It is becoming increasingly rare to find a book that a majority of Americans have read (this side of J.K. Rowling at least). There are, however, still some. One in particular is being discussed quite a bit these days, thanks to a certain movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role.
Why does “The Great Gatsby” still feel as fresh and relevant today as it ever did? Or, to phrase it another way, why is a column that is nominally about politics devoted today to a Jazz Age love story?
I think the answer is fairly simple. We all have some doubts about the American Dream. The greatness of Gatsby lies in how the novel is able to speak to a drama that is playing out inside of all of us all the time.
Most of us keep a double set of books in our head. One set knows that this is a country where anyone can make it no matter how low they start from. The other knows that that is not the whole story.
Few of us are fabulously wealthy criminals, yet we all identify with Gatsby at some level. His beliefs are not alien. He takes America at its word and thinks with hard work and charm anyone can start over and achieve his or her dreams.
Fitzgerald is thought to have written Gatsby under the influence of the ideas of the German philosopher Oswald Spengler. I believe this to be the case. One of Spengler’s most enduring ideas is his identification of the West as the Faustian civilization.
No one in all of history but the Faustian man has ever had longings of such a universal nature. As Spengler saw it, it was the drive toward eternity, in religion, art, architecture and everything else, that defined him.
The Faustian man, in other words, is always striving for a green light on the end of a dock that he will never quite be able to reach.
The novel’s continued appeal goes beyond the figure of Gatsby himself. Consider the following passage:
“They were careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
Although this line is nominally about Tom and Daisy Buchannan, it does not take much mental strain at all to apply it to very real figures. If you are having problems doing so, ask yourself sometime how many people went to jail for causing the financial crisis of 2007.
If Tom and Daisy were a transitory phenomenon only of the Roaring ‘20s the novel would have faded away into literary obscurity like Fitzgerald’s other works. The quality of prose and Fitzgerald’s reputation would keep it from total oblivion, but it would not strike very many chords with the modern reader. That this did not happen should say something important about certain features of American life.
Ultimately, I think the novel endures because it is the prototypical American tragedy. Critiques of capitalism from the far left tend to fall on deaf ears in America. A book like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” with its sweeping rejection of the whole system, will never register in quite the same way.
Fitzgerald does not condemn capitalism itself. No, his writings contain a far more profound and useful truth: capitalism is not evil, but it will always produce some people that are. America will always have its Meyer Wolfsheims.
There will, of course, also be those who will insist that it doesn’t matter what happened yesterday, that of course you can re-write the past and start out anew in this country. In short, it will also always have its Jay Gatsbys.