Dear Old Sport,
I’m writing to you in late May of 2013, and the world again has its attention on The Great Gatsby.
A new film version (the seventh) opened early this month and has already grossed $115 million. The acclaimed theatre group Elevator Repair Service piece Gatz—an eight-hour, thirteen-actor production where the novel is read word for word—completed a successful Los Angeles run in November. Brooks Brothers has released a clothing line in conjunction with the film, and The Plaza Hotel in New York City rechristened one of its largest rooms “The Fitzgerald Suite” in April. I’ve also been distracted from writing sooner by the Great Gatsby Video Game, where your weapon is Nick Carraway’s fedora flung like a boomerang at oncoming enemies.
Asking why all this hype and why now may seem like dumb questions. It’s not like The Great Gatsby ever went away. Although considered a commercial disappointment when published in 1925, the book found its footing upon re-release during World War II (when it was distributed to active duty soldiers) and has been with us since. It’s among the most assigned books in American high schools (where I’m sure you first laid eyes on its blue cover with a green light and a woman crying a single tear), and it’s a leading contender for the elusive standing of The Great American Novel. F. Scott Fitzgerald earned $8,000 on Gatsby during his lifetime and died in 1940 convinced he and his novel had been failures. The book now regularly generates $500,000 a year in sales for his heirs.
When the new film began production in 2011, the BBC speculated that the worldwide financial crisis may have something to do with it. Perhaps single-minded ambition ends in the tragic rebuke, not fulfillment, of the American Dream—as it was for Lehman Brothers and Jay Gatsby. Perhaps you can work hard and still not get everything you want, as millions of foreclosed homeowners will attest. Indeed, the actual Long Island house on which Fitzgerald modeled Gatsby’s was demolished in 2010 after lying neglected and forgotten for too long.
But let us not forget, old sport, that when Fitzgerald imagined Gatsby, America was the furthest thing from dilapidation and ruin. America was dancing and drinking its way through the Jazz Age, a ten-year victory lap after emerging as the world’s most prosperous nation after the First World War. F. Scott Fitzgerald was famous, handsome, married to the love of his life, and living in Paris. You’ve seen the pictures: Zelda and Scott embodied the era that The Great Gatsby launched. Their very names mean wealth, glamour, excitement. We cannot separate the sparkling elegance of Gatsby’s parties from the life his creator was living.
Dear friend, I was not fortunate enough to read The Great Gatsby as a young person. It was never assigned to me in high school, though I had heard of the book as a slim ode to 1920s glamour that ended tragically. That’s about all I knew, meaning I was unprepared for just how tragically and how sad it would make me.
It was only a few months ago, a weekday evening, cold, probably damp. I was driving home, turned on the radio, and heard Gatsby’s final passage read aloud:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. … And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
I pulled over the car and began to cry. F. Scott Fitzgerald was all of twenty-eight years old, eleven years younger than I am now, when he wrote those lines and had the world at his feet. Why was he so miserable? Who would end the great literary achievement of their lives, of the century even, by asking: Can we define our struggles as a past we cannot change or outrun?
Are we doomed to be battling the current forever, or is the real tragedy that we never learn, as Jay Gatsby didn’t, to anchor the boat, climb out of the river, and accept the past rather than row against it?
No doubt some English teacher has asked you what Mr. Fitzgerald “meant” by those last paragraphs. Any Google search will tell us where his head was. Fitzgerald had been an alcoholic for a good many years, a young father whose wife was having an affair. His last major work, the play The Vegetable, had been a flop.
It is not brilliant psychoanalysis to see how, having become famous just four years before, he now felt exhausted, beaten, like his moment had already passed him by, even before his thirtieth birthday. He would die this way at age of forty-two, after his third heart attack. He saw himself as a pretender who wrote himself as Nick Carraway, but ended like Jay Gatsby, never regaining what he once lost. He would never return to his birthplace of Minnesota. Nobody thought much of him as a writer for another fifteen years. That painful last line of the The Great Gatsby, about all we must leave behind and will never get back, is the inscription on his gravestone.
I do realize, old sport, that perhaps my coming to Gatsby later in life changed the way I saw it. Had I been assigned to read it in school, maybe I woud’ve seen little more than a portrait of 1920s America, a character study of a hidden man, or a raking over of the American Dream. Maybe Gatsby’s last pages would not have hit me so hard if I, as a grown man, did not feel the current of time beneath me, as anyone who can no longer stay out all night without suffering for a week afterward will tell you.
But perhaps I am lucky for that instead. Gatsby feels very much about what Robert Penn Warren called “the awful responsibility of time.” The world goes on without our permission. Our past will always have some bearing on who we are. Our happiness will depend, at least some, on accepting that. Let us not forget, old sport, that The Great Gatsby is written in flashback, about a man and a time that is over, even though the novel gave birth to the era itself. We are subject to the current even if we declare ourselves kings of the river.
I don’t know about you, my friend, but that realization would be enough to keep me from ever reading Gatsby again—the world throws enough pain and nonsense your way. Gatsby is light on event, heavy on mood and setting. How it feels is more important than what happens. Are the sadness and loss F. Scott Fitzgerald had in mind the feelings I wish to have in mind? Feelings I wish to invite over for a martini in a raised glass?
I have gone back to Gatsby several times, each time remembering a detail or a gesture I had missed, each time thinking I am ready for the final passage—and being wrong. I don’t think Mr. Fitzgerald meant for us to put down his novel feeling like dreams are a waste, and our future is a taunting green light in the distance. I wonder if he meant us to see the future as something we must try to be ready for, that—despite the unpredictability of the future—we should prepare for the second acts Fitzgerald didn’t believe in but that he still got. Fitzgerald and Jay Gatsby were saved by the “one bright morning” that came years after they were both gone.
Good night, old sport. I await your reply.
About the author: Kevin Smokler (@weegee) is the author of “Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School.” This essay is adapted from that book.