Quiet Desperation

Jazz Age classic continues to be assigned of the times


F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” was first published 93 years ago today (as this is being written).

Fitzgerald was only 29.

He would live another 15 years after a short career in both writing and drinking. He didn’t live long enough to know that just about every high school and college kid in North America would be impelled to read “Gatsby.”

I was. It was on the list in my American literature class at UCLA. We preceded “Gatsby” with “Great Expectations,” and followed it with “1984.”

One takes place in the 19th century, one in the 20th century, and one where the clock strikes 13.

That’s quite a trinity.

Of the three, the closest I have come to any of it in real life has been “1984,” under the surveillance of Big Brother.

According to CrimeFeed, the average American can be caught on camera as many as seventy-five times a day.

My favorite of the three is “Great Expectations.”

Dickens wrote brilliantly. I honor him the way I honor Leonardo da Vinci. They were both incomparable when it comes to delineation.

Neither, of course, was saturated with the fat of heightened technologies like all of us are today. Da Vinci didn’t even have a microwave, although I am almost certain he could have envisioned one.

Da Vinci is credited with a number of inventions — including the helicopter and parachute — to go along with being the best draftsman ever. His drawings - in my estimation — exceed the merits of his paintings, which weren’t bad either.

If you draw, or plan to, it’s essential to study his drawings.

When I read “Gatsby,” I felt out of it. I still feel that way every time I look at the society page. Big money, big parties, debutantes, and tuxedos. Maybe in my next life.

(For past indiscretions, however, I might be granted a return as no more than a raccoon.)

Maybe you and I had similar high school and college reading lists.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was on one of them, fortunately.

“Silas Marner” and “Ethan Frome” were on one of them, unfortunately.

So was “The Scarlet Letter.”

I was hit with “Moby Dick” and “War and Peace” in college.


What gets assigned these days? Charles Bukowski? Probably not.

“Moby Dick,” I presume, is still essential; but chapter after chapter about whaling?

Thanks a lot, Melville.

Someone somewhere is still assigning “Gatsby.” I have always wondered what it would be like to be required reading.

Try to imagine a writer sitting down, as Fitzgerald did, and write day after day, inventing characters that were vivid and memorable and enduring.

“Gatsby” is 47,094 words long.

“Moby Dick”? It’s 206,052.

When it was first published, “Gatsby” sold very poorly, and Fitzgerald died thinking it was a failure, but it was given a big boost during World War II. That’s the subject of a segment of “Mysteries at the Museum.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960. It made every curriculum reading list within a couple of years, and author Harper Lee (1926-2016) lived with its success for another 56 years.

What a triumph it would be to provide every library (in the world?) with such a gift.

West Egg and I couldn’t be more unalike. Nevertheless, happy birthday, Jay Gatsby.

Craig Marshall Smith is an artist, educator and Highlands Ranch resident. He can be reached at craigmarshallsmith@comcast.net.


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