When 44-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in 1940, less than 30 people attended his funeral. His alma mater, Princeton University, famously declined an offer from his widow to purchase Fitzgerald’s original manuscripts for $3,750. He had, for all intents and purposes, become an afterthought in literary circles — the poster child for exquisite talent ruined by alcoholism and hard living.
In 2013, however, Fitzgerald is revered as one of America’s greatest authors. For example, the manuscripts for which Princeton initially refused to pay any money now are known as the “F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers” — and today the university receives more requests to examine those papers than any other primary-source documents in Princeton’s vast historic archives.
The largest reason for the rise of Fitzgerald’s reputation has been the virtual canonization of “The Great Gatsby,” his 1925 novel about love, loss and longing set amidst the material excesses of the Jazz Age. When Fitzgerald passed away, the book had sold fewer than 25,000 copies. Today, though, “Gatsby” sales have eclipsed 25 million and continue growing at a rate of approximately 500,000 every year.
The novel ranks No. 9 on the Center for Learning and Teaching of Literature’s list of books most often taught in American high schools. If Shakespearean works are excluded, “Gatsby” rises to fifth place. And when Book magazine compiled its list of the “100 best characters in fiction since 1900,” Fitzgerald's eponymous protagonist Jay Gatsby occupied the No. 1 spot.
This weekend director Baz Luhrmann’s monolithic 3D adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” rolls into theaters. Fueled by a production budget widely estimated at $127 million — and showcasing the acting talent of Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire — this new “Gatsby” stands poised to make a big splash at the box office. But the film’s influence won’t end when the theater lights come back on. “The Great Gatsby” story is so ubiquitous in American culture that, via civic institutions like secondary schools and public libraries, Luhrmann’s new movie will likely spark meaningful discussion about themes tied to topics like aspiration and permanence.
Singular source material
“The Great Gatsby” is set in 1922. Jay Gatsby (played in the new movie by Leonardo DiCaprio) returned from World War I intent on winning back the affections of his former sweetheart Daisy (Carey Mulligan). She hailed from old money, but he was dirt poor, so Gatsby invested the better part of five years conjuring enormous wealth in order to be “good enough” for Daisy. But after she lost touch with Gatsby, Daisy married burgeoning aristocrat Tom Buchanan.
In essence, then, “Great Gatsby” is the story of someone trying to turn back the clock and regain the love of his life — even though she is now married to another man.
“Fitzgerald captures a sentimental poignancy that a lot of people can relate to,” said Kent Curnutt, vice president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society that promotes the study of the author’s life and works. “(‘Gatsby’) is about feeling more than it is intellect; it’s about loss; it’s about a beautiful sadness that people can really relate to. Everybody has had dreams dashed, and I think that’s the appeal of that book.”
According to a 1960 New York Times article commemorating the 35th anniversary of “The Great Gatsby,” it wasn’t until 1945 that Fitzgerald’s novel really began to vanquish the notion that it “was merely a period piece.”
“‘Gatsby’ is a very mature novel,” Curnutt said. “But when many people read it in 1925 they were like, ‘Oh ... here comes (Fitzgerald) again doing the same old stories about parties and debutantes and rich people and alcohol. They didn’t quite understand the book’s deeper meanings.”
Curnutt expressed great enthusiasm about seeing the new film adaptation — he secured a ticket to his local theater’s first screening — but like the vast majority of Fitzgerald aficionados, he considers the genius of “The Great Gatsby” novel to be the actual writing.
“If you want to crack open that book, you can criticize it on any number of grounds — structurally it has some faults, and I think a lot of the elements of it are melodramatic,” he said. “But I think what makes it so rich and powerful and emotionally resonant for people is the intricacy of the writing. I mean, the prose is really crafted to be almost like jewelry.
“People can get lost in that book, as short as it is. They can just read it for the beauty of the prose.”
Molding 'a new generation'
Alexander Springer teaches English to juniors at Hillcrest High in Midvale, Utah. He elected to include “The Great Gatsby” in this year’s curriculum as a representative work of Modernism.
“I tied it into a unit that I was doing about the American dream, what that means to different people,” Springer said. “The students are trying to figure out who they are and what they want to get out of life; they all have different ideas of what success is at this age. It’s interesting to read through that book, and get the themes of the American dream, and what Gatsby considers the American dream versus what (others) thought of the American dream.”
Before beginning to study the book, Springer showed his students the trailer for the forthcoming movie, and talked to the class about how the director Luhrmann had “read the same book you’re about to read, and he pulled all that vibrant color and action out of it.”
“That actually was helpful, a good discussion to have,” Springer said. “Typically you meet a little bit of a resistance when you say, ‘We’re going to read something from the 1920s,’ because the kids aren’t super excited about that. But having that conversation, I was able to impress upon the students that it’s really up to them — they can get all that color out of a story if they want.”
It’s very conceivable that any new film adaptation of an 87-year-old novel is going to be met with some level of enthusiasm by teenage students assigned to read that book for a class at school. But Springer believes the new movie’s elevated “coolness factor” significantly enhanced his students’ willingness to engage with Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby.”
“I’m glad that modern filmmakers still see value in the classics,” Springer said. “I like when someone will take an old book — especially one that I’m about to teach — and make it a big pop culture phenomenon. That kind of goes to validate what I’m saying about it: This is a story that’s going to last forever, and the reason it’s going to last forever is because we can really relate to the characters and the themes.
“And that’s the bread and butter of what I do, is to get kids to realize that even back in the 1920s, people were still killing themselves for the girl; they were still trying to make sense of love and life and success. And I think it is important to communicate that to a new generation of kids.”
Harnessing movie momentum
For the enterprising librarian, a robust movie tie-in can be an invaluable tool.
“When a movie comes out, it almost always prompts interest in reading the book and requests for the print version,” said Bill Ott, editor and publisher of Booklist, the American Library Association’s book-review magazine. “So what you’ll see in a lot of libraries is displays created around whatever the new film is.
“I think active librarians who are trying to be on top of demand pay a lot of attention to movies, and what movie’s coming out when, so that they have extra copies of the books, so that they’ve built displays around the books — both to promote the book itself and similar books.”
Granted, it’s not uncommon for movie theaters to be welcoming the arrival of a new film adapted from popular literature. But that said, few books could so easily serve as a gateway to as much other literature as “The Great Gatsby.”
“That’s where you’d get the opportunity to promote other Jazz Age writers like (Ernest) Hemingway, or other books that for one reason or another seem similar to Fitzgerald,” Ott said.
Yet the possibilities for "Gatsby” movie-goers to turn over a new literary leaf don’t end with household names like Hemingway. As Library Journal Book Review assistant editor Annalisa Pesek points out, the 1920s represent an intriguing decade in modern literature, when many American authors were living abroad as expatriates and writing about their experiences as artists outside of America. A significant number of writers were publishing their impressions of the period, mostly without the fanfare of some of their contemporaries.Comment on this story
“The 1920s saw an expanding community of artists, writers, publishers and critics, who effectively created a new literary 'scene' both at home in the U.S. and abroad," Pesek said. "The artistic achievements of these years are unmatched — 'Ulysses' being one example. So the period remains one of intrigue."
For those who enjoy reading “The Great Gatsby,” Pesek suggests picking up lesser-known works from the same era such as “That Summer in Paris” by Morley Callaghan and “Memoirs of Montparnasse” by John Glassco.
“Many of the insider texts are not by famous authors,” she said. “But (they all) tell their story via being there and writing about everything they saw and did. Fitzgerald’s life and work fits the description of intrigue as ‘The Great Gatsby’ was set in 1922, and is known as an iconic addition to the literature — and now another movie.”
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-236-6051.