The Return of Gatsby

JayGatsby’s back. For better or worse (and I haven’t seen it yet), Baz Luhrmann, not one of my favorite directors, has brought Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic Great American Novel to the screen again. I only wish Fitzgerald could see some of the money that would flow his way were he still alive.

When he died in 1940, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was considered by most people, including himself, a failure. Despite some early successes that allowed him and wife Zelda to live the high life, he was financially ruined by the time he died, hacking out unproduced and unwanted screenplays (as well as some bits of Gone With The Wind that were never filmed). You have to understand, this was a time when a novelist writing for Hollywood was considered a shameful act, and not something a writer would drown his mother in a bathtub for, like now.

Fitzgerald was an alcoholic, had been since college. His funeral was attended by few friends, just like Jay Gatsby’s, and he could not be buried in the family plot in Maryland because “he was not a practicing Catholic.” The clergy also didn’t like his books. Zelda, by now locked away in an insane asylum, died a horrible death eight years later in a fire.

It seems cliched that America’s iconic writer was drunk, unappreciated, misunderstood. When he died, there was a warehouse filled with stacks of The Great Gatsby. Since then, it’s sold millions. The whole thing is not unlike the fate of jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, who lived in the same age, drank heavily, and died (even younger) unknown and unmourned (and broke). Late in life, when he returned to visit his midwestern parents, he found the records he had proudly shipped home still in their wrappers in a closet. The Beiderbeckes were ashamed of their awful son.

We live in a different world, for better or worse. Today there is an interest among the mainstream media—Time, Newsweek, The New York Times—in crowning new geniuses, if not manufacturing them outright. In part this could be to rectify wrongs of the past, but also it’s to have copy for stories. If Fitzgeralds can’t be found, they must be created—lots of them, because the news cycle (entertainment cycle, really) is now continuous, and faster than ever: ten new heroes must be crowned for every old one, or we will run out! And cultural heroes are one of the few things America still manufactures and exports in great abundance and to immense profit.

But that still doesn’t mean many genuine artists might not go to their grave without being recognized. Today the selling of a personality is more important than what that personality actually does. It’s as if we’ve looked at the models of the past and decided all future aspirants would be taken from these models—to the detriment of those who may not fit the preconception. We’re looking for a reclusive, perhaps alcoholic or drug-addicted (or better, former alcoholic or drug-addicted), person who does not fit with society in certain almost predictable ways. Artists, academics, scientists, politicians all come from Central Casting. There are perhaps many legitimate reasons Chris Christie might not make good presidential material, but we obsess with his midsection.

In the arts, certain backgrounds and predispositions are a plus, even perhaps a prerequisite. It’s easy in that mode to miss a genuine, low-to-the-ground creative person, because frankly many creative people are very dull. Their makeup and politics are also not predictable. Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work, Gus Flaubert said.

That wouldn’t go over so well today, where more and more the artist determines the perception of his art, especially since most new art is either very similar to old art or so different as to be incomprehensible—and almost always intentionally so. More people know about Warhol’s private life than understand why his soup cans are in museums, if indeed there is a good reason. The pimping of artists and hyping of artistic movements are manifestations of the very shallowness in the “American Dream” that Gatsby is all about.

Writers call that irony. Can’t wait to see the new movie.


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