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