The Great Gatsby and the 1920s

I’m re-reading The Great Gatsby for the first time since college and am astounded. I remember loving the lush, delicate writing at the time but little else. Now I can’t get over the deceptive, seeming simplicity of  this very short novel that has so much going on it: a snapshot of the Jazz Age, a critique of class, of entitlement, of capitalism, and the brutal clash of dreams and reality, all conveyed in exquisite prose.

Many of the people and a couple of the events in the novel have a factual basis. The gangster Meyer Wolfsheim, who Gatsby says fixed the 1919 World Series, is based on Arnold Rothstein, a mob kingpin who really did fix the 1919 World Series.  You can read about Rothstein and the 1920s underworld in the true crime book Rothstein: The Life, Times and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series by David Pietrusza. Another character in the novel, the woman golfer Jordan Baker, is based on Edith Cummings, a Chicago debutante and golfer who was the first female athlete  to appear on the cover of Time magazine. You can read about Edith and her athletic career inthis report on the website for the Chicago NPR station WBEZ.

Many cultural historians treasure Gatsby as a depiction of the lives of the well-off  during the 1920s, a decade that witnessed revolutionary changes in American society. To people accustomed to life before 1914, life in the 1920s was unrecognizable and shocking: the strange new music, women’s independence (and their skimpy dresses), the flaunted wealth, the ubiquity of cars, radios and telephones. One of the classic social histories of the period, by a writer who had grown up before 1914 and who could convey how shocking all the changes seemed, is Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s. Some people find the writing style quaint if not dated, but to me that’s part of its charm.

And  The Double Bind, a novel by the accomplished and deservedly popular Christ Bohjalian, owes a debt to Gatsby, but not in any way you could possibly guess.

Happy reading.

Posted by Kevin.

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