“The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is one of English professor David Zimmerman’s favorite novels. In advance of the May 10 release of Baz Luhrmann’s new film, Zimmerman shares insights about the book and its characters, as well as the song (see below) he plays to his students about the beautiful illusions of the infamous Jay Gatsby.
Q: When did you first read “The Great Gatsby,” and why do you like it so much?
DZ: I first read “Gatsby” after college when I was a high school English teacher. I’ve always loved the book because I’m a sucker for any story about longing. Who hasn’t had a doomed romantic crush on someone, as Gatsby does? And who hasn’t thought wistfully, as the narrator, Nick Carraway, does, about a time in the past when we were consumed with longing?
Q: Most people have a favorite line or two from the novel; what’s yours? And why?
DZ: The novel is filled with hauntingly beautiful lines. My favorite comes towards the end of the book, when — spoiler alert — Gatsby realizes that Daisy, whom he’s pursued for years, has rejected him and that his colossal dream has collapsed. Nick speculates that Gatsby “must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is.” I love Fitzgerald’s insight that when a cherished symbol—a lover, a green light, a rose, a dollar—loses its enchantment, it becomes strange and “grotesque.”
Q: When you teach “The Great Gatsby,” how do students react to it?
DZ: I teach “The Great Gatsby” in a large introductory lecture course I call “American Dreamers.” I pair it with other novels about social climbers and focus on the ways the novel builds up to its central question: whether the promise of economic and social mobility in America is realistic or if, as Nick wonders at the end, it was always just a crass tease. Many students who gloomily report that they “analyzed the book to death” in high school are surprised how a college-level analysis makes the book come alive for them in profound and unexpected ways.
Q: You have written a book, “Panic!,” that explores how the wild swings of the stock market in the late 1890s and early 1900s—and their impact on the national psyche—became fodder for novelists of the time. Was Fitzgerald writing in a similar vein?
DZ: Fitzgerald was the first to present the single-minded pursuit of wealth as both abhorrent and romantic. Gatsby is a crass and corrupt materialist, but at the same time, we’re meant to see that he is innocent, even childlike, because he sees the world as magical, saturated with limitless possibility or, as Nick puts it, “founded on a fairy’s wing.”
Q: How was “The Great Gatsby” received upon its publication in 1925?
DZ: Few people read “The Great Gatsby” when it first came out. It received lukewarm reviews and failed to sell. Today, the book sells more than 300,000 copies a year. Scholars uniformly recognize it as a masterpiece, thematically fertile, stylistically brilliant, and historically illuminating.
Q: The novel chronicles wildly wealthy people and their callousness. Are we living in similar times?
DZ: What makes Tom and Daisy reprehensible is not their wealth, exactly, but their conviction that anyone trying to enter their class who was not born rich is trespassing. Today, the divide between the very wealthy and the rest of us is outrageously wide, but nobody today, no matter how rich, wants to freeze people out of the upper class, and class complacency today doesn’t express itself in the aggressive, ultimately murderous, way it does in the novel.
Q: How about the new film? Are you pleased with the casting choices?
DZ: I still hold a grudge against Leonardo DiCaprio for being in “Titanic.” However, he’s become an excellent actor, so maybe he can pull off playing a character 15 years his junior. For me, the success of the movie hangs on how Toby Maguire plays Nick, since it’s Nick’s sensibility, his particular vision of Gatsby and of America, that makes the novel so meaningful and moving.
Q: Fitzgerald was from Minnesota. What do you make of his portrayal of Midwesterners in “The Great Gatsby?”
DZ: Fitzgerald was interested in the Midwest as a moral frontier, a land of innocence, unspoiled by the greed and class divisions associated with New York and the east. His Midwestern characters are nonetheless drawn to that world and become part of it.
Q: Have you seen any of the previous film versions of the novel? Are you looking forward to Baz Luhrmann’s version?
DZ: It’s difficult to turn a great book, especially one as familiar as “The Great Gatsby,” into a great movie. The 1974 version of “Gatsby” with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow failed miserably. I’m cautiously hopeful about the new film, but the tagline has me worried: “A Midwestern war veteran finds himself drawn to the past and lifestyle of his millionaire neighbor.” This is like summarizing “Moby Dick:” “An ornery ship captain goes on a fishing trip.”