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees. (162)
Passages like this one do nothing to sort out to confusing mind that lies behind them, a mind that sometimes heaps both praise and scorn on Gatsby in a single sentence, and whose final words to us fail to offer anything like concrete finality: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (218). This imagery might mean something were anything else in the book tied to boats. Conjured out of thin air, with no real context or connection to anything else, it becomes little more than self-indulgent pablum.
So much for the novel’s inherent flaws. The true test for “The Great American Novel” is in how it stacks up against other works vying for that same sobriquet. How does The Great Gatsby compare, for example, when put up against Huck Finn or The Ambassadors, The Sound and the Fury, or The Catcher in the Rye? In this sense, “The” would seem to be the operative word in the phrase: “The Great American Novel.” It isn’t a category, it’s a designation — one meant to apply to a single work. The game is a competition for supremacy: what is The Great American Novel? Unsurprisingly, here is where Gatsby’s inadequacies become especially apparent.
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s dense yet stirring tale of life on a whaling boat where the captain’s obsession with the white whale who took his leg puts everyone’s life at risk, might lay claim to being the first Great American novel. But its reputation rests on more than its chronological significance. It manages to encapsulate within its pages the essential and influential American philosophy, transcendentalism. Moby-Dick’s characters are mythic, in many ways symbols rather than mere men, yet in contrast to The Great Gatsby they are drawn from all aspects of American life. The ship becomes in this sense a microcosm of America. Notably, for instance, the book includes an exploration of life for minorities, particularly in the person of Queequeg. Yet the book isn’t merely about its messages: it offers realistic portraits of all of these characters, and incorporates everything into a gripping yarn about what was, at the time, a quintessentially American occupation: whaling. Mark Twain’s Huck Finn similarly sets out to run the gamut of American experience. As Huck and Jim travel the Mississippi, they encounter a wide variety of social cultures: at one point they experience a kind of Wild West mob rule in Arkansas; at another they spend time with a family oligarchy; they travel with show people, and meet up with criminals. But most significantly the work begins and ends with the black experience of America. It has something to say about that experience, and in its structure — which pairs a poor white boy with a runaway slave — it teaches us how to overcome prejudice. Such works as Melville’s and Twain’s remind us that Fitzgerald wasn’t writing in a vacuum. He had a strong tradition to draw on in terms of considering America in all its many facets. The fact that he doesn’t rise to the challenge is telling.
This argument isn’t meant to suggest that “The Great American Novel” must be sweeping in its scope. In fact, many of the novels published after The Great Gatsby are great precisely because they move us into their characters’ minds rather than working in broad nationalistic strokes. If Moby-Dick tries to capture all of America within its pages, Faulkner, Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Updike offer very individualized renderings of America, highlighting the “experience” of the place as opposed to the place itself. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, for instance, uses a similar sort of first-person narrative to Gatsby. However, in contrast to Nick Carraway, Salinger offers a complex psychological portrait of his protagonist, Holden Caulfield. In fact, the narrative offers up one of the first compelling portrayals in literature of depression, and considers in some depth how identity comes to be formed. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, yet another work that deserves to be talked about in this conversation, digs even further into her character’s psyche, creating in Sethe an almost primitive mind undergoing the chaos and violence that followed the abolition of slavery. Though technically a historical novel, by helping to re-establish the true history of the United States, one that had been whitewashed almost from the beginning, it forces us to confront–today–just what America really is. In such ways these intensely personal books present us with characters who tell us honestly something about what it means to live in this country. What we’re left to admit, then, is the fact that Gatsby fails either to offer a complete picture of America or to offer a compelling individual experience of it.
Two questions, then, remain. The first is how exactly the novel rose to its mythical status in the first place. Again, much of this might be blamed on its popularity as an adolescent text. Assigning it allows English teachers to feel they are giving students something that is both accessible and widely deemed to be “literary.” This in itself might tell us something about the novel’s problems. Though it has pretensions to seriousness, its techniques suit a teenage audience. Ironically, at the same time it is overly simplistic, it is also largely inaccessible, an uninteresting read with little story to move it along. Sadly, this too has traditionally been regarded by some teachers as a merit rather than a fault. If it is suitably boring, the argument goes, it must be “difficult” and, by extension, worthwhile.
Gatsby’s ubiquity, though, can be explained in other ways as well. While the book had gone out of print after initially poor sales, it was revived by the military and sent as reading material to over 150,000 troops stationed around the world in the last years of World War II. Here again, given the stamp of approval by no less an authority than the American government, it came to serve as an example for these men and women of what literature was supposed to be.
Finally, though, it is worth noting Gatsby’s relationship to the jazz age. One of the merits of the novel is the way it captures this moment in American history, and, it must be confessed, does so better than any other work. In the decades that followed, the 1920s loomed large in our national consciousness, a kind of golden age to which we longed to return. One hundred years later, however, this single decade no longer maintains the same power over us. The jazz age was a distinctive time period; it might even be said to have been an important turning point in our history. But it was no more so than was The Depression that followed it, or the war years of the 1940s, the counter-cultural revolutions of the 1960s, or the excesses of the 1980s. In short, it gained its reputation in a time when its subject mattered to Americans, but in the decades since, that period has lost much of its interest for us, and the novel too has ceased to speak with the same urgency it once did.
The second important question we might raise is, if not Gatsby, then what? What book actually deserves the mantle of “The Great American Novel.” While many of the books mentioned above might be good candidates, one that doesn’t get talked about enough, but that seems to do what all them aim for, is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Like Fitzgerald, and indeed many of the more important novels in American history, Ellison uses a first-person narrator — and a black one — to tell the story. That character is “unreliable” in many ways, but his failings are developed far more subtly than those of Nick Carraway. He swings wildly, for example, between extreme sets of values, but these shifts occur primarily as a result of the many and varied characters and events he encounters over the course of his life. Among other things, this means that, while he may at times be unreliable, he also grows and develops over the course of the narrative. His naivety, in other words, is put to good use. Ellison’s use of symbolism in Invisible Man may remind us in some ways of Fitzgerald’s as well, with the “invisible” motif both obvious and powerful. Yet for all its power, the concept of “invisibility” in the novel isn’t simple. We find as we read that people can be rendered invisible by others but they can also make themselves invisible. Invisibility can be a curse, but it can also be a weapon. It can happen when a person literally hides away; it can happen to a person who stands in the spotlight of history. Finally, though, Invisible Man sits at a kind of juncture between novels that seek to comment on America broadly and those that filter American-ness through experience. In this way it works almost as the anti-Gatsby, delivering in all the ways the earlier novel does not. Gatsby keeps us at a distance, Fitzgerald never allowing us to see his characters from up-close. Yet at the same time, he fails to deal with the variety contained within America. Invisible Man, on the other hand, utilizes Huck Finn’s method of allowing us to experience America by traveling through it, from the cotton fields of the South to Harlem in New York, while at the same time filtering all of this landscape through a nuanced psychological perspective.
Perhaps the final qualification for a “Great Novel” is that it does something. Moby-Dick expresses a philosophical viewpoint. Huck Finn works to undo notions of black-ness. Invisible Man allows us to see how black Americans experience this country. The Catcher in the Rye changed the way we think about young people and the way young people think about themselves. And Beloved re-imagined what a novel could be. What does Gatsby do exactly? There is value in its flatness, perhaps, a testament to the triumph of form over content that was so prized in the early decades of the twentieth century. In the end, though, while that may make it an interesting curiosity as a work of art, it doesn’t lend it greatness, never mind its title.
Bland, Jared. “Why F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby is Anything but Great.” The Globe and Mail. May 3, 2013.
DeForest, John. “The Great American Novel.” The Nation, January 9, 1868.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004.
M.K. Adkins holds a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia and over a twenty-year academic career, has been a researcher and professor at schools including Georgia Tech and the South Dakota School of Mines. Visit him at: https://www.popcultureacademy.com.
This essay is part of a new edition of THE GREAT GATSBY, which includes contextual essays, one piece of fan fiction, and ten color illustrations. The ebook can be purchased here: www.amazon.com/dp/B08NH2ZTYB
We learned tonight what a baseball game is like without any fans, but with pumped-in fan noise. My opinion? Weird, very weird. It felt to me, watching on television, like an envelope of silence, a blanket of quiet.
The game featured a match-up of aces, Gerrit Cole vs. Max Scherzer. Watching these two right-handers gives you the feeling that they are always in command. That if you asked them to throw a curveball into a thimble, they could--somehow--do it, maybe on the second try. They both work quickly, with a master craftsman's efficiency, combined with an intense focus on executing strikes with great, high velocity, trickily moving, stuff.
Watching these two pitch, they make you feel like when things go wrong, it's a complete fluke, as if it is incomprehensible that batters reach base in the face of their 99-MPH fastballs and 10-inch sliders.
The Yankees scored four runs against Scherzer tonight, for example, and even though I watched every inning, I am still not sure how Scherzer allowed that to happen. Maybe he was only half-trying. He also may not yet be in mid-season form.
Cole had the better night, but it's fun to watch two master craftsmen going head-to-head.
The game was delayed by rain and lightning, which seemed appropriate for the crazy year known as 2020 in America.
If one game is any indication (which it isn't), the Yankee offense can carry them to the playoffs this year. The question will be the quality of their starting pitching outside of Cole.
For some good baseball reading, click on the books below.
I can remember it so well: Dressed in a suit and tie, in my car, in a hotel parking lot. I was early for my meeting, and was killing time listening to sports talk on the radio. Mike Francesca, I think it was. My cell phone's text message noise sounded, bringing inevitable news that somehow seemed shocking: J.D. Salinger was dead.
I was barely able to make it through my stupid meeting. Much wine was poured that night. I dressed all in black the next day.
That's the way it always is with me and my heroes -- their deaths hit me harder and longer than when even family members die. Maybe that's strange, I don't know, but it's the absolute and undeniable truth.
Salinger's death threw me head-long into a reading frenzy. I re-read Catcher, and Nine Stories, and Franny and Zooey, and Roof Beam and Seymour. Then I read (or re-read) a bunch of books ABOUT Salinger:
Salinger: A Biolgraphy by Paul Alexander
At Home in the World by Joyce Maynard
Salinger, Edited by Henry Anatole Grunwald
Dream Catcher by Margaret A. Salinger
J.D. Salinger, Edited by Harold Bloom
New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye, Edited by J. Salzman
J.D. Salinger by Warren French
"A Reading of Salinger's 'Teddy' " by James Bryan
It was a ton of reading, of course, but the task of it seemed to happen separately from myself. The emotion of it seemed to happen as deeply within myself as could be, as intimately as possible. It did not help me "process" the loss, or achieve "closure," or any other Dr. Phil kind of nonsense. All it did, really, was make reading Salinger's stories themselves immensely more enjoyable, because I finally realized just how deep and poignant and full of soul-rattling, life-changing epiphanies they really are.
And then last month a new Salinger biography came out, Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski. At first I was skeptical: how much new information or insight could it possibly contain? I held off buying it. However, when the reviews starting coming in, they were so overwhelmingly positive that I couldn't resist.
Let me join in that chorus of positivity for Mr. Slawenski's work. It is better than all of the rest of the books I've read on J.D.S. because he combines the best elements of both biography and critical analysis of the stories, collected and uncollected. He also adds in new and fascinating information on Salinger's life. Especially keen is his analysis of Salinger's World War II experiences and the profound impact they had on his life and fiction. But equally great are his descriptions of Salinger's days before and after the war, including tremendous insight into how these events translate, near-autobiographically, into his stories. One example is the fact that Salinger lost the hauntingly beautiful Oona O'Neill, daughter of the legenday playwright Eugene O'Neill, to an elderly but rich Charlie Chaplin. One gets the feeling that Salinger never really got over it.
Equally fascinating were Mr. Slawenski's insights into the in-fighting among the New Yorker magazine's staff members when it came to Salinger's stories. Katharine White (wife of E.B. White of The Elements of Style fame), for example, wanted to reject "Zooey" (!!!) Then-publisher William Shawn overruled her, and the edition of the magazine featuring Zooey's bathtub-birth into the world completely sold out within days. (And Franny and Zooey today is considered a classic.)
I HIGHLY recommend J.D. Salinger: A Life to any Salinger fan, certainly, or any fan of fiction in general. With many of Salinger's stories there is a subtle item or occurrence or word that carries with it tremendous meaning. If you don't know to look for it or are unaware of its nuanced meanings, you could easily miss it, and therewith, miss the entire potency of the story. Mr. Slawenski is quite skilled at uncovering those hidden gem-aspects to the stories and should be saluted for bringing them into the light.
After reading A Life, I found myself rushing back to the Salinger stories, just to see if I agreed with Mr. Slawenski's analysis or not, and I enjoyed just thinking about the stories from a different angle. Maybe you will, too.
"Buddy is engaged elsewhere for an indefinite period of time." - Seymour Glass, a Devega Bicycle if ever there was one.
You can purchase J.D. Salinger: A Life by clicking on this link or the button below.
It was cold, raining, and dark, as Pittsburgh mornings often are, when a dude with long blond hair and a red trucker hat approached me on Forbes Avenue and asked me a question. He was the fifth person who had recently asked me about the same thing, so I immediately suspected the universe was up to something.
As a professional risk manager, I’m used to peeking around corners, sensing potential impacts. In this case, I’m sensing a need for some basic disaster-prevention tips coming from someone with a qualified opinion.
Either that or the universe is just messing with me, which is also entirely possible. So, here goes.
Dear Red Trucker Hat Dude, et al.:
How to Personally Prepare for a Pandemic (or Any Emergency, Really)
Live below your means, saving as much money as possible with each paycheck you get. Having multiple income streams is also advisable, if at all possible. Examples of additional income streams include YouTube videos, book sales, dollar-store eBay flipping, getting a second or third job in the gig economy such as Uber/Lyft, Fiverr, TaskRabbit, etc.
Understanding personal finance is a key educational goal, and you usually have to look outside of the U.S. educational system to do so. I always recommend either Dave Ramsey or Ramit Sethi for this purpose, and there are certainly others out there who are helpful.
The Dave Ramsey method (“Envelope System”) is great for stretching a dollar, especially if you’ve been previously uneducated about the psychology of money. He posts clips of his radio show on YouTube, and has a free podcast. (Hint: he’s slightly against using credit cards.)
Ramit’s no-nonsense style makes for entertaining reading while he’s teaching you. He has free videos on YouTube and blog posts on his website at https://www.iwillteahcyoutoberich.com/blog
BENEFITS: Having a cushion in the bank helps to get you past any unexpected interruptions to your cash flow. While interest rates are currently terrible, even 1% is better than nothing. At a bare minimum, you should have a $1,000 emergency fund at all times.
RESOURCES: The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey and I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi.
2) EXERCISE/PHYSICAL FITNESS.
Exercise daily, aiming for at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day. Long walks are free, non-taxing, and very beneficial. There are innumerable free resources for you to research the exercise mode of your choice.
BENEFITS: By maintaining a healthy body weight, you greatly improve your immune system, and therefore your chances of fighting off any nasty viruses. Examples of nasty viruses that have killed people lately include Coronavirus, H1N1, Ebola, Zika, the flu.
RESOURCES: The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferris, Jeff Nippard YouTube channel.
3) STOCKPILES OF ESSENTIAL GOODS.
This is also known as “prepping,” but it’s just logical to stock up on certain items in case something happens and the supply chain is interrupted. It should be noted that the term “prepper” is frequently used with a negative connotation in the American media for some reason, so your neighbors may look at you weird when you start stockpiling. Ignore them.
Buy long-term storable foods. Ramen is cheap and lasts forever, for example. Kits with MRE-type meals are also not super-expensive. Rice is cheap. Canned goods are inexpensive and have a long shelf life. Additional things to stockpile or make sure you have enough of:
BENEFITS: By having supplies stocked up, you don’t have to participate in the inevitable mad dash to the grocery store when the media oversaturates the airwaves with dire warnings. This enables you to avoid a fistfight over the last turnip. [h/t Tarl Warlick.] Also brings peace of mind.
RESOURCES: https://ready.gov , Prepping for Beginners
Eat as healthy a diet as possible. Lots of veggies, not so many carbs. Lots of water, not so much soda. Very little junk food.
As hard as it is, try to quit smoking cigarettes if you smoke. (I and my mom both did. She started smoking when she was ten. I’ll say it louder for the people in the back: my mom started smoking cigarettes when she was ten years old, then quit fifty years later.)
If you must drink alcohol, red wine is the best of all choices. Whatever your choice of alcohol may be, drink lots of water in between and use something like DrinkWel to reduce the negative effects on your immune system.
Supplement daily with something like Athletic Greens, which is nutritional insurance. Other good supplements include Vitamin D3, fish oil, and turmeric.
Don’t do illegal drugs, obvz.
BENEFITS: Similar to exercise, this one is key for a healthy immune system and overall life enjoyment. The better you eat, the healthier you’ll be, and the better your odds in a fight vs. one of the nasties.
RESOURCES: DrinkWel, Athletic Greens, Vitamin D3, fish oil, turmeric, The 4-Hour Body by Ferriss.
Get at least 7 hours and enough as you need every night. Use magnesium and/or zinc to supplement if you have significant issues, including a “runaway mind,” which is quite common.
BENEFITS: See above re: nutrition and exercise.
RESOURCES: Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson, magnesium, zinc.
6) SOCIAL LIFE.
As much as possible, try to maintain an active, healthy social life with supportive, positive friends and family. (As an introvert, I struggle with this one. I try to compensate via technology by using texts, Facebook groups, etc. Not ideal, though. Humans are built for interpersonal connections.) Meetup.com works well for some people. I haven’t had much luck with it myself.
BENEFITS: Human interaction benefits the mind in many ways, especially due to oxytocin, which is a “person-to-person bonding” chemical reaction in the brain. (Layman’s terms.) For introverts, try to cultivate at least a few close friendships. Even one is better than none.
RESOURCES: http://www.meetup.com, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.
7) SPIRITUAL LIFE/MINDFULESS.
However you want to worship, getting right with that side of your life is important.
Either in addition to organized religion or to fill the gap for the areligious, meditation and breathing exercises can be greatly beneficial. I have found Calm, Waking Up, and Headspace as useful free apps.
BENEFITS: When things break down and life ebbs, having a sound spiritual foundation can provide the necessary comfort during those tough times. Without it, chances of experiencing things like loneliness and depression increase. A meditation practice, while not exactly spiritual, still provides a calmness of mind that is of practical day-to-day benefit. Some famous meditators include David Lynch, Jerry Seinfeld, Sam Harris, Tim Ferriss, J.D. Salinger, Will Smith, Bill Gates, Jennifer Lopez, Phil Jackson, Paul McCartney, Kendrick Lamar, Sheryl Crow, Clint Eastwood, Jessica Alba, Rick Rubin, Ray Dalio, Joe Rogan, Heather Graham, Russell Brand, Howard Stern, and Kobe Bryant.
RESOURCES: Calm, Waking Up, Headspace, Calm YouTube channel.
That’s it! Simple as a dimple, right? You’re now totally prepared for any catastrophe that comes your way. Except if the universe decides to fry you with a lightning bolt, that’s the kind of bummer that not even a professional risk manager can prepare for.
But did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments!
Note: I realize that this may seem basic for some people, especially experienced “preppers,” but maybe having all the links in one place might prove to be of value.
Back in my college days, I was often bored by my classwork, so I spent a lot of time hiding out in the stacks of the library, reading like a fiend. I first met Teddy (formally Theodore McArdle) there, hiding from my responsibilities, my student loan debt, myself. Precocious child Teddy was, for sure. But still, he had that other-worldly wisdom practically dripping from him, so there was no way I could ignore the boy.
I didn’t really know what to make of him. Some of the things he said—about getting out of the finite dimensions, about some crazy thing called Vedantism, about vomiting up the “apple”—seemed ridiculous, seemed like the make-believe world of a 10-year-old boy with an active, vivid, intellectual imagination. At first, in short, I wrote the damn kid off.
Being in the library anyway, I decided to delve into all those things they had stacked on all those shelves. Books, magazines, newspapers. Found everything I could on Vedantism and other Eastern philosophies. I read all the Salinger stories I could find, even the uncollected ones.
After all this extensive research, I came back to Teddy with a mind that had been grenade-blown wide open. With this new perspective, I could see that what he was saying was absolutely TRUE. It was NOT some fanciful fabrication of a hyper-intelligent kid. It was pure and beautiful truth.
“A few years ago, I published an exceptionally Haunting, Memorable, unpleasantly controversial, and thoroughly unsuccessful short story about a “gifted” little boy aboard a transatlantic liner….” — Buddy Glass, J.D. Salinger’s (most obvious) alter-ego.
There are a bunch of great essays on the web about Salinger’s “exceptionally Haunting, Memorable, unpleasantly controversial, and thoroughly unsuccessful short story about a “gifted” little boy aboard a transatlantic liner,” “Teddy.”
Orange Peels and Apple-Eaters: Buddhism in J.D. Salinger’s Teddy by Tony Magagna
Along This Road Goes No One: Salinger’s “Teddy” and the Failure of Love by Anthony Kaufman
Salinger's Teddy by Charles Deemer
The Grass Before It Was Green by Leslie English
What's Up With the Ending? on something called Shmoop.com
Teddy McArdle — Character Analysis on Shmoop
Professor Phillip Schultz in the Writers Studio’s CraftClass on “Teddy” and Salinger (Audio)
This being the case, I don’t really want to re-hash anything that these other fine essays have already gotten into. I’ll just reiterate for the uninitiated (and if you’re one, shame on ya) that Teddy McArdle, the “gifted” little boy mentioned above, advocates a Vedantic view of the world which espouses an unemotional approach to life. He (and it) champions the abandonment of desire—sexual, financial, and material— as a path to spiritual enlightenment. This is emphasized in the story by other characters’ obsessions with name-brand things: Leicas, and Gladstones, and Eastern-seaboard regimental outfits, and Ivy League educations. Teddy believes that a focus on these things prevents a person from making spiritual progress (by meditation) which eventually allows the person to become one with God, whereby that person would then stop the cycle of reincarnation and spend eternity in perfect bliss.
The main issue of contention about the story is its rather abrupt, controversial ending: What, exactly, happened? Did Teddy commit suicide? Did his kid sister push him into an empty pool? Did he push his sister into a full pool?
Here’s the exact concluding text [SPOILER ALERT — STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENDING SPOILED FOR YOU!]:
“At D Deck the forwardship stairway ended, and Nicholson stood for a moment, apparently at some loss for direction. However, he spotted someone who looked able to guide him. Halfway down the passageway, a stewardess was sitting on a chair outside a galleyway, reading a magazine and smoking a cigarette. Nicholson went down to her, consulted her briefly, thanked her, then took a few additional steps forwardship and opened a heavy metal door that read: TO THE POOL. It opened onto a narrow, uncarpeted staircase.
He was little more than halfway down the staircase when he heard an all-piercing, sustained scream—clearly coming from a small, female child. It was highly acoustical, as though it were reverberating within four tiled walls.”
What I’d like to discuss is something that I haven’t seen written about elsewhere (if anyone else has please point me to it)—Saint George and the Dragon. It’s mentioned in the story in a rather inconspicuous way. Specifically:
“Teddy passively looked up from his newspaper, but the woman had passed, and he didn’t look back. He went on reading. At the end of the passageway, before an enormous mural of Saint George and the Dragon over the staircase landing…”
It’s just mentioned in passing like that, with no apparent significance whatsoever to the plot. However, I don’t think it would be there if it had absolutely no meaning. The fact that Salinger mentions this detail at all seems to me like the man put it there for a reason. Perhaps even a big reason.
So, who is this Saint George fella and what’s the deal with the dragon? Turns out, it’s a legend. And, like all good legends, there’s a kick-ass lesson behind it.
“The town (Silene) had a pond, as large as a lake, where a plague-bearing dragon dwelled that envenomed all the countryside. To appease the dragon, the people of Silene used to feed it a sheep every day, and when the sheep failed, they fed it their children, chosen by lottery.
It happened (one time) that the lot fell on the king’s daughter. The king, distraught with grief, told the people they could have all his gold and silver and half of his kingdom if his daughter were spared; the people refused. The daughter was sent out to the lake, decked out as a bride, to be fed to the dragon.
Saint George by chance rode (his horse) past the lake. The princess, trembling, sought to send him away, but George vowed to remain.
The dragon reared out of the lake while they were conversing. Saint George fortified himself with the Sign of the Cross, charged it on horseback with his lance and gave it a grievous wound. Then he called to the princess to throw him her girdle, and he put it around the dragon’s neck. When she did so, the dragon followed the girl like a meek beast on a leash. She and Saint George led the dragon back to the city of Silene, where it terrified the people at its approach. But Saint George called out to them, saying that if they consented to become Christians and be baptized, he would slay the dragon before them.
The king and the people of Silene converted to Christianity, George slew the dragon, and the body was carted out of the city on four ox-carts. “Fifteen thousand men baptized, without women and children.” On the site where the dragon died, the king built a church to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint George, and from its altar a spring arose whose waters cured all disease.”
It is my belief that Salinger’s purpose for the story (which he admits was a failure, per the quote above) was to convert a large percentage of Americans into a Vedantic (or at least anti-materialistic) view of life. American Consumerism is the dragon, Teddy is Saint George, and the pool is the spring whose waters cure all disease coming from the worship of money and materialism — by being the cause of Teddy’s death. (Water is generally regarded as a symbol of life in stories or poems.)
It is also my belief that Teddy did actually die because, like all good prophets, his death was required for his cause to live eternally.
“Teddy” first appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 1953. The context of the culture at that time was that television was beginning its ascent to media domination in post-War America, as more and more households turned away from radio programming to get their entertainment needs met. This is also—as a way to subsidize that entertainment—the time when Madison Avenue advertising companies began to commodify the American Dream as something you can purchase at your local retailer. (This is currently being dramatized on shows like Mad Men.) If you just purchase the right brand of laundry detergent, the right brand of car, the right brand of cigarettes, the American Dream can be yours. No spiritual advancement required!
Living in the aftermath of those early, lying-for-profit efforts, in a hyper-materialistic, puddle-deep, attention-deficit, drug-addicted America, I’d have to agree with Mr. Salinger that this story, sadly, was an abject failure.
Maybe that’s why the guy wouldn’t come out from his dark hole prior to his passing. He couldn’t bear the light of truth that what post-War America has become is one non-stop orgy of Materialism and Nihilism.
When the Sea is Not the Sea: Appreciating the Symbolism of Katherine Mansfield
On Virginia Woolf’s Enduring Influence
Dark Reflections: A Theme Theory of Duality in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”
Welcome to the Earbud Society
On Indie Literary Fiction and the Avant-Garde
David Sedaris, Blues Traveler, and Artistic Iconoclasm
On Being Reviewed
Writing from the Ruins: An Unreliable History of Postmodern Literary Fiction
J.D. Salinger’s Teddy: An Introduction