The Drama and Lasting Influence of 'The Great Gatsby'

Friday, May 10, 2013

"The Great Gatsby" may be the most revered American novel in history. Critics have celebrated the novel since F. Scott Fitzgerald published the book in 1925.

In the Los Angeles Times, critic Lillian C. Ford wrote, "F. Scott Fitzgerald, who won premature fame in 1920 as the author of 'This Side of Paradise'...has in 'The Great Gatsby' written a remarkable study of today. It is a novel not to be neglected by those who follow the trend of fiction." New York Times reviewer Edwin Clark described the book as one of "sensitive insight and keen psychological observation." He continued, "A curious book, a mystical, glamourous [sic] story of today. It takes a deeper cut at life than hitherto has been enjoyed by Mr. Fitzgerald. He writes well-he always has-for he writes naturally, and his sense of form is becoming perfected."

While the novel lack immediate financial success, today nearly every high school student in America reads the book. Critics continue to heap praise, as Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley wrote in 2007, "'Gatsby' was, and remains, the monumental achievement of Fitzgerald's career. Reading it now for the seventh or eighth time, I am more convinced than ever not merely that it is Fitzgerald's masterwork but that it is the American masterwork, the finest work of fiction by any of this country's writers."

In anticipation of Baz Luhrmann's film version of "The Great Gatsby," three award-winning novelists, Jeffrey EugenidesNell Freudenberger and Chang-Rae Lee, sat down to discuss the book with The Takeaway's John Hockenberry. Freudenberger, author of "Lucky Girls" and "The Newlyweds," says that when she first read the novel in high school, the characters left her cold. "There's an idea that it's a young person's book and everybody reads it in high school," she explains. "But, in high school, I was sort of repelled by the shallowness of the characters. I wanted seriousness. I wanted Anna Karenina and Dorothea Brooke...not Daisy and Jordan."

Rereading the novel today, Freudenberger says her opinions have changed, and that she particularly appreciates the depiction of memory in the book. "The way that memory works in the book is very realistic," she says.

"There're the shiny surfaces of the world that Nick's operating in and then there's this paragraph where he says, you know, most of my life wasn't like this. I was getting on the train, I was going into work, I was studying during my lunch hour. But the way that memory constructs the past for us...after all the years are finished, the narrative kind of rises to the surface, and this becomes a summer about Daisy and Tom and Gatsby."

While Freudenberger's view of the book may have changed, Eugenides, author of "Middlesex" and "The Marriage Plot," finds some aspects of the novel superficial. "I hadn't read the book since high school and I reread it this weekend," he says. "I found it shallow in many ways, some of it perhaps unintentional. It seemed to me that, as a nation, we might moderate our admiration for the book."

Lee, author of "Native Speaker" and "The Surrendered," describes his interest in the character Nick Carraway, particularly Carraway's reactions to some of the shallowness and wealth in West Egg. "Purposeless splendor" is the phrase Lee says stuck in his mind after his most recent rereading of "The Great Gatsby," and he says, "that seemed to be absolutely true of that time and absolutely true of our time."

"Gatsby is sort of catnip for Hollywood," Lee says of the new film. "The hero...all the glittery surfaces...Hollywood gets so enamored of all these things that they forget what the book really is. It's sort of a difficult book, if you really think about Nick Carraway and his nuanced view -- clear-eyed, but nuanced view -- of all the things that are going on."

Guests:

Jeffrey Eugenides, Nell Freudenberger and Chang-Rae Lee

Produced by:

Jillian Weinberger

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