The Month of Fitzgerald

In My Younger and More Vulnerable Years: On First Reading The Great Gatsby

To celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the publication of  The Great Gatsby, we collected comments from writers on how Gatsby has influenced their work. Here, twelve authors recall their first encounters with Fitzgerald’s classic. 

doerr gatsby
Photo courtesy of Anthony Doerr
doerr_gatsby1
Photo courtesy of Anthony Doerr

 

My paperback of The Great Gatsby has traveled with me from high school English in Ohio to college English in Maine to a fish processing plant in Alaska to a sheep farm in New Zealand to a studio in Italy to the shelf beside my desk here in Idaho. I’ve bent the cover, cracked the spine, and read passages aloud in a half-dozen classrooms. In many ways the book represents how much I can’t remember about the past twenty-five years. A five of diamonds serves as bookmark: When did I start that? I’ve doodled an eyeball (or a sun?) on the inside back cover next to a scribbled note: DAISY—RECEDING—ONE LESS ENCHANTED OBJECT. Why? Most confusing, I’ve scratched an incomprehensible palimpsest of pencil marks over Fitzgerald’s final paragraphs. Was I sixteen and prepping for a test? Twenty-eight and parsing rhythms? Forty and feeling my own boat being borne back ceaselessly into the past?

If there’s a place where the dead watch the living, would Fitzgerald be pleased to know he made something so enduring, a touchstone that outlasts even its readers’ memories of it?

I’m not sure. There may be no consolation for dying at 44. But the world without Gatsby? Unimaginable.

—Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See

The world without Gatsby? Unimaginable.

Since stumbling on The Great Gatsby in high school (not for a class but on a lazy summer day in an unfamiliar house) I have read it many times. Each time I return to it—like a homing pigeon drawn to the place of its origin—I find a new marvel and source of inspiration. The latest marvel, worthy of all kinds of deconstruction: “This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” And inspiration: Fitzgerald’s economy of expression; his ability to tell an epic, emotionally resonant story in so few pages.

—Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train

I read Gatsby for the first time in high school, laying out on my stomach in the yard. Nick’s voice rang so clear and strong from the page that he grabbed me and pulled me in. I saw everything. I saw “Daisy, gleaming like silver” on her expensive porch. I saw “the fresh green breast of the new world” and all the beautiful people with their ghostly hearts.  It was all so vivid and alive and immediate.

—Lucy Alibar, author of Beasts of the Southern Wild

It was all so vivid and alive and immediate.

Fitzgerald changed my life and is the reason I am a writer. I read Gatsby the summer after my freshman year in high school, and the world has not been the same since. I have always identified with him, from our shared alma mater to our corny romanticism.

—S. C. Gwynne, author of Rebel Yell and Empire of the Summer Moon

If you’re of a certain generation, you probably read The Great Gatsby in high school. It was on every summer reading list, and infinitely more digestible than Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, or the Novocain-infused Mayor of Casterbridge. Gatsby started my discovery of Fitzgerald’s evocative world of flappers, heady expat years in Paris with an abusive Hemingway, and brassy Hollywood Babylon in the droll Pat Hobby Stories. Congratulations to Scribner on the ninetieth anniversary of the publication of Gatsby.

—Jason Matthews, author of Palace of Treason and Red Sparrow

What’s extraordinary about The Great Gatsby is that, although it knows everything there is to know about the fatuity and shallow glamour of wealth and the pursuit of wealth, the beating part of the novel—its heart—isn’t listening to its head. The heart of the book is as deeply in love with Daisy Buchanan (her voice “was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm”) as Gatsby is. That’s what makes the novel such a young man’s book, because only the young can despise what wealth will do to you and still desire it as much and as hopelessly, and with such contempt, as this book does. I first read this book in early adolescence and adored its lushness, its easy wisdom. As I reread it now, almost half a century later, seventeen years older than Scott Fitzgerald when he died, I see my own innocence, my own enthrallment, as a transitory enchanted moment.

—Charles Lambert, author of The Children’s Home

Perhaps because we all read it in high school, or because it begins with a famous bit of fatherly advice, or simply because Scott and Zelda exist in our shared imagination as the quintessential American Bright Young Things, The Great Gatsby is generally thought of as a young person’s novel: a book about the glamour of adulthood, the romance of self-invention, and the possibility that life will finally deliver to us all the things we spend our adolescence reaching out for in frustration. In fact, Fitzgerald did write just such a book—This Side of Paradise. But The Great Gatsby is something more like the opposite. It’s a book about the slow realization that adult glamour generally works in “the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty.” It’s a book about the impossibility of self-invention. Above all it’s a book about how holding out the obsessive, childish hope that “one fine morning” all the objects of our longing will be delivered to us is not a way of reaching out toward the orgiastic future but a way of being borne back ceaselessly into the past. It’s easy to understand why it’s become such a staple of syllabi—it’s short and cinematic and structurally straightforward. But it’s one of the most grown-up of classic American novels. If there were a required reading list for adulthood, The Great Gatsby would belong on it.

—Christopher Beha, deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine

If there were a required reading list for adulthood, The Great Gatsby would belong on it.

I read The Great Gatsby for the first time when I was a high school student. I was enthralled by Fitzgerald’s language and lyricism, and certain that I understood all the symbolism in the story. I read it again in college, and immediately realized I had been a fool to think that I had understood anything beyond the literal meaning of the story the first time. As a twenty-year-old, I got it all. I have gone back to The Great Gatsby every four or five years since that second introduction, each time for the storytelling and spare beauty of the novel. I realized long ago that I will never “get it” completely.

The 1925 jacket art on the Scribner first edition, by Francis Cugat, may be the most perfect book jacket ever created.

Whatever you do, never watch any of the film versions of The Great Gatsby. Everything you need is all in the words and images created by Fitzgerald.

—Linda Fairstein, author of the Alex Cooper mysteries

Throughout the Roaring Twenties, the North Shore of Long Island, known as the Gold Coast, was a world of grand estates and lavish parties that F. Scott Fitzgerald discovered when he rented a house on Long Island in the summer of 1922, and began writing The Great Gatsby.

In the early sixties I was in college reading Gatsby for the first time and, though I grew up on Long Island near this fabled world, I never fully appreciated it until Fitzgerald brought it to life for me.

By 1980, I was a successful novelist and I occasionally rubbed elbows with some of the dwindling number of Gold Coast inhabitants at charity events, country clubs, and polo matches.

Like Fitzgerald, I was an outsider looking into this privileged and closed world. Also like Fitzgerald, I decided to write about it.

The Gold Coast that Fitzgerald found during the Roaring Twenties was then at its frenzied and most opulent height, but by the time I put pen to paper, that world was fading, though not yet vanished. I titled my book The Gold Coast, and in the book I pay homage to my inspirations: Mr. Fitzgerald and Mr. Gatsby. In fact, many reviewers made favorable comparisons of the two novels, such as Kirkus Reviews, which wrote: “DeMille’s best—and wisest—so far.  A fabulous mainstream entertainment that should be subtitled Variations on a Theme by F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

So, thank you, F. Scott Fitzgerald, for a wonderful read and for a very good idea for my best and wisest book—so far.

—Nelson DeMille, author of The Panther

The Gold Coast that Fitzgerald found during the Roaring Twenties was then at its frenzied and most opulent height, but by the time I put pen to paper, that world was fading, though not yet vanished.

Gatsby’s power is to freeze a part of you in the moment it’s read. There is a frozen fiteen-year-old part of me, reading it for the first time, beguiled by impossible glamour, realizing how much of a world there was and is out there for literature yet to cleave open. There is a frozen twenty-three-year-old part of me, wanting to write, stunned by a prose that seemed to share more with poetry, lost in a text slowly revealing itself, or “bleeding fluently”, like Gatsby himself. Now there is a frozen thirty-four-year-old part of me, one who understands something of love and loss, one who perhaps only now begins to understand what made Gatsby great. There will be other parts of me, frozen in time.

—David Whitehouse, author of Mobile Library

The Gatsby I remember from high school was a carnival of dancing and color and droll remarks that I didn’t quite understand. The women wore white and the men drank hard liquor and no one seemed to have enough to do. It was always too hot. They passed afternoons in darkened rooms. I loved the sentences, but I was sixteen; I didn’t understand what was driving them. Then, in my mid-thirties, I picked it up again and the whole thing came alive. I finally felt the sorrow that is at the heart of this book. Gatsby’s ambition, Daisy’s basic cynicism, the beautiful, vulgar world they lived in. I can’t stand these people but, my God, do I want to go to one of those parties. Just once. And there in each image, each interaction—the part I didn’t remember at all—is Nick’s unique perch on the edge of the carnival, and by the end, his emergence as the most interesting character, not only of this novel but maybe of all modern literature. And now I have to reread everything else I was assigned in high school. . .

—Mary Beth Keane, author of Fever

The Great Gatsby is a limitless novel. Forget how modern it remains in its handling of race, class, and even sexuality. And perhaps put aside how perfectly cut the novel is, how jewel-like in its technical perfection, which ranges from the authority of that narrative voice, the impeccably drawn setting, the steady steady pace, and the tremendous restraint. For me, what makes this novel great is that it is a set piece on regret. It taught me all about it. Or, I should say it taught me how to name what, even at sixteen, I was already wrestling with. Regret sat with me so differently then, but I felt it palpably. It is wrong, perhaps, to ask a book to speak to you more than once, but somehow high school did not ruin the novel for me. The Great Gatsby is everlasting.  The story of Gatsby’s striving, and the story of Nick’s cautious telling of that complex endeavor, and also, as importantly, the story of the author himself, the story of his sad wife, of them, these are the essential stories of the regret that comes from dreams unfulfilled. These are the foundations of the myths from which most—if not all—American stories are carved. The Great Gatsby as Fitzgerald’s glittering, broken crown.

—Jennifer Gilmore, author of The Mothers

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

By F. Scott Fitzgerald