A Time Capsule of Li..

A Time Capsule of Life in West Egg
By Willy Blackmore
February, 2005
Intro to Book Studies
Willy Blackmore
Student #: 00119854
Prof. Matthew Brown
A Time Capsule of Life in West Egg
In the New Orleans Times-Picayune 1925 review of The Great Gatsby, John
McClure prophesied that F. Scott Fitzgerald would not be a long-remembered name in
literature. Citing his incessant use of slang and general trendiness, McClure concluded
that The Great Gatsby would never live past 1925. I believe that, contrary to McClure’s
argument, many of the faults brought out in his review are those aspects of the story that
are responsible for making The Great Gatsby relevant throughout the eighty years since
its publication.
Critics have various views on why Gatsby has remained important for so long: the
idea of the self-made man, the pursuit of the American Dream, or the book simply being
the great American novel. There is also the idea that it has lasted because it is a sort of
fictionalized historical document, a written time capsule of the 1920s, Fitzgerald’s Jazz
Age. It is this aspect of the novel, its historical importance, that McClure argues against.
McClure claimed Fitzgerald to be addicted “to the use of Wednesday-andThursday terms (words which mean something this week but may mean something else
before fall, new words that everybody is using, just as everybody hums the momentary
popular song)” (McClure 232). While McClure sees this to be a terrible mistake, I would
argue that by using slang terminology, Fitzgerald was able to create a vernacular
foundation for his microcosm of the ‘20s. If The Great Gatsby had been written without
the period-speak – slang and all – it would have been hard pressed to echo the nature of
an era. Imagine if Gatsby referred to everyone as “Homeboy,” or “Dude.” His entire
image and personality would immediately be changed. Gone would be that mysterious
classiness (cigar and brandy snifter in hand, sultry horn solo lingering in the background)
that is evoked by Gatsby’s addressing everyone as “old sport.”
Continuing on his diatribe against Fitzgerald’s use of language, McClure says that
“The use of new words – colloquialisms or slang – is difficult. Unless they are used with
consummate skill they are as objectionable as new paint, slick, shiny, crude and glaring”
(McClure 232). It is interesting for me to be arguing against this metaphor of wet paint,
applied eighty years before writing this paper. I could argue that using language – or
paint – that is so slick, wet and glaring would be fitting for a novel of the 1920s: an age
of excess and decadence. But I do not think that is the case. As I read Gatsby today, I do
not see the language, the slang, as being “crude and glaring” at all. So, I think it is more
that the paint has dried: a possibility that McClure never seemed to consider. The
language of the 1920s that Fitzgerald applied to the writing of The Great Gatsby is no
longer as controversial (and offensive) and can now be observed as an historical record of
the speech from that time.
McClure sees the whole of The Great Gatsby as being “written in the style of
1925” (McClure 232), and considered this to be its downfall. He believed that a book so
exactly written in the style of the day would soon be outmoded by the next book written
so exactly in the style of the next day: “…the 1925 model, in literature or automobile, is
likely to be supplanted by a later model” (McClure 232). While McClure is correct in
saying that an old style car is eventually replaced by a new one, he gives no thought to
historical preservation. It seems obvious to me that a novel which oozes with the slang,
imagery, activities and issues of a year and era would have continued significance
because it preserved an image of that era. McClure goes on and on about the temporality
of the novel because it is solely a function of 1925. He also laments that Fitzgerald would
not do some “genuinely good writing (Mark Twain’s or Flaubert’s as you please)”
(McClure 232), in order to “not reflect the fads of the season’s conversation” (McClure,
232), and become a “citizen of the larger [literary] world” (McClure 232), in the sense of
developing staying power. Even if it is genuinely bad writing, I can’t see how McClure
could completely ignore the possibility that a snapshot of a moment in history – as The
Great Gatsby is – might be exactly what would make for a novel that would last through
the ages.
Towards the end of the review, McClure lays out the recommendation he would
give to different groups of readers. He says, “The Great Gatsby, though recommended to
those who are interested in the art of literature only as a work of promise, is
recommended to readers of current fiction as one of the best novels of the year”
(McClure 233). Again, we see a lack of perspective. McClure seems to have convinced
himself that Gatsby would be nothing more than a trend or a fad, just like its language
that he so much abhorred. Apparently, McClure made a fairly drastic oversight
somewhere along the line, and this fad of a novel called The Great Gatsby managed to
survive nearly a century to still serve as a window to the culture of 1920s America.
The overall thrust of McClure’s criticism is that Fitzgerald had no staying power.
He comes right out and says it in the first paragraph: “He is satisfied to be one of the
bright young people of the season, which is much like being a devil in one’s own home
town” (McClure 232). He is disapproving of Fitzgerald for being content with, what
McClure sees as, his temporary star status. With this statement, it is clear that McClure
has serious doubts about Fitzgerald being able to maintain his elevated reputation.
McClure evokes the image of a playboy, a literary celebrity. Looking back from today’s
perspective, I can not think of a better image to equate with Fitzgerald. McClure’s
description of him as being “of the season,” speaks of a fleeting vogue and, in being
satisfied with it, Fitzgerald is willingly standing on temporary ground. And he stands, as
we know from his biography, decadently, taking full advantage of his elevated situation.
Contrast that image of Fitzgerald with the social settings of the 1920s: jazz, flappers,
parties, booze, all paid for by the inflated (temporary) riches of the stock market boom
and then the seemingly negative picture McClure paints is in fact that of the perfect
spokesman for the Jazz Age. From that position, Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby, the
quintessential novel of the era, so steeped in the culture of the day that we will long look
back on it in order to learn the history of the 1920s.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”
(Fitzgerald 189).
Additional Works Cited
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925.