Tossing Lines: ‘The Great Gatsby’ and today’s one-percenters

The Vanderbilt mansion known as “The Breakers” in Newport, R.I., symbol of extravagant American wealth in the 1920s. Scenes from “Great Gatsby” movies were filmed in Newport mansions.
The Vanderbilt mansion known as “The Breakers” in Newport, R.I., symbol of extravagant American wealth in the 1920s. Scenes from “Great Gatsby” movies were filmed in Newport mansions.

A guest editorial in the Day (“Our New Gilded Age,” Sept. 4, 2018) claimed that in 2017, top corporate executives’ pay increased 18 percent, to an average salary of $19 million per year, while the average worker bee’s pay increased 0.3 percent.

Such glaring examples of class discrepancy in America often remind me of “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a story of the moral wasteland of America’s upper class.

Every American should read this book, more than once.

Released in 1925, Gatsby recognized America’s hoity-toity “one percent” even then, with their revulsion of the hoi polloi (the other 99 percent), their inclination for human destruction, and the moral failure of their entitlement.

Gatsby is about us, who we are and who we want to be. It’s about class in America, reaching for the American Dream, our yearning for things we cannot reach, and our propensity to fatefully cling to the past.

It’s about American wealth, moral corruption, love, longing and pretending to be someone you’re not, all wrapped in beautiful, iridescent prose.

Gatsby is so well written, it’s tempting to simply wallow in the florid language, thinking it’s just a great love story, while completely missing the point, as did most book critics in the 1920s.

Many now consider it the Great American Novel, and some say it’s as perfect a novel as has ever been written, one reason it’s become a standard in high school and college curricula across America. But it’s not just for students.

In 1998, the Modern Library listed the top 100 novels of the twentieth century, and Gatsby came in second, after James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

Maureen Corrigan is a journalist, book critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air” and author, including 2014’s “So We Read On” (How The Great Gatsby came to be and why it endures).

She also lectures nationwide on Gatsby for the Big Read program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, and served as a juror for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2012, for which Gatsby “was our North Star.”

After teaching Gatsby at the college level for the past three decades, alluding to its intricacy, she says “Sometimes, something new will snag my attention in a passage I’ve read dozens of times before; sometimes, my students point out details I’ve missed that are hiding in plain sight.”

Corrigan adds that “It’s inexhaustible — the hallmark of a great book.”

“The Great Gatsby” is also included in PBS’s The Great American Read, a program searching for the country’s best-loved novel.

Gatsby never gained much acclaim during Fitzgerald’s lifetime, but since his death in 1940 at only 44 years old, an estimated 25 million copies have been sold worldwide in 42 languages.

All this for a little book of nine chapters, whose various editions run between just 152 and 189 pages.

I’ve stood at Fitzgerald’s grave in Rockville Maryland, and read the famous last line of Gatsby engraved on his tomb, his commentary on Americans’ dogged persistence (or whatever you read into it): “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Americans never give up trying, or reaching for something, while inescapably anchored to their past.

Fitzgerald was known for his uncanny foresight, and his little 93-year-old novel still warns us of the values and principles of American multi-millionaires.

Fitzgerald also famously said “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different than you and me.”

The “99 percent” in America should read “The Great Gatsby.” Again and again.

John Steward lives in Waterford and can be reached at tossinglines@gmail.com, or visit www.johnsteward.online.

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