People argue about the Great American Novel. Some folks say it was Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn since it captures the assets and liabilities in our national character. Others suggest it is an epic of exploration like Lonesome Dove or (since we are a restless people, obsessed with reinvention) The Great Gatsby. To me, the question is open because these and others are all brilliant, beloved works but I’m sure about one thing: Gatsby is a Great American Summer Novel.
As a nation, we honor the summer months. It’s the only season charted by three national holidays: Memorial Day opens the season, July 4th is near its mid-point and Labor Day waves summer good-bye. Three times in (roughly) 90 days people traditionally take off work, recreate in the great outdoors, and, with luck, remember the sacrifices of others that gave us these freedoms. Because we started as a rural nation, children missed school during the summer months, when they’re needed the most on farms and that three month break is still a big part of our culture. To us, summer is a season of work that’s balanced by freedom. It’s also the season of Gatsby.
Take a look at your old copy of the novel. (Everyone has a copy stashed somewhere, left over from a high school or college course.) The story really kicks off when a stranger asks Nick Carraway for directions to West Egg Village. Nick advises him and then walks on, pleased to be recognized as a resident. How could this take place in winter? People don’t stop on a walk to exchange pleasantries with a stranger or meander when there’s snow and ice all around. The weather prohibits it. No, this is a time of warm weather and Gatsby’s fabulous weekend parties are the proof. These are held outdoors where girls shimmer in dresses and dance themselves out onto wooden platforms at night once they’ve swallowed the prerequisite cocktails. It has to be a warm, summer night where the air is soft and the grass as green as the light on Daisy Buchanen’s dock.
Daisy is, of course, a summer girl given to wearing white and watching for the longest day every year. She floats in and out of scenes, charting her future with a pretty face and a voice full of possibilities, but odd or intuitive enough to weep over an abundance of beautiful, hand-stitched, silk shirts. Does she weep for the beauty of the clothes or what that abundance means to the man who wears them, once a boy whose only asset was his love for her?
Gatsby’s life is itself a metaphor for the summer season. Good-looking and resourceful, he makes financial hay while the sun shines and has already harvested enough of it to fund a season of parties at the ultimate summer accessory: a mansion on the beach. More than anything, success has taught Gatsby to believe in the art of the possible. A decade of hard work and questionable deals have turned the poverty-stricken, mid-western boy, Jimmy Gatz, into Jay Gatsby, a veritable sultan of the East Coast. If he can create this kind of life for himself, what keeps him from adding Daisy Fay to it, the girl he always loved?
The thing is, the sun that ripens a crop also creates a murderous heat. On the hottest day of the year, Gatsby’s dreams come to a crisis and he learns how quickly a summer girl can leave. He can love her, want her, woo her, but he can’t keep her, not for long. The girl he loved years ago has changed into a woman; one who knows where she’s headed in life, and that place is not with him. The rest of Gatsby’s story slips by with the shortening days and leaves of autumn float beside him when his first/last swim has ended, during the first day of fall.
Yes, the story of Gatsby is a great novel and it does have valid things to say about the American character. Like Fitzgerald’s hero, we’re a nation that believes in self-determination, about creating our own future. We’re resourceful, we have energy and for a long time, we’ve shared both the confidence and insecurity of youth but mainly, we aspire. Like Jay Gatsby, American is a nation that dreams of big accomplishments and then sets out to attain them. The cost or probability of failure doesn’t deter us. Every morning brings a new day and a new chance to see over the next horizon. In our hearts we’re still kids on the first day of summer, the swimming pool is open and the traffic light ahead just turned green. The race is on.