For good reason, The Great Gatsby is one of the most admired and talked-about books of the twentieth century. And that reason is, of course, that it’s really short—47,094 words, to be exact. I read it for the first time in a few hours at a swim meet (the aptness of the setting wasn’t clear to me until Chapter 8) and probably would have finished sooner had it not been for the snatches of Eminem coming from somebody’s boombox. You can count the book’s speaking roles on your fingers, and any high school sophomore can skim it the night before the big exam. Assign that to millions of teenagers for sixty-odd years, and a Great American Novel is born.
I don’t mean to belittle what Fitzgerald achieved in his most famous work: the grandeur of his themes, or the calm thrust of his narrator’s voice, or the fine shading of his descriptions (the bit about the juice machine button pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb has mocked my feeble attempts at lyricism for years). But not all beautifully written books sell half a million copies a year, and it’s no coincidence that Gatsby—rather than The Adventures of Augie March, Invisible Man or Gravity’s Rainbow, to name three American novels of equal splendor but considerably more bulk—is the rare classic that everyone remembers the gist of. There is much less of it to forget.
So much less, in fact, that readers may find themselves remembering things Fitzgerald never wrote. They may remember Gatsby as a bootlegger, hence the thousands of speakeasies and craft cocktails bearing his name. But the novel never divulges the source of his wealth, and it’s just as easy to imagine him racketeering or running Ponzi schemes, funding West Egg parties with phantom credits. Similarly, his appearance: aside from the smile of eternal reassurance, there is little physical description of Gatsby in Gatsby. “I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in,” Fitzgerald admitted in a letter to his editor. Then he wondered if he should restructure the book around Tom Buchanan—“I suppose he’s the best character I’ve ever done.”
Not even Fitzgerald, it would seem, knew what he was dealing with—the taut incompleteness that has allowed generations of Americans and non-Americans of every stripe to imagine themselves into a story set on Long Island in the 1920s. When a professor named Carlyle V. Thompson published a paper arguing that Gatsby must have been a Black man, his fervor was understandable, even if he’d missed the point. Gatsby is Black—and Jewish, and an immigrant, and JFK, and Obama, and Zuckerberg, and Trump, and Jay-Z, and Anna Delvey. American fiction is full of thinly veiled Gatsbys: Don Draper in Mad Men, Alien in Spring Breakers, Coleman Silk in The Human Stain, Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s novels and their various adaptations. These imitators, conscious and unconscious, real and fictional, give the original character a richness and a solidity that can’t be found in Fitzgerald’s text alone.