Mark Twain. Frederick Douglass. Malcolm X. Jay Gatsby.
Those names are all inventions. And as is the case in America's greatest novels -- be it Invisible Man, Moby Dick, or Gatsby -- we're never quite certain about just who our protagonist is. "Call me Ishmael." Well, if you say so.
Fitzgerald was one in a long line of writers who honed in on the mystery and eccentricity of American reinvention -- and its failures. Fitzgerald just captured it best. And like the novel, Baz Luhrmann's work does so on its own terms. It is a beautiful film. Those shirts of Gatsby's so beloved by Daisy Buchanan may not be worth crying over as she does in her vapid state of euphoria. But let's not kid ourselves; those are some pretty damn nice shirts Leo DiCaprio is tossing about.
Luhrmann's film works because it gives us the stunning visuals to a place and time few of us have any memory of. And it echoes the surrealism and beauty of Fitzgerald's language. While taking its modest share of liberties with the novel, it remains largely true to it in word and spirit. And most importantly, it gets right the crushing sense of loss for what it meant (and means) to truly fail in one's quest for the American Dream.
Of course, the wealthy ensemble of Gatsby's world, much like our own host of vampire investment houses, banks, and off-shore corporate fronts, are not true participants in the so-called American Dream. They are the spinners of that dream. Fitzgerald's genius was for giving us a character loosed into that world, a part of that world, and yet cut out of it. Gatsby's tragedy is not that of Arthur Miller's Willy Loman. Loman's devastation is to crumble outside the gates of Paradise. Gatsby's is to drown a bloody mess in its sumptuous pool.
Alternatively, Gatsby's "Old Sport" tick is a reminder of our own time's encounters with impersonal virtual communication. At least Gatsby's delusions were the creation of a man seeking some sort of connectivity. Our "dude," "brother," or, for my class, the ever-hated "prof," -- are today's flaccid efforts to achieve camaraderie. They are no better than Gatsby's "Oggsford" invention of shared experience. The "Hi Prof" email salutation is not just about the loss of formality; it is about the vanity of class-based entitlement. Working class kids rarely communicate that way. They know in our highly stratified world of elite education they don't have the right to affront the rules of etiquette. Sadly, they know their place.
Knowing one's place is of course, one of the unspoken yet undeniable rules of American society. It is foolish to teach or read Gatsby as a novel of the "Roaring Twenties." What Luhrmann thankfully captures in image, sound, and performance, is that the penalty for violating that rule is timeless. And in this way, Gatsby's tragedy is our own.
That green light beckons for thee.
Saladin M. Ambar teaches American politics at Lehigh University. He is the author of How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) and the forthcoming Malcolm X at Oxford Union (Oxford University Press, February 2014). He'll be teaching The Great Gatsby in his course on American Political Thought in the fall.