The Great Gatsby: a book group discussion

January 6, 2008 at 8:18 pm (Book clubs, books)

gatsby-stamp.jpg Friday night I led our book group in a discussion of The Great Gatsby. I started in the time honored fashion, with a brief background on the author. F. Scott Fitzgerald was born St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1896. The Fitzgeralds already had two daughters; in the time that Mollie McQuillan Fitzgerald was pregnant with Scott, they lost both girls. When Scott was still very young, his mother had yet another daughter, who died within an hour of her birth. It wasn’t until Scott’s sister Annabel was born that he ceased to be an only child. (Annabel survived to adulthood, but she and Scott were never close.)

What an appalling recitation! A hundred years later, we can scarcely imagine such loss. It’s not surprising that Scott Fitzgerald’s mother was protective in the extreme, and equally unsurprising that he came to resist and resent her hovering attentions.

Scott Fitzgerald attended a private Catholic school and then went on to Princeton. In neither place did he distinguish himself as a student. When the U.S. entered the First World War in 1917, he left college in order to enlist. He never did receive his Princeton degree.

Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre in the same way that Gatsby met Daisy: he was stationed at an army base near Montgomery, Alabama, where the beautiful, madcap Zelda was holding court as queen of the local debs. Unlike Daisy, Zelda waited for her man until the war’s end. Scott completed his first novel, This Side of Paradise, in 1920. tsop.jpeg It was a smash hit, and he and Zelda married the same year. Later that year, their only child “Scottie” was born. They were living at the time in New York City.

scottzelda1.jpg How golden everything must have seemed to them then; the future full of fame, money, and fun. And so it was for a short time (although The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, did not garner anywhere near the acclaim, or sell nearly as well, as had This Side of Paradise). The rest of their story is well known: Zelda’s descent into mental illness, Scott’s struggle with alcoholism, the wild living beyond their means. We were struck in particular by the Fitzgeralds’ rootless, peripatetic existence: New York, Paris, Hollywood, briefly back to St. Paul, Baltimore, all throughout which Scott continued to chronicle his impressions of the Jazz Age (his coinage). Some of the moving around was made necessary by Zelda’s placement in various clinics. She was ultimately diagnosed as schizophrenic. The adolescent high spirits that had made her a local celebrity in Montgomery presaged something much darker that lay in wait for her and Scott.

Zelda finished life in a sanatorium in North Carolina; as for Scott, he was a played-out alcoholic in Hollywood, what was left of his life sustained by the presence of his last great love, Sheila Graham. He died in 1940 at the age of 44. Scott maintained a correspondence with both Zelda and Scottie up until the time of his death. fitzgerald2.jpg

In 1958, Sheila Graham published Beloved Infidel, a memoir of her time with Scott Fitzgerald. I remember my mother and her friends discussing this book excitedly but in whispers. In the big-happy-family world of the 1950’s, adultery was the love – one of them, at any rate – that dared not speak its name.

(Although Hemingway and Fitzgerald were close friends while both were living in Paris , there was never love lost between “Papa” and Zelda. At one point, Hemingway wrote to John Dos Passos to say that Fitzgerald “…should have swapped Zelda when she was at her craziest but still saleable back 5 or 6 years ago before she was diagnosed as nutty…” This from a man who ran through wives like dirty tissues.)

There is something overwhelmingly sad about the fate of the Fitzgeralds. The tragic, frenetic drama of their lives can easily overshadow Scott’s literary achievements. Clearly, it was time to turn to the novel itself.

I asked what the experience of reading – or in most cases, re-reading – The Great Gatsby had been like. The very first comment addressed Fitzgerald’s prose. We agreed that as high school or college students, we had read the novel for its plot and its depiction of the so-called Roaring Twenties in America. We had not been particularly sensitive to the beauty of the writing. I cited one of my favorite passages, near the beginning of the book:

“For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened–then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.”

Again and again we encounter this extraordinary grace of expression, which seemed to flow unforced from Fitzgerald’s pen.

From there, the discussion went forward with spontaneous enthusiasm, needing very little prompting from me. (And trust me, this is how you want a book discussion to proceed. Let’s hear it for books that make it this easy! I haven’t “led” a discussion this effortlessly since I did Penelope Lively’s The Photograph photograph.jpg for the Central Library book club.) We discussed several of the points mentioned in my recent blog entry on Gatsby: the casually voiced (but nonetheless hurtful) racist and anti-Semitic sentiments, the way in which children were marginalized in the lives of the rich and socially prominent, and the concomitant absence of the affect of parenthood on the psyches of the parents. We agreed that this presented a stark contrast with the child centered attitude that characterizes our own times.

What, someone asked, did Tom Buchanan see in a coarse piece of work like Myrtle Wilson? We agreed that she was his walk on the wild side, an angry, bored housewife seemingly condemned to life in the ash heaps, under the all-knowing eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.

Were any of the characters in the novel based on actual people? Two seem fairly certain: Arnold Rothstein as the basis for Meyer Wolfsheim, and championship golfer Edith Cummins as the basis for Jordan Baker. (Aside from being implicated in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, Rothstein rothstn.gif is reputed to have been the model for Nathan Detroit in Damon Runyan’s story “The Idyll of Sarah Brown.” This story then became, via the alchemy of Broadway, the memorable musical Guys and Dolls.)

Several in the group had knowledge, or had even visited, sites associated with the Fitzgeralds. One who has family in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area was familiar with the Fitzgerald house on Summit Avenue in St. Paul where Scott Fitzgerald grew up. fitzgerald_house_2.jpg Another person, a native of Baltimore, knew the house rented by Scott Fitzgerald while Zelda was a patient at Sheppard Pratt; she had also seen Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where Zelda perished in a fire in 1948.

Jay Gatsby’s father Henry Gatz, who travels to Long Island from his home in the midwest for his son’s funeral, seemed to us an almost unbearably poignant figure. He has a compulsive need to harangue Nick on the subject of Jay’s achievements: “‘He knew he had a big future in front of him. And ever since he made a success he was very generous with me.'” One can almost hear Linda Loman thirty years on wailing about Willy: “‘Attention must be paid! Attention must be paid to such a man!'” But precious little attention was paid to Jay Gatsby after he was murdered. His funeral was notable for the people who stayed away, in particular Tom and Daisy Buchanan, whom Nick Carroway famously denounces: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness and let other people clean up the mess they had made….”

winter-dreams.jpg The night before the discussion, I watched the documentary F. Scott Fitzgerald: Winter Dreams. This film is part of the American Masters series which appears from time to time on public television. It was great to see and hear Ward Just and E.L. Doctorow talk about Fitzgerald, but what really amazed me were the reminiscences of people who, as children, had known Scott and/or Zelda, either in Baltimore or in Montgomery, Alabama (where the former Sayre residence szfhouse1.jpg is now the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum).

Also, I recommend a site established at the centenary of Scott Fitzgerald’s birth and maintained by the University of South Carolina.

This is E.L Doctorow, from his essay “Fitzgerald’s Crack-up” :

“Of that triumvirate of hero-novelists who came of age in the 1920s, we may salute the big two-hearted pugilist and stand in awe of the mesmerist from Mississippi, but it’s the third one we mourn, the Jazz Age kid, our own Fitzgerald. He was the most natural and unforced of the three authorial voices; his plots required minimal invention; his settings were for the most part the surroundings of his readers. All of that was working the high wire without a net. He lived rashly, susceptible to the worst influences of his time, and lacking any defense against stronger personalities than his own; and when he died, at forty-four, he was generally recognized to have abused his genius as badly as he had his constitution. Yet at his best, in The Great Gatsby, much of Tender Is the Night, and the incomplete Last Tycoon, he wrote nearer to the societal heart than either of his august contemporaries.” [This piece is included in Creationists: Selected Essays by E.L. Doctorow.]

We ended our discussion with a reading of the concluding paragraphs of the novel. Here’s Jonathan Yardley, in an appreciation of The Great Gatsby that appeared a year ago in the Washington Post: “That famous passage — every passage in “Gatsby” is famous — is on the novel’s final page, near the end of six pages of prose so incandescent as, in my case quite literally, to send shivers down the spine.” That’s the effect it has on me, no matter how many times I read it. f-scott-and-zelda-fitzgerald-1926.gif [Scott and Zelda in 1926]

P.S. Thanks, “Book Babes,” for being such terrific “discussers” – and even more, for being such great friends!

10 Comments

  1. booksplease said,

    I really like this post, for its account of Fitzgerald’s life (unknown to me), details of the book (which I’ve read and enjoyed) and for an insight into your book group (I felt Iike a fly on the wall) and also for the reference to Penelope Lively’s The Photograph, which I have recently read. I’ll be writing my thoughts on that book soon.

  2. “So we beat on…” « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] himself desires above all else he can never have. The teachers sound a gentle admonition that The Great Gatsby is, in essence, a cautionary tale, but one wonders if that aspect of the story is making much of an […]

  3. F. Scott Fitzgerald Revisited « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Since leading a discussion on Gatsby last January, I have come to share Yardley’s sense of loss and sadness regarding F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby is a work of genius, a quintessentially American story, and so, in many ways, was the life of its author. […]

  4. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] I did encounter one element in this novella that surprised and dismayed me. Several African-Americans appear briefly in the story, and they are described in terms of the coarsest stereotype. We are usually advised to consider the era in question – the zeitgeist, if you will – when we come upon this kind of thing in our reading of the classics. You can cling to this mantra in your brain, though, and  still feel sucker-punched in the  gut. Take it from one who still winces when she encounters Shylock in The Merchant of Venice or Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby. […]

  5. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Professor’s House – Willa Cather Lady Audley’s Secret – Braddon The House in Paris – Elizabeth Bowen Washington Square – Henry James The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald […]

  6. Rachle said,

    I really like Gatsby

  7. “The sequence of any fiction is, by its nature, the path of time evaporating.” – The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long As It Takes, by Joan Silber « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Time in Fiction is the sort of book that makes you want to read whatever text the author is citing. Having revisited Gatsby fairly recently, I was especially intrigued by Silber’s comments on the […]

  8. Book Club Party Ideas and Recipes for The Great Gatsby | ButteryBooks.com said,

    […] Books to the Ceiling has a book group discussion about Great Gatsby, as well as more information about F. Scott Fitzgerald and how The Great Gatsby ties into his own life.  You can also read the customer reviews at Amazon. […]

  9. Newsweek’s book issue (August 2, 2010) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] not primarily. In Man-made Disasters: None. In Adultery: Three: The Awakening by Kate Chopin, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. In Food Wars: One: Michael Pollan’s wonderful […]

  10. stacy said,

    Fitzgerald was a supreme talent and a hopeless alchohlic. He knew in his final years that he had wasted much of his time when he should have been writing. he blamed much of this wasted time on complications with his wifes’ mental illness when in actuality it was his own illness of alcoholism that ursrped much of his time. Times were different back then and society as a whole did not understand the addicitive nature of alcohol or view drinking as the illness it can be. Too bad, if he had gotten some sort of help, his gift wold not have been overshadowed by his illness. Without the distractions his work would have been legendary in his own time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: