In an idiosyncratic book that occasionally soars, critic Marcus (Real Life Rock) traces The Great Gatsby’s impact on America’s popular imagination. Marcus spends much of his time on various works based on or inspired by the novel: stage plays, Hollywood films, live readings, Saturday Night Live skits, and even a billboard in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthplace of St. Paul, Minn. He also discusses responses to Fitzgerald’s work from other writers, such as Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald; Fitzgerald’s mostly ill-starred Hollywood writing career; and parallels between Gatsby and Moby-Dick. In one of the strongest sections, Marcus discusses The 7 Lively Arts by Fitzgerald’s friend Gilbert Seldes, a 1924 analysis of the popular culture of the Roaring Twenties era, which the novel now epitomizes. In another strong entry, Marcus incisively critiques the botched 1949 Gatsby film starring Alan Ladd, “one of the most enervating movies ever made.” However, the amount of space he grants to summaries of performances or movies, though invariably well-written, sometimes overwhelm the book’s critical component. If the many facts and ideas gathered by Marcus sometimes feel like too daunting a pile of glittering cultural detritus, taken in small amounts they do result in an entertaining meander for Fitzgerald fans. (May)
From the Publisher
Astute, challenging, and far-reaching.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review"[Marcus'] smart, singular book gives us invigorating new ways to think about Fitzgerald’s iconic novel."—Kevin Canfield, San Francisco Chronicle“Greil Marcus is one of our greatest living cultural critics. Not only is this a wildly original essay on one of America’s most revered novels—it’s also a fitting capstone to his oeuvre.”—James Miller“Now more than ever, we need to think long and hard about our collective national fantasies. There's no one better suited to this task than Greil Marcus.”—David Treuer, author of The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee“With history, with narrative flourish, and with thoughtfully woven connective tissue, Greil Marcus takes The Great Gatsby and gives it a newer, richer life well beyond the one it has already lived.”—Hanif Abdurraqib, author of Go Ahead in The Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest“Greil Marcus’s prose has an electric wondering urgency; the artworks under description crackle and glow, illuminating whole landscapes of history and culture. This method has never found a better home than Gatsby. The result kept me up all night.”—Jonathan Lethem, author of The Ecstasy of Influence“Under the Red White and Blue is a soaring, roaring song of a book. The pretext is The Great Gatsby, but the value comes in riding along as Marcus beats back into the past and the fate of America.”—David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
The legendary rock critic digs into one of American literature’s cornerstones.
This ambitious, extended essay on America as seen through the “gravitational pull” of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is about how The Great Gatsby “exists on its own terms—as a commercial product, meant to make money and elevate a reputation, and as a story, an exposé and an illumination of the moral life of its characters, the country they inhabit, and the legacy the country’s discoverers and founders left for them to reckon with or ignore.” Less than a month before the publication date, Fitzgerald wanted to change the title to “Under the Red White and Blue.” Marcus asks: “What is it that Americans share?” The author, a master of juxtaposition, draws provocative, unexpected connections among literature, music, and movies. He uses quotes from W.E.B. Du Bois, Edmund Wilson, Lady Gaga, Barbara Jordan, and Bruce Springsteen to assess patriotism in America. He then discusses Moby-Dick, a novel “that, in America, defines the contours of a common imagination as much as anything America has ever produced.” Indeed, “in the American story, Ahab is always out there.” Marcus traces the Gatsby effect as it later weaved its way into the “American fabric” in books by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and Walter Mosley as well as, perhaps most significantly, Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Instead of an ordinary plot summary, Marcus draws on Andy Kauffman’s quirky Gatsby reading on Saturday Night Live in 1978 and an extended discussion of Gatz, the six-hour public theatrical reading. After an insightful examination of the historical “ferment that fed the energies of the decade into Fitzgerald’s book,” Marcus goes to the movies. He dismisses the “enervating” Robert Redford version in favor of Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 edition. The author is much taken with Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting and Tobey McGuire’s sensitive narration.
Astute, challenging, and far-reaching: There’s much to chew on in Marcus’ disquisition on Gatsby’s legacy.