When I was still teaching, my students often asked me what time period was my “favorite.” My response was always the same: “The 1920s”. What is the appeal of that decade? It was an era of rapid social and technological change, for one thing. It also saw the emergence of a more independent woman, although women did not have most of the opportunities we take for granted today. It was also a period in new ways of thinking emerged about psychology, feminism, sex, marriage and sociology for example.
Fascinating as the Twenties are to me, it’s no surprise that one of my favorite books is The Great Gatsby. A few months ago, I read Maureen Corrigan’s excellent So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures. I have just finished another examination of that masterpiece, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell.
Part literary analysis, part social history, Churchwell meticulously examines the world in which Fitzgerald composed his work, paying particular attention to the media, at this time largely newspapers. She doesn’t overtly identify what influenced Fitzgerald as he wrote his book, but it is difficult to ignore the connections between what was going on in the New York metropolitan area and characters and events in his book. For example, at the time Fitzgerald and his wife moved to the NYC area so he could begin his book, the newspapers were preoccupied with a double murder in New Jersey, involving a working-class woman who had begun an affair with a prominent minister. The newspapers, particularly the Hearst papers, made a big deal about the crossing of social barriers sexually. At times, their prose implied that the female victim was largely responsible for her own death through her involvement with a man of a different social class. Was this the genesis of Myrtle, the paramour of Tom Buchanan (she also met a bad end)? Gatsby’s presence certainly seems the natural descendent of Fitzgerald’s neighbors in Great Neck, Long Island (in the book, it was called West Egg), who provided plenty of material for his book, from the parties Jay Gatsby threw to the furniture in some of the mansions.
I probably will re-read The Great Gatsby yet again – but with every new reading I notice something new. That, to me, is the beauty of a great book – no matter how many times you read it, you still find something new or fresh in it!