I vividly recall taking a seat for the first time as a junior (or “fifth former,” using the New England prep school lingo) in Mr. Jake Dunnell’s Modern American Lit class at Brooks School in September of 1972. He and his brother, Bill (who also taught English at Brooks), had established reputations for teaching excellence, and everybody knew going into it that the Modern American Lit class was going to be difficult, but enlightening and transformative.
Jacob Dunnell’s teaching style was reserved and deliberate. Utilizing the concept of less being more, he would methodically lay the groundwork for all manner of themes, plots, subplots, symbolism, metaphor, allusion and so forth, and then with a few cleverly phrased and leading questions enable his students to piece the puzzles together in shared moments of “getting it.” It was brilliant — all of it — those transcending moments when we teens finally started developing something of a clue. (I could go on and on about the Dunnell brothers, two of my favorite men and most influential English teachers I’ve never adequately thanked, which bothers me.)
Anyway, the first book we read that semester was “The Great Gatsby.”
“I’m going to guide you by the hand a bit as we get started,” brother Jake intoned. “By the end of the semester, you’ll be doing most of this on your own.”
And with that he began dissecting what many still consider THE great American novel, a book even Ernest Hemingway secretly wished he were capable of writing, a multilayered prose poem with essential realism and modernism that ring true to this day.
There’s nothing more real or modern than the excess and tumult characteristic of the 1920s Jazz Age or the rebellious and existential aloneness of the Lost Generation, whose views, artistic expression and lifestyles were, on a comparative basis, more radical than any other decade of the 20th century, including the 1960s.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was living high on the hog in France when “The Great Gatsby” was released on April 10, 1925, having enjoyed early success. He had put in two years of hard work on a book not much larger than a novella and knew it was a masterpiece.
But the news from back home wasn’t good. According to David Denby’s review of the latest cinematographic interpretation of the book starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, reviews were typically dismissive or patronizing, rarely more than pleasant.
Later on, Fitzgerald complained to his friend, Edmund Wilson, that “of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.”
Given the author’s fame, sales were mediocre, about 20,000 copies by the end of the year. Scribners did a second printing of 3,000 copies, but that was all, and when Fitzgerald died a broken-down alcoholic in 1940 at age 44, he was half-forgotten and the book was difficult to find.
What a tragedy! And yet the possibilities for the book’s later success were grasped by a smattering of fellow artists when it was initially published. Fitzgerald sent copies to Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot, who wrote thank-you notes that helped legitimize the book when Wilson subsequently reprinted them in “The Crack-Up” (1945), a work that served as a catalyst for general consumption. All three had let the young Fitzgerald know he had done something that defined modernity. And now the U.S. trade-paperback edition of the book sells about half a million copies a year.
The new Baz Luhrmann film has further pushed Fitzgerald’s book to the top of the best-seller list, selling more copies in a week shortly after release of the film than all the copies sold during the author’s lifetime. The book clearly will stay around for the indefinite future as long as the all-too-human Gatsby story, with its rich intertwining of ambition, success, failure, obsession, disillusionment, frailty and love remains that way.
And what about the movie itself? Speaking only for myself, I loved it. Much better that the insipid, boring Robert Redford version that came out in the 1970s.
As long as we’re on matters of culture, here’s a shout out to the late Ray Manzarek, original member and keyboardist for the 1960s group The Doors. Manzarek’s unique and distinctive keyboard style was the band’s key instrumental feature in a period dominated by the guitar and was perfectly suited to Jim Morrison’s powerful, tortured baritone.
Many people either don’t know or have forgotten that The Doors’ quartet lineup did not include a bassist, just vocals, guitar, percussion and keyboards. (I believe session bassists were occasionally used in some of The Doors’ later work.) Manzarek’s keyboard arrangement, the details of which I don’t know or understand, allowed him to produce simulated electric bass guitar lines while creating an intricate web of varying organ and/or piano embellishments. I don’t know how he did it, but the effect was remarkable and a stylistic achievement, making him one of the most recognized and influential musicians of his era.
Next time “Light My Fire” or some such comes on the radio, realize that’s no bass you’re hearing, but a little bit of Ray Manzarek.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.