It was not, one assumes, the kind of review F. Scott Fitzgerald had hoped for.
Writing in the Baltimore Evening Sun in May 1925, H. L. Mencken dismissed The Great Gatsby as “a glorified anecdote” plagued by trivial plot devices and poorly drawn characters who, apart from the eponymous protagonist, were “mere marionettes.” And yet, while Mencken assured readers that Gatsby was “not to be put on the same shelf” with Fitzgerald’s debut novel This Side of Paradise (1920), he lauded the 28-year-old’s maturation as a prose stylist: “What gives the story distinction is something quite different from the management of the action or the handling of the characters; it is the charm and beauty of the writing.”
Thus, in a single sentence, Mencken explains why it has proven impossible to replicate The Great Gatsby in film. The latest attempt, directed last year by Baz Luhrmann and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, inspired Gatsby-themed clothing and jewelry lines, as well as all manner of Jazz Age parties. But amid the celebration of Roaring Twenties chic, the quality of the movie seemed almost beside the point. For the record, I enjoyed it—despite its wholly predictable (and mostly unavoidable) shortcomings. But its limitations help us understand both the timeless appeal of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece and the enduring confusion over its meaning.
Nine decades after Gatsby’s publication, we are still awed by Fitzgerald’s gorgeous turns of phrase, his lyrical descriptions of the mundane, his knack for delivering profound observations in astonishingly concise language. As Mencken wrote: “There are pages so artfully contrived that one can no more imagine improvising them than one can imagine improvising a fugue.”
So if we’re ranking novels purely on the elegance of their prose, Gatsby is second to none. That’s one reason why it presents such an insuperable challenge to Hollywood. Consider this passage: “Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry.” How could any filmmaker convey the meaning of those 14 words? With his trademark brevity, Fitzgerald makes a provocative statement about mobility and migration, and would surely have agreed with V. S. Pritchett’s assertion, in 1941, that “movement, a sense of continual migration, is the history of America.” Indeed, Pritchett might as well have been summarizing Gatsby’s dominant theme. (As it happens, he was writing about Huckleberry Finn.)
The Great Gatsby is preoccupied with migration: the movement of its principal characters from West to East; the re-migration of the narrator, Nick Carraway, back to the West; the migration of Gatsby’s mentor Dan Cody, a millionaire Western prospector who “brought back to the eastern seaboard the savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon”; even the 17th-century migration of Dutch sailors to the New World. There is also the extended metaphor of the nouveau riche West Egg (where Gatsby lives) and the aristocratic East Egg (where Tom and Daisy Buchanan reside). To further underscore the centrality of migration, Nick recalls traveling home for Christmas from boarding school and college. As his westbound train rode through Wisconsin,
A sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again.
Nick’s memory of “thrilling, returning trains” is among the most beautifully crafted passages in a book full of such passages. But of course, you wouldn’t have known it from the Baz Luhrmann film, which omitted so many of Gatsby’s narrative gems. To be sure, only so much narration can be packed into a 143-minute movie. Yet without Fitzgerald’s commentary, delivered in Nick’s voice, it’s easy to forget or misinterpret what the novel is really about. If The Great Gatsby were simply a tragic histoire d’amour, glittered with opulent party scenes, it would hardly have achieved its present canonical status. No, Gatsby belongs in the pantheon for two reasons: the magic of its prose and its peerless exploration of American identity.
Which prompts another question: What, exactly, was Scott Fitzgerald saying about the American Dream? He was clearly influenced by Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, first presented in a symposium at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and later published in a 1920 collection of essays. Turner believed that