Our theme for the month of June is “Celebrities and Me.” Writers were asked to select and write about a celebrity with whom they feel some connection.
If, like me, you’ve had to read The Great Gatsby multiple times—for AP Literature, AP Composition, undergraduate English courses, graduate courses—I offer you my deepest sympathies. The first time you are told how iconic the novel is, and you wonder how such a small novel can take up so much room in the canon. But you become quickly disillusioned when it becomes the second, third, fourth time… and understandably so. But there is much more to Fitzgerald than The Great Gatsby and high school English classes, and there’s an undeniable toothiness to his work that still grabs hold of us today.
Most people have some sense of the tumultuous life Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald had, particularly his relationship with Zelda (fun fact: Zelda spent time in my hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, for her “ailments,” ultimately dying in a hospital fire there). This has, of course, sparked many a debate and scholarly work about autobiographical elements in his works and life reflecting art/art reflecting life. Your high school English class probably touched briefly on the ways that The Great Gatsby gives air to Fitzgerald’s grievances with those born with money vs. those not born into money (and blah blah blah, we all know the analytic drill here). But there are so many other (and, dare I say, better) avenues in which to explore Fitzgerald and the America of his time.
Fitzgerald’s first publication was This Side of Paradise, a jolty, chaotic, brilliant ride through his first couple decades of life. The formation of This Side of Paradise has been worth quite a few speculations and debates in its own right, being thrown together by Fitzgerald in a ploy to make a quick buck and impress the moneyed Zelda yet somehow actually being received well and becoming a popular book at the time. But the content still feels like the shape you can’t quite make out in the corner of your eye, the object whose precise location you can’t quite remember as you try to avoid stumbling in the dark.
“No, I’m romantic—a sentimental person thinks things will last—a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t. Sentiment is emotional.”
Some dislike Fitzgerald because his texts seem so slight and scarce, but that spareness means there is more than ample room for analyzing and philosophizing—more room where I can see myself in-between the lines. Many of my academic papers and presentations have been devoted to Fitzgerald, trying to pick apart and piece together the deeper meanings. This Side of Paradise has so many delightful and beautiful glittering snatches that are paradoxically substantial in their weight and careless in their delivery. (Fitting, as a critic did dismiss This Side of Paradise as “a gesture of indefinite revolt.”)
“I’m a cynical idealist.” He paused and wondered if that meant anything.
I’ve not yet grown weary of trying to spin the plethora of Fitzgerald’s little strands together. We often consign Fitzgerald as a tragic yet brilliant literary figure of America’s past, confining his life and works to the Jazz Age and a particular time and place. But, like all good literature, the words of Fitzgerald are no less sharp nor shrewd today as they were in his lifetime. A century later and we’re still struggling with identity, the “green light,” billboards with eyes, and everything else it means to live in a modern America.
“Oh, let’s go in,” she interrupted, “if you want to analyse. Let’s not talk about it.”