Letter: Why ‘Gatsby’ Endures
To the Editor:
When you pillory a literary icon, as Ernest Hebert did recently, you can pretty much count on traditionalists to come screaming. Possibly that was his aim: to shake things up a little; to have a little fun with us. So, OK, I’ll bite.
Nearly all of the tens of thousands of novels published over the last century have faded from memory. Of those that have endured, probably none has been read by more readers or been more widely admired than The Great Gatsby. By any measure you could apply, it long ago achieved the status of a classic.
Hebert doesn’t like it. In fact, he pretty much hates it: “a book that shames American literature and the very idea of what it means to be an American,” he wrote. He claims it demeans the working class, makes a joke of immigrants and “takes cheap shots at women, blacks and Jews.”
No book is above criticism simply because it’s been defined as a classic. Personally, I find Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to be pretty tedious. But it wouldn’t occur to me to cite the savagery of the African natives depicted there as an example of the author taking “cheap shots at blacks” — because it isn’t ... any more than Hamlet is a screed against mental illness or An American Tragedy demeans the working class.
Hebert quotes a brief passage describing a limousine “in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl.” He is aghast: “Can you imagine,” he asks, “a writer getting away with that kind of language today?” Well no, actually, I can’t. And isn’t that part of the point?
Gatsby, Hebert concludes, “misinforms the public, especially young people, about what the country is really about.” This is pretty outrageous, not to mention condescending. Surely Hebert understands that the greed, debauchery and meanness of spirit portrayed in the book are Scott Fitzgerald’s rendering of just exactly what the country was about in 1925.
The brilliance of that rendering is, I think, the biggest reason that Gatsby endures, nearly 90 years later, as the “overrated, over-praised” literary treasure that it is.