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Ruminations on rereading ‘The Great Gatsby’

Inevitably because of our current electoral season, my most recent rereading of the book conjured up similarities between the story and Donald Trump and his America.

I just finished F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” It was the seventh or eighth time I’ve read it since my first time while in college. In fact, Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley mysteries aside, “Gatsby” is the only novel I intentionally reread every now and then.

The Great GatsbyFor the uninitiated, “Gatsby” is the story of Jay Gatsby, a 30ish self-made millionaire and his tragic pursuit of Daisy Buchanan, a wealthy young woman with whom he had a love affair five years before but who has since married another man, Tom Buchanan, heir to a huge fortune. Though the story is told several years later, the events occur in 1922. It’s narrated by Nick Carraway, a Yale graduate who moves to New York from the Midwest “for a career in bonds,” after serving in World War I.

For good reason the book is considered Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. Here is a paragraph I recall from my first reading more than 50 years ago. It’s Nick Carraway’s reaction when he’s introduced to the gambler who fixed the 1919, “Black Sox,” World Series. “The idea staggered me. I remembered of course that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919 but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people — with the single mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”

In three sentences, Fitzgerald gives us readers a common reference point, the 1919 Series; informs us that real people, not vague social forces, cause historical events; and reminds us of the shallow things, like baseball games, that focus the attention of we moderns and inspire our loyalty and faith. “Gatsby” is full of similar tight and shiny compositional gems.

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The novel has an expansive quality, so over the years each reading has provided me a fresh tutorial on ambition, wealth, love, character, and life in America generally.

Ken Peterson
Ken Peterson
In my mid-30s, a long phone conversation with an old friend and a rereading of “Gatsby” embedded in me an unforgettable lesson on the terrible combination of attraction and money. This is Gatsby’s impression of an evening at Daisy’s home during their initial courtship. “Her porch was bright with the bought luxury of star-shine; the wicker of the settee squeaked fashionably as she turned towards him and he kissed her curious and lovely mouth. …Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.”

Inevitably because of our current electoral season, my most recent rereading of the book conjured up similarities between the story and Donald Trump and his America. For example, Gatsby’s focus on recovering his relationship with Daisy despite the passage of time is an apt metaphor for the desire of some to recover a romanticized time of American greatness. In fact, those aspirations remind us of this exchange between Nick Carraway and Gatsby regarding him winning back Daisy.

“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

He looked around wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of the reach of his hand.

“I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”

Not surprisingly, like every effort to recapture a make-believe past Gatsby’s attempt to do so with Daisy fails and he is shot and killed atop an air mattress in his swimming pool, the wrongful victim of a husband’s vengeful rage.

Even more telling is the resemblance of the narcissistic actions of our president, and maybe our nation, to Nick Carraway’s characterization of Tom and Daisy Buchanan after they falsely identified Gatsby as the hit and run driver who killed the angry husband’s wife.

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‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Ken Peterson is an attorney and served as the state’s commissioner of labor and industry under Govs. Rudy Perpich and Mark Dayton. A good St. Paulite, he is an unrepentant Fitzgerald fan.


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