The Year of Gatsby

At first he wanted to call it "Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires." Then he changed his mind: "Trimalchio in West Egg," he told his publisher, was a better idea.

No, no, no. "On the Road to West Egg." That was his preference.

Wait. Maybe it should be "Gold-Hatted Gatsby."

Hold on. "The High-Bouncing Lover" -- yes. Yes, that's the one. Perfect.

Two weeks before the novel's publication in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgeraldsent a frantic telegram to his editor, insisting the title be changed to "Under the Red and White and Blue."

It was too late, though, and so"The Great Gatsby"-- the author's compromise choice -- was the one that ended up on the cover.

With all of the dithering and confusion over its very name, it's little wonder that controversy has swirled around the novel ever since. But as the Broadway hit "Gatz," an inventive eight-hour show during which the entire novel is read aloud on stage, moves to London this month; as buzz builds for a new movie version starring Leonardo DiCaprio set for release this year; and as economists such as Paul Krugman appropriate the novel's title to hammer home their beliefs about income inequality, one thing, at least, is very clear:

This is the Year of Gatsby.

Some see the novel as a classic American fable: a poor boy from the Midwest works hard, dreams big, makes a fortune and searches for his long-lost love. Others regard it as a sly critique of capitalism, a poetic protest against materialism and greed. It's been co-opted as a fashion statement -- "Gatsby girls" -- and hijacked by the likes of Krugman, who, in his blog, cites the work of fellow economist Alan Krueger and the latter's "Gatsby curve" that illustrates the gap between haves and have-nots.

There are as many passionate opinions and stubbornly held views of "The Great Gatsby" as there are shirts in Gatsby's closet -- and as those who have read the novel will recall, in a pivotal scene those shirts come tumbling out of his closet in beautiful profusion, an elegantly pressed medley of "shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue."

Is "The Great Gatsby" a rousing homage to the American dream or a disillusioned takedown of that same dream? If Fitzgerald, who died in 1940, were alive today, would he be clinking champagne glasses with CEOs and hedge fund managers or pitching a tent at an Occupy Wall Street outpost?

First, let's briefly review the novel's plot -- minus spoilers. Nick Carraway, an earnest young man from the Midwest who rents a small house in an exclusive area on the outskirts of New York, narrates the story. His neighbor, an infamous chap named Jay Gatsby, is known for lavish parties and a shadowy past. Gatsby asks Nick to help arrange a meeting for him with Nick's second cousin Daisy Buchanan -- who is, as it happens, Gatsby's old girlfriend, for whom Gatsby has never ceased to pine. In fact, he spends many evenings staring longingly across the water at the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. A great deal happens throughout the course of this short novel, including two murders (although one might be deemed negligent homicide). In a recent essay in The Guardian, one of several that have appeared in this Year of Gatsby, novelist Jay McInerney called the plot "a lurid and underdeveloped narrative."

The plot, though, is not what gives "The Great Gatsby" its charm, its fizz and its classic status. That distinction belongs to Fitzgerald's style, a breezy, assured, efficient one that wears its depth and profundity lightly, like a crisp seersucker suit on a hot summer day. An early -- and still the best -- biographer of Fitzgerald, Andrew Turnbull, whose "Scott Fitzgerald" was first published in 1962, described the author's style as "a shorthand of the heart." Without stretching or straining, without resorting to fancy words or complicated syntax, Fitzgerald was able to convey passionate joy, fraught longings, vast sorrows. And his physical descriptions were as sharp as diamond stickpins: "Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him that appearance of always leaning aggressively forward," he wrote of Tom. Here is how he described Gatsby's parties: "In his blue gardens men and women came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars."

So what is "The Great Gatsby" really about?

It's about the American dream -- which is celebrated, not undermined, in the novel. There. Simple as that. Any other reading is a coarse distortion of Fitzgerald's work.

Those who see the author as a closet social critic -- and who interpret "The Great Gatsby" as a denigration of wealth and the baubles it buys -- are missing not only the point of the book, but the source of its beauty. The novel is about the magic of making plans and working hard. It's not a democratic magic -- no one is guaranteed success -- but no one succeeds who doesn't first believe in the power of that dream.

The "Gatsby" version of the American story is not just about accumulating money; it is about the sweat and innovation, the persistence and the will, required to do so. If it were only about being rich, then Fitzgerald could have explained Gatsby's wealth by having him inherit it. Or by showing him winning a lottery.

But Gatsby didn't win a lottery. He didn't wait for luck to find him. He struggled. He plotted. He sacrificed. When he had to, he bent and twisted the rules. Gatsby is indeed a tragic character, but not because of his dreams. The tragedy that befalls him -- we're treading delicately here, to avoid the dreaded spoiler -- is based on a misunderstanding, and could've befallen anyone. His fate is almost beside the point. What matters, Fitzgerald signaled over and over again, is that Gatsby tried. He "believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther ... "

The line shortly before that one -- "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" -- is one that Bill Gates had stenciled in his estate.

"The Great Gatsby" is about second chances and fresh starts. Fitzgerald was clear about this from the very beginning: "I had that familiar conviction," Nick muses at the outset, "that life was beginning over again with summer." Life is always beginning over again. Gatsby was "a penniless young man without a past" and he ended up rich. It is about a man whose "creative passion," as Fitzgerald put it, encompasses money, possessions and love, a man who "waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity."

So why has the novel been so grievously misinterpreted, especially these days, when it is routinely commandeered as a symbol of capitalism's shortcomings?

Such is the fate of great novels. They become the tools of whomever picks them up, temporarily fitting the shape -- and the agenda -- of the hand that wields them. Classic novels don't have much say in what's said about them.

Yet literature often is far more transparent and straightforward than it is given credit for. You don't have to hunt for hidden meanings and secret symbols in "The Great Gatsby." The symbols are right out there in the open. The meanings hide in plain sight. You don't have to scratch your head over what Fitzgerald was getting at in his brief, lovely book. You just have to read it:

"And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes -- a fresh, green breast of the new world ... 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."

We are all Gatsby. The man who created him certainly was: Fitzgerald rose from humble origins to become rich and celebrated on the strength of his labor and his imagination, on the beauty of his dreams and the sacrifices he was willing to make on behalf of them. Things soured for Fitzgerald in the end, just as they did for his most famous character, but he had his moment.

So maybe we should call it the Gatsby rule: Not everyone in America succeeds, but everyone has the chance to. The green light -- the one Gatsby watched, night after night -- is visible to anyone, from any angle, and while we all won't reach it, we can all dream ardently of doing so. The true beauty is in the wish, not the attainment.

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