Seventy-five years ago this month, St. Paul native Scott Fitzgerald was sitting in his lover’s apartment in Hollywood, nibbling a chocolate bar and studying the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Suddenly he stood, clutched at the mantel and fell to the floor, dead. He was 44.
“The promise of his brilliant career was never fulfilled,” the New York Times’ obituary chided — meaning, however, the brilliant start of his career. Alcoholic, often drunk, “a cracked plate,” Fitzgerald finished only one novel during his last 15 years. His final royalty check was for $13.13.
But he gave us, of course, one perfect and widely beloved novel, “The Great Gatsby.” No other novel, not even “Huckleberry Finn,” resonates so strongly in the American imagination. Every high school graduate has read it. A newspaper editor in Pennsylvania has read it every summer for 25 years; an NPR book critic has read it “upwards of 50 times.”
For all that, the reasons for the novel’s appeal are elusive. “An author,” Fitzgerald observed, writes “for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.”
For “The Great Gatsby,” this facetious aphorism has been sadly confirmed. Readers participate imaginatively; schoolmasters moralize. “Gatsby” is a parable of the American dream, we have long been taught, as if it were about homeownership and the Statue of Liberty.
To be sure, “Gatsby” tells of an ambitious boy who flees Nowhere, North Dakota, heads East, becomes rich, rattles around in a mansion, drives a Rolls-Royce, and throws extravagant parties — “success” on as large and vulgar a scale as anyone could wish.
But Jay Gatsby consorts with mobsters and makes his money from bootlegging. His parties are drunken revels frequented by anarchic freeloaders. He has no friends; when he is murdered, the guests who drained his Prohibition cocktails are no-shows at his funeral. All this suggests, we’re told, the corruption of the American dream.
At least this stale formula is adaptable. By way of update, a recent book argues that “Gatsby’s” value lies in “its profound commentaries on the national themes of race, class and gender.”
But no one loves a novel because of its “profound commentaries,” and Fitzgerald was no postmodern intellectual. At the moment of his fatal heart attack, he was reading an article on the Princeton football team. (He greatly regretted not having achieved football greatness in college.) Though he had flunked out years earlier, he remained in some respects the perennial sophomore.
He was fascinated by wealth and glamour but had no interest in the politics of class. Highly susceptible to women, he cared nothing about gender. Creative imaginations engage with human emotions.
In writing a story, Fitzgerald explained, “I must start out with an emotion — one that’s close to me and that I can understand.” Above all, he understood desire, longing and loss. “We have two or three great and moving experiences in our lives,” he observed, “experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before.”
In his first novel, “I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding.” That was Ginevra. Then he met Zelda. While he courted her long-distance, Zelda, too, almost slipped away. She grew restless in Alabama as he fretted in New York. “In a haze of anxiety and unhappiness,” he recalled, “I passed the four most impressionable months of my life.” What impressed him most poignantly was the miserable ecstasy of longing. Fitzgerald didn’t invent Gatsby’s aching desire for Daisy. He had lived it.
Gatsby snaps his fingers at the money and the mansion and the parties. He wants Daisy, and only Daisy, with “an intensity that couldn’t be measured.” In an early Willa Cather novel, a character asks of an opera diva: “What’s her secret?”
“Her secret?” the diva’s mentor replies. “It is every artist’s secret. Passion … an open secret, and perfectly safe. Like heroism, it is inimitable in cheap materials.”
Gatsby united Fitzgerald’s lyrical gift and richly sensual imagination with the passionate longing that was etched on his heart. It was a perfect marriage of form and emotion. But the green light across the bay was already dimming, clouded by drink, self-indulgence and a troubled marriage. His later fictions wander through melancholy landscapes of decline, failure and regret.
Fitzgerald rallied at the end. He died sober, working on a fifth novel. For him as for Gatsby, though, “the freshest and the best” had vanished.
Scott Fitzgerald now lies beside Zelda in the graveyard of the old Catholic church in Rockville, Md. But for us, the green light still glimmers across the bay, and Daisy’s magical voice, that “deathless song,” still fascinates.
“He did everything wrong,” Ernest Hemingway paid grudging tribute, “and it came out right.”
Robert R. Garnett is a professor of English at Gettysburg College. He wrote this article for the Philadelphia Inquirer.