When reading any piece of literature, it’s really important to not only have an understanding of the author’s background, but also to have a good understanding of the historical context in which the book is set.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the great Gatsby in the 1920’s in America. 1920’s was a time of great change; soldiers are returning from the war, roles of women were changing drastically, and prohibition was on full swing. Bars like this would have been shut down and people would have been forced to drink in spekisis.
In this episode, we’re going to talk about some details of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life, and look more closely at some of the social events in the 1920’s.
So we’ve talked about the Great Gatsby being the quintessential novel of the 1920’s. In order to understand that a little bit better though, we really need to discuss what the 1920’s were like in America. The 1920’s were really a changing time for America. They were referred to as the roaring 20s, or even more so, the Jazz Age. We see for the first time people really getting out there and expressing themselves and really trying to change the way that America has been viewed.
Part of the reason this starts is the return of the soldiers from the Great War, otherwise known as World War One. When they come back to America, they see an influx of money. The economy is going really well, we have lots of jobs and because of the war effort, we see mass production really catching on as a means of economy in America. Also what that creates is a bull market, so we a growth of the market.
Like I said, the economy was positive and we see Americans for the first time starting to borrow on credit. And we see them gunner actual debt. In fact, by the mid 1920’s the America has gunnered almost 1.38 million dollars in debt.
Women also experience a changing role here. For the first time in America, they’re allowed to drink and smoke in public, which really changes that perception of women being part of the domestic part of life. We see the skirts getting shorter, their haircuts are getting shorter and the quintessential flapper really comes out and starts expressing itself. Indirect reaction to the changing roles of people in America, and the growing economy, and the freedom of expression, we see prohibition pass as the 18th Amendment in 1919. Prohibition is designed to eliminate the selling, and the production, and the consumption of alcohol in America, because they were deemed as a threat to family and domestic life. What the proponents of prohibition did not anticipate coming however, is that prohibition encouraged the growth of organized crime in America.
Here we’re looking at one of the most famous gangsters, Al Capone, who really saw as hitting in the 1920’s. The reason prohibition really spawned organized crime is that, people join together to really fight this movement. So we’ve got organized bootleggers, we’ve got spekeasies that are being run, so the people can come in and buy alcohol and actually consume it. In fact, one of the most famous scandals of the 1920s, is know as the Black Sox and that’s my beloved city Chicago.
The Chicago players, in the 1919 World Series, are supposed to have thrown the world series because they were paid by Meyer Wolfsheim, which should sound familiar to you. He is mentioned as one of the disreputable characters that Jay Gatsby hangs out with. Anyhow, they were paid by Wolfsheim, to throw the world series and again that’s just a product of how organized crime has developed in America in the 1920s.
F. Scott Fitzgerald sort to capture this changing time in America in his novel the great Gatsby. In fact events from his everyday life actually inspired things that took place in the book. In order to better understand some of the events in the novel, let’s take a look at some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s background. First to start, he grew up in Minnesota, so he was a nice Mid Western boy. But soon after school, he was whisked off to the East Coast where he enrolled in Princeton.
However, he didn’t quite succeed as much as probably his parents would have liked. And he was place on academic probation. So rather than risk failing out of school, he enrolled in the army in 1917. The army took him to Alabama, where he was stationed for his training. It was there that he met Zelda, his future bride.
Now Zelda was the daughter of an Alabama a Supreme Court justice, and a very much a Southern Bell. So F. Scott Fitzgerald really worked hard to court her and it worked, mainly because of his literary success which could have catapulted him to celebrity status in America. Because of the success of his literary works, he and Zelda lived a rather extravagant lifestyle and in the early 20’s they took off for Paris. They gallivanted around Europe for most of the 20s, and it was there that he began penning the Great Gatsby.
And the great Gatsby again, served as a critic of American life during the 1920s. What’s ironic about this, is that much like the characters in the Great Gatsby, that F. Scott Fitzgerald was criticizing, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald really lived beyond their means and spend way more than what they had, returning to America in the 1930s almost broke. So their tragic story ends with Zelda suffering a mental break down as she returns and she is institutionalized permanently. So F. Scott Fitzgerald, with little money, and his wife in a mental institute, is forced to leave for Hollywood alone.
And you have to understand, to an American author, it’s quite a sell out to feel like you have to move to Hollywood to do your writing. He felt like he was being told what to write, and he was there in Hollywood at the age of 44 that he died alone believing himself to be quite a failure. The tragic part is that most of F. Scott Fitzgerald success occurred after his death.
In this episode, we discuss the revolutionarian changing error of the 1920s in America. And we also discuss F. Scott Fitzgerald’s extravagant, yet somewhat tragic life. We talked about how all those things influence the novel that he wrote, the Great Gatsby. I can’t help but think about how Nick Carraway closes the book saying "so we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past". And now that we’re living in an error, that’s often compared to the error just following the 20s, I wonder if we can learn something about the way we live our lives from the Great Gatsby.