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The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.


F. Scott Fitzgerald, c. 1925 (American Stock/Getty Images)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

Sam Waterston reads from The Great Gatsby...

When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention for ever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the 'creative temperament'—it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it was what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and the short-winded elations of men.

Reed: That was Sam Waterston reading from F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 Jazz-age classic, The Great Gatsby.

Robert Redford: The book is about the American dream, even if it has to be artificially composed by an individual who was a desperate man.

Matthew Bruccoli: It is probably the best known American novel, the most widely taught American novel.

Maureen Corrigan: I think if I were on a desert island and I had to pick the American novel of the 20th century, it would be this one.

Reed: Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature. Here's your host, poet and former chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby at the height of the 1920s jazz age, a phrase Fitzgerald himself coined. America had just emerged from the first world war and was experiencing an economic boom. While the roaring '20s introduced prohibition and a kind of post war haze, the decade is also remembered as one long and extravagant party. It was the era of jazz and rag time, indulgence and easy money, flappers and bootleggers. The Great Gatsby explores that complicated and exciting period.

Actor, producer and director, Robert Redford.

Redford: It had to do with the rise of capitalism in the '20s which were the roaring '20s, and how there was so much emphasis on the elegance of the patrician qualities in American life; the very, very rich.

Corrigan: First of all, the characters can't sit still.

Gioia: Book critic, Maureen Corrigan.

Corrigan: So the jitteriness that critics talk about as characterizing the jazz age that informs the dances that everyone is doing and the wild drinking and the fascination with the automobile—it's all there in the book. I mean these characters, the minute they sit still, they get the great idea to drive into New York or if they are in New York, they are driving out into Long Island. They never seemed to be able to, to stay put and there's something that's almost too frenetic about their movements and their searching for a good time that I think we associate with the jazz age. Everybody is trying really hard to have a good time.

Sam Waterston reads from The Great Gatsby...

There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motorboats slit the water of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On weekends, his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station-wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. [...]

The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter of laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other's names.

Gioia: The Great Gatsby is written in the voice of Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner who finds himself among the New York upper class. Nick moves into a tiny rental house in the shadow of great Long Island mansions, most notably that of his mysterious next door neighbor, Jay Gatsby, who throws notoriously extravagant parties. Nick's outsider perspective is one reason why The Great Gatsby is such a powerful novel; he seems to condemn the lavish lifestyle of his neighbors even as he yearns to be accepted in their circles.

Bruccoli: The narrator of The Great Gatsby is a minor character. But he's there to document what happens.

Gioia: Critic and scholar, Matthew Bruccoli.

Bruccoli: There is no scene at which Nick is not present and of course, the miracle of The Great Gatsby—the device, the technique that makes it work—is Nick. Everything is filtered through Nick.

Gish Jen: And it's exactly the fact that Nick Carraway is looking on this world as an outsider and that he thinks that maybe there's another world besides the world that he lives in, a world which is more wondrous, which is more beautiful, which is more magical.

Gioia: Novelist, Gish Jen.

Jen: And he thinks that that world is made possible by money, and that if he can only get up the money, he can have it. And of course that vision of America as a place that can be wondrous if only you have the dough and, you know, there is a way in which when we read Gatsby, we can't help but think of, you know, the world of Ralph Lauren. I mean we look at this world the way that we look at those ads. Is there a world that is really like that? You know, if you have enough money, is that what you do, you want, your hair falls just so, and your ponies are always at the ready.

Gioia: Born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Fitzgerald grew up in the family of declining and precarious fortune. His father was an unsuccessful businessman. His mother helped support the family with her dwindling inheritance. Surrounded by financial anxiety, Fitzgerald developed a fascination with the very wealthy which only increased when he came East to Princeton University, a training ground of the American upper class.

Bruccoli: Nick represents F. Scott Fitzgerald in the novel. Same values, same background. They're both from a Midwestern city, both were educated ivy league in the East, and both are highly moral people.

Gioia: Matthew Bruccoli.

Bruccoli: Fitzgerald got his material in Saint Paul as an insider/outsider, a kid who played with the rich kids in town, who went to dancing school with the rich kids in town but, whose father was a failure. And I am sure that Fitzgerald's concentration on, understanding of, complex reactions to wealth and the wealthy began on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Gioia: Once again, Robert Redford.

Redford: Fitzgerald was obsessed with it. The author was obsessed with, somehow, some way wanting to belong with that culture himself, coming from the Midwest and coming from an area that was considered probably provincial in those days but he had a dream to belong to that subset and so he wrote a novel about that dream and he embodied it with the character of Gatsby.

Bruccoli: He became one of our great social novelists. He was the first of the American writers to write seriously about money and how it works. That's probably his greatest distinction. People have said that he wrote the first American gangster novel in The Great Gatsby, I'm not sure it's true and if so, so what? Fitzgerald was the first American writer to write seriously about money and the effects of money on character.

Gioia: Robert Redford played the title role the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby.

Redford: On a personal level, I mean a lot of people have asked me, “Are you Gatsby?” and I said “No. No not at all." But on the other hand where I can relate is that I wanted to play the part because was very—I'd not done it before, played a desperate man, and that was appealing to me, and particularly a desperate man caught up in the American dream or the search for the American dream.

Gioia: We never learn the full story behind the mysterious Jay Gatsby. The characters in the novel spread wild rumors about what he does for a living and how he made his immense fortune. We do know one thing, however, that his unhealthy obsession with Daisy Buchanan can lead only to disaster.

Matthew Bruccoli.

Bruccoli: Moral centers are not memorable and moving and exciting. Dreamers, strivers, failures are memorable. Gatsby is the greatest failure in American literature.

Gioia: When it was first published in 1925, The Great Gatsby received mixed reviews and mediocre sales. Its commercial failure was a disappointment from which Fitzgerald never fully recovered. Perhaps, the novel's initial readers had trouble understanding Gatsby, a delicately drawn tragic figure rather than a conventional romantic hero.

Robert Redford.

Redford: Nobody could really get a grip on Gatsby. They couldn't really get a grip because of his mysterious nature. Those were some of the reasons I wanted to, one as an actor to play a different kind of character, a person constrained and just seething inside with the dream and trying to control it and creating an artificial personality to hide what might be insecure. That was very appealing to me; and just the elegance of the novel going to the screen.

Gioia: Gatsby's dream, the consuming passion of his life is to win the heart of his lost love, Daisy Buchanan. A green light shines from Daisy's shoreline estate across the waters of the Long Island Sound.

Gioia: Once again, Maureen Corrigan.

Corrigan: You know, I kind of love the idea that the first image you see of Gatsby, he's standing out at the edge of his dock looking out to the green light, this thing that's unattainable, whatever it is, symbolized by the green light.

Gioia: Gatsby and Daisy share what is probably the most famous kiss in American literature.

Sam Waterston reads from The Great Gatsby...

One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars. Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees. He could climb to it, if he climbed alone and once there, he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So, he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then, he kissed her. At his lips' touch, she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.

Corrigan: One thing that makes this novel so contemporary still for readers, for my students, is the fact that you can't get at the truth. Where is the center here? How do you ever get at what exactly especially Daisy was feeling in that scene? You don't.

Gioia: Maureen Corrigan.

Corrigan: She's a green light; she's the object that's out there out of reach. So, I don't think she's meant to be a well rounded character. She's meant to be, you know, the woman you can't have, she's meant to be the object that's somehow never going to be commensurate with his capacity for wonder. That's who she is. You grab hold of her and she dissolves into vapor.

Gioia: Some details of Daisy's character seemed to be based on the great love of Fitzgerald's life, Zelda Sayer whom he married in 1920. If Jay Gatsby is hardly a conventional leading man, Daisy Buchanan is certainly a troubling leading lady. When Gatsby left for the war, Daisy abandoned their youthful romance to marry Tom Buchanan, a very rich and conspicuously unfaithful brute.

Gioia: Once again, Robert Redford.

Redford: The obliviousness and the spoiled nature of Daisy being driven in her own way and quite spoiled and in addition, the atmosphere that she had stepped into by inherited nature of... it was absolutely right that somebody spoiled like she was, from the south would step into the frame of other spoiled people, as long as they had money, they had solid security. So what was that life like? What was missing? Well, it's hinted at in the book because Tom Buchanan, the character, clearly has a boorish side along with the kind of, socially correct side, a kind of rough edge where you assume a lot of the social correctness comes from inheritance, not through the heart. She chose that over raw, sheer passion 'cause she wanted, she wanted both ways.

Gioia: You are listening to The Big Read, from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, we're discussing The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Gioia: Late in the novel, after disaster strikes, Gatsby still holds out hope that he will win back Daisy. Then, Nick witnesses a moment of simple intimacy between Daisy and her husband Tom, and he understands at once that Gatsby's dream will be crushed.

Gioia: Once again, Gish Jen.

Jen: There has been this terrible car accident and they've all gone back to the house and Gatsby, thinking what Daisy is his, tells her, you know, if Tom gets really violent, you know, you signal to me, you flick your lights on and off and I am going to come save you. So he's waiting outside and he thinks he finally has her and he's waiting outside to guard her and protect her and she goes in and then Nick Carraway sees absolutely the most devastating thing.

Sam Waterston reads from The Great Gatsby...

Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite to each other at the kitchen table, with a plate of cold fried chicken between them, and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her, and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own. Once in a while, she looked up at him and nodded an agreement.

They were not happy and neither of them had touched the chicken or the ale and yet they were not unhappy either. There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together.

Jen: It's such a wonderful image because it is so devastating, but it's this simple, quiet, domestic moment which has, in this context, become incredibly dramatic. And, um, interestingly, it works much better than many of the big dramatic moments, this very much more understated passage.

Gioia: F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of the most elegant stylists in American literature. His prose has influenced the work of countless authors.

Gioia: Maureen Corrigan.

Corrigan: Their slangy language and even though you certainly would never call Fitzgerald a choppy writer, people talk in quick bursts of dialogue and it does move quickly and then still, it contains the most poetic, lyrical, overarching statements about America that any American writer ever wrote. So, how does he do it?

Andrew Sean Greer: It's something about the language. It's told really brilliantly.

Gioia: Andrew Sean Greer.

Greer: It's just the storytelling. I mean, now that I am a novelist, I can see that the storytelling is so brilliant. It happened so quickly. He never sits around and dawdles and it's a gripping story. It mars the reading pleasure a little bit because I'm trying to pick apart how he's doing stuff. And of course, he gives the impression that it's effortless, which means that it took incredible amount of work because for such beautiful sentences to come across effortlessly is so much work.

Gioia: Matthew Bruccoli.

Bruccoli: Now, when I reread it, and I reread it a couple of times every year, I read it for the music, for the joy of the prose. I don't care what it is about anymore. It's the words, the combinations of the words.

Corrigan: He's a great poet.

Gioia: Maureen Corrigan.

Corrigan: You know, that was Fitzgerald's first love, poetry. So I think it comes out here. It comes out in those last two pages of the novel.

Sam Waterston reads from The Great Gatsby...

Then I wandered down to the beach and sprawled out on the sand.

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailor's eyes, a fresh green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that is no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Greer: I think what's really amazing about the very end of the novel, too, is that it changes and he talks about us.

Gioia: Andrew Shawn Greer.

Greer: It does this amazing thing. He is talking about all the other characters and then "tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther and one fine morning—So we beat on boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Suddenly he turns the mirror right on the reader and it implies us and we are drawn into it.

Gioia: Maureen Corrigan.

Corrigan: He conflates Daisy and this image of the green light with the quote/unquote "undiscovered continent" and "rolling fields of America" and, you know, it's all over already by the time Fitzgerald writes this novel. That's what he's saying, it's all over for Americans, this great promise of America and what might lie out there. There's this incredible feeling of exhaustion and that everything has been tapped out already. It's over; there is this great sense of world weariness in this novel and it's a funny tone for a novel that's supposed to characterize the jazz age when everybody's supposed to be so busy having a great time and they're forgetting themselves and they're forgetting World War I. But there's also that presence of exhaustion, that maybe also characterizes an age that's recovering from something traumatic.

Gioia: F. Scott Fitzgerald died tragically young.

Bruccoli: He drank himself to death. He died of a heart attack, which resulted from a life of chronic alcoholism. He was an alcoholic from the time he was 22 or 23. In some ways surprisingly, he made 44.

Gioia: Fitzgerald is buried just outside of Washington, DC. Maureen Corrigan visited his resting place.

Corrigan: I went in to the graveyard and believe it or not there was a priest hanging around and he said, are you here to visit the grave? And I said, yes. He said, he was a good writer, and I said, the best. And I walked over to the grave and it's got the last words of The Great Gatsby inscribed on it and... I mean, it's incredibly moving. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." What do those words means in terms of the great American novel, we're supposed to be able to break with the past. It's Fitzgerald telling us it's great that we try or is he telling us, eh, we're fools, give up, it's better to be a Tom Buchanan, it's better not to have those dreams.

Gioia: When Fitzgerald died in 1940, he probably worried that The Great Gatsby would be forgotten. What is the novel's legacy today?

Matthew Bruccoli.

Bruccoli: It's the most American book of them all. In some ways, Gatsby's ambitions define the American dream or maybe the American dream defines Gatsby's ambitions.

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Dan Stone. Post production by Adam Kampe. Readings from The Great Gatsby were by Sam Waterston. "A Good Man is Hard to Find," "Lila," "Royal Garden Blues," and "Our Bungalow Dreams," currently playing in the background, by Bix Beiderbecke (used courtesy of Sony BMG Music Entertainment. Original piano music by Lee Blaske. Sound Effets by Brent Findley at Sonic Magic Studios. Administrative Assistant, Erika Koss. Special Thanks to Joy Steep, Donna Kao, and to our contributors: Matthew Bruccoli, Maureen Corrigan, Andrew Sean Greer, Gish Jen and Robert Redford. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to www.neabigread.org.

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