Growing Up Gatsby: Fitzgerald's Unshakable Midwesternness
Every time I read The Great Gatsby, I find myself identifying with a different character. I have yet to find another book that can serve as a mirror to such an extent. Whenever I stare into its pages, I find myself staring, speaking back, not unlike the legend of Narcissus.
Perhaps this is because I am a midwesterner, and through 15 or 20 rereadings I have noticed something about Gatsby. In the conversation surrounding this book, and in our defining the canon of American fiction, we have ignored a very important factor: The Midwest. It's always the well-behaved child who's overlooked.
Indeed, my sense of seeing myself in the novel is founded on my affinity for its author: Scott Fitzgerald, another product of the upper-middle-class of the Middle West. Certain of his talent, uncertain of his background, enveloping himself with the "consoling proximity of millionaires," moving East to New York and then on to Europe and then back again, perpetually grabbing at the next rung of belonging and becoming on the ladder of the American Dream--which, it's safe to say in the context of Gatsby, we can call "wealth." It is easy to see why I, like many young American writers, latched on to his coattails as if he could pull me up the ladder too. Come to think of it, it is likely no coincidence that my first novel begins with a party thrown by wealthy young people, beautiful little fools.
Through those rereadings I have come to feel an ambiguity about whether we are supposed to admire Gatsby, a midwesterner who has done the magical trick of transforming into a wealthy eastern tycoon. After consuming all of Fitzgerald's work, all of his wife's work, and plenty of scholarship on both of them and their contemporaries, I feel certain in saying Scott himself wasn't certain how he felt about his hero -- or his own roots.
I can see him at his typewriter, editorializing through the lens of Nick Carraway and Midwestern sensibilities while simultaneously living out his own fantasy of life as the dashing, mysterious, money-bleeding Jay Gatsby. I wonder if it ever occurred to him that he could have winded up like either man, and I love to guess which scenes were harder to write for the young author who had only just secured the golden girl of his dreams.
On the east, Fitzgerald notes: "It had always for me a quality of distortion. West Egg, especially, still figures in my more fantastic dreams. I see it as a night scene by El Greco: a hundred houses, at once conventional and grotesque, crouching under a sullen, overhanging sky and a lustreless moon. In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the side, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house--the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares." The wrong house. No one cares. A midwesterner who has overreached gets shot in a fancy pool.
My own copy of Gatsby has been highlighted in three colors, annotated in three pens: high school, college, graduate school. I have crossed out points in the marginalia to disagree with myself, to defend a character. I am running out of room for admiration, for Marxist critiques, for ecofeminist eviscerations. I am still arguing with myself about this book.
A daisy a friend gave me is pressed between two of the final pages:
The book is my quintessential summer read, breaking my heart every time, no matter whose shoes I'm standing in. It sat on my lap as a girl of 18, full of ambition back in the Middle West, and it sits here still, even on my lap in the Hamptons in August, looking out over the big shore places that will soon close, knowing that no matter how many books I write, how many dollars I make, or how many Plaza Hotel champagnes I consume, I will always be the product of my own corner of America.
And I feel surer still that my theory of Scott's uncertainty is true. Both of us borne back ceaselessly into the past of our birth which is hundreds of miles to the west across the rolling fields of the republic.