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‘Careless People:’ ‘The Great Gatsby’ In The Public Domain

Actor Tobey Maguire, actor Leonardo DiCaprio and actress Isla Fisher all starred in Baz Luhrmann's 2013 film adaptation of "The Great Gatsby."
Actor Tobey Maguire, actor Leonardo DiCaprio and actress Isla Fisher all starred in Baz Luhrmann's 2013 film adaptation of "The Great Gatsby."

What do you think of when you think of The Great Gatsby? Maybe it takes you back to a high school classroom, or the Baz Luhrmann movie. Maybe you imagine a blinking green light, a gigantic pair of eyes or a party where, really, no one is having much fun.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel is almost 100 years old. This year, it entered the public domain. Many remain captivated by Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan and her brutal husband Tom, and the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway. Critic Wesley Morris wrote an introduction for a new edition of the book, which was published in The Paris Review:

The twenties were a drunken, giddy glade between mountainous wars and financial collapse. By 1925, they were midroar. Americans were innovating and exploring. They messed around with personae. Nothing new there. American popular entertainment erupted from that kind of messy disruption of the self the very first time a white guy painted his face black. By the twenties, Black Americans were messing around, too. They were as aware as ever of what it meant to perform versions of oneself—there once were Black people who, in painting their faces black, performed as white people performing them. So this would’ve been an age of high self-regard. It would have been an age in which self-cultivation construes as a delusion of the American dream. You could build a fortune, then afford to build an identity evident to all as distinctly, keenly, robustly, hilariously, terrifyingly, alluringly American. Or the inverse: the identity is a conjurer of fortune.

This is the sort of classic book that you didn’t have to be there for. Certain people were living it. And Fitzgerald had captured that change in the American character: merely being oneself wouldn’t suffice. Americans, some of them, were getting accustomed to the performance of oneself. As Gatsby suffers at Nick’s place during his grand reunion with Daisy, he’s propped himself against the mantle “in a strained counterfeit of perfect ease, even of boredom.” (He’s actually a nervous wreck.) “His head leaned back so far that it rested against the face of a defunct mantelpiece clock.” Yes, even the clock is in on the act, giving a performance as a timepiece.

Fitzgerald’s sober advice to those who are excluded from the so-called American Dream? “Run faster, stretch out your arms farther, beat on against a current that is always pulling you towards the past.”  But The Great Gatsby is about a changing America — one in which the white protagonists could pass a car of stylish African Americans being chauffeured by a white driver across the Queensboro Bridge.

But nearly a century later, we are still experiencing backlash against a changing United States that some will never embrace.

As Morris notes, when Gatsby was published — it was reviewed fairly poorly. But as Nick Carraway’s brutal assessment of Daisy and Tom goes viral once again (“They were careless people,” the passage begins), what does the novel have to tell us about the United States today?

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