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4 life lessons from "The Great Gatsby"

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With the release of Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s, “The Great Gatsby,” an extravagant, 3D spectacle no less, the debate over literary license begins anew. Luhrmann has a history of appropriating literary lions — see his Romeo + Juliet as case in point — and making them palatable for modern audiences.

A traditionalist might argue that F. Scott Fitzgerald is turning over in his grave at Luhrmann’s creative interpretation. After pretty much drinking himself to death as he slogged away his waning years on sloppy screenplays, I seriously doubt Fitzgerald would be surprised at how cinema interprets the written word. They are, after all, different artistic mediums, film being one he could not master.

A post-post-modernist would argue that Luhrmann gets a new generation (or any living generation for that matter) interested in great works of literature. And, they’d have a point. Whether this 21st Century Gatsby ultimately sinks or swims, book sales will go through the roof. Already a staple of literature classes with an annual haul of nearly 500,000 in annual sales, Gatsby lives on well beyond the grave. The movie, however, will bring an “Oprah-sized” audience to the short novel and propel it to the top of many bestseller lists.

I’ll see the movie at some point. I won’t stand in line at midnight, but I’ll see it, eventually. And, with Luhrmann’s particular brand of eye candy, I figure I’ll be alternately appalled and enthralled by the dazzling pyrotechnics. 

Also, I’ll wonder why he made the curious choice to bring hip-hop to the Jazz Age. I realize the works of Jay-Z, and Fergie resonate in a way with today’s young audiences that Coon-Sanders’ Original Nighthawk Orchestra never would. But why not give Coon a chance? It’s almost impossible to listen to his delicious “I’m Gonna Charleston Back to Charleston” without at least tapping your toes to the bawdy rhythms. That song and other Jazz Age staples such as Eddie Walters’ “Makin’ Whoopee,” Johnny Marvin & Leonard Joy Orchestra’s “Happy Days are Here Again” and the Colonial Club Orchestra’s “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” so perfectly capture the euphoric despair of Fitzgerald and his Lost Generation. Why not hear them in their original form, or at least in updated versions by today’s artists?

It’s a quibble I have, but in the grand scheme, a small one. The story is what matters here. When I’m asked for my favorite novel, I cringe to give an answer, feeling it’s like picking one child over another. But Gatsby’s up there. It’s definitely the book I’ve read the most often. And, perhaps, the fiction I’ve learned the most from.

On the following pages, I provide four life lessons I’ve learned by reading and loving The Great Gatsby.


1. Listen to dear old dad.

The Great Gatsby begins with my favorite opening line from a literary work.

 “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since.”

Whether it is a father or mother or some other mentor who offers advice, we should close our mouth a little more often, open our ears a little wider and hear what they have to say. Maybe they’re not always right, but more often than not, they have a nugget of wisdom that vibrates through us from our head to our toes with the clarity of a tuning fork.

For me, that epiphany was in those anxious moments before marriage. Dad and I stood off to the side, waiting our turn. “Don’t lock your knees,” he said to me.

“Right,” I said. We’d often sat in matching recliners on Sunday nights watching funny videos, laughing at poor bridegrooms with locked legs tilting, tilting, tilting and finally tipping over like a fallen tree.

“And breathe,” he said.

“Yep,” I said. “Gotta breathe. Got it.” I took a breath. I gulped air, sucking at least half of the room’s oxygen supply into my lungs, until I thought I might pass out.

Finally, the music started. My fiancée would make her appearance any second. I swallowed air, and, with my knees bent, bounced on the balls of my feet. Through the videographer’s lens I looked like a hyperventilating ape.

“One more thing,” Dad said.


“Your wife is always right.”


“Always agree with her and you’ll never have any trouble.”



And with that word, I got married.

Image credit: This film publicity image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway and Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in a scene from “The Great Gatsby.” (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)


2. Don’t judge a book by its cover

A debate is raging over the new trade paperback cover of The Great Gatsby. Published in 1925 the book has maintained, for at least half a century, a cover illustration by Francis Cugat. The image is of a shadowy jazz flapper with bright red lips and a single tear on her cheek. Now a movie tie-in version with Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby looms large over the other characters.

What I would say here is: get over it! Who cares? The pages between the covers haven’t changed. After the movie runs its course no more copies of the DiCaprio cover will be in print. It’s a blip for a book that celebrates its 88th birthday this year.

It reminds me of an interesting email I received this January. A faithful reader, having looked at my new editorial photo wrote, “You look like a hobo.” As I do, when I’m tickled at something, I giggled. And then I grabbed a copy of the issue in question to see with my own eyes this so-called hobo.

Sure, my shirt’s a bit rumpled and I have a two-day growth of beard. A hobo, though, I’m not sure. I figure this, the hobo version of me as depicted on the editorial page, is the cleaned up version of what I look like on a daily basis. And whether my shirt is starched to the nines and my face is as smooth as a baby’s bottom or my clothes are rumpled and I have a scruffy face, the way I write and edit for Summit Business Media doesn’t change. In fact, I would argue that my work is better when I’m not concerned with mundane details such as sartorial choices for the given day.

Likewise, judging a client by their appearance, the car they drive or the house they live in could be a quick road to failure. You never know, the millionaire next door might be living in a modest home, driving a 1980 Impala. And because you concern yourself with outer appearances, you might not ever know he’s there.

This film publicity image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker, left, in a scene from “The Great Gatsby.” (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)

West Egg
Money does not make the man.

The book, at its core, tells the story of a gilded man living in a gilded age. And yet, though separated by 40 years, The Beatles’ song, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” serves as thudding reality for Gatsby. For this beautiful, golden man, no amount of wealth and power can change him. He is haunted.

Likewise, Fitzgerald lived a haunted life. A golden boy like Gatsby, he could never accept his place in the literary canon. He was haunted by failure — both real and imagined — and haunted by his wife Zelda’s madness. In the 90s, I spent many weekend afternoons in Montgomery, Ala. at Zelda’s historical home, pondering the idea of whether Scott’s drinking drove Zelda to madness or Zelda’s madness drove Scott to drink. I figure it was a little of both and I forgave them, maybe Zelda a little more, and named my first cat after her.

Scott never could escape the demons. Even with Gatsby, his unequivocal masterpiece, he never would be completely satisfied with it: Partly, because it did not really take off until after his death; but, partly because he couldn’t or wouldn’t find peace within himself.

Even the title of the book disturbed him. An early working title was Among the Ash Heaps and the Millionaires. He considered other titles, including Trimalchio, On the Road to West Egg, Gold-hatted Gatsby and The High-bouncing Lover. After the book had gone to the publisher and three weeks before publication, Fitzgerald cabled his editor, Maxwell Perkins, saying he was crazy about the title, Under the Red White and Blue. Thankfully, it was too late to change it at the printing press. And we have what is now known as The Great Gatsby.

This film publicity image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows a scene from “The Great Gatsby.” (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)

f4. The past is never dead

Another literary giant of the Lost Generation, William Faulkner, penned the line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

That idea is also at the heart of The Great Gatsby. Earlier I talked about my favorite opening line from a novel. And now my favorite last line, also from Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Gatsby could never escape his past. It stained him. Money and power he could obtain, he could hold in his hands, he could lavish on party goers, but untarnished love, the purity of it, eluded him. Though he never gave up wanting it or striving for it, as the second last paragraph in the book conveys: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning—”

Hope. For Gatsby it’s not the money or the fame that keeps him going but the hope that it’s still obtainable.

This week, I’ve spent time with widows for a story I’m working on. While each of these brave women handles grief in their own way, they all are “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Some of them spoke to me in cold, unemotional tones. Something shut down inside of them for fear that if the spigot ever turned on, it would never turn off.

For others they could speak for hours on end about different things going on in their lives; then, one small thing would remind them of their husband — a sunken recliner chair, a cracked window that he’d promised to fix, a favorite peach tree that they had harvested together and made and eaten pies from. This thought, this memory, would crack away all facades. The man these women had loved for so many years still lives within them.

All of the widows I spoke to want to talk about their husbands in one form or another. They want to remember. They have to remember. If they don’t, then that part of them truly will be gone.

Image credit: This is a 1926 file photo of American author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, and daughter, Scotty, in their Paris apartment. Fitzgerald lived in Paris as an expatriate during part of the period he christened “the Jazz Age.” (AP Photo/File)

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