Books

Gatsby: Under the Red, White, and Blue

Amerika, Robert D. BrooksBy Jessica Monk

Did you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald was distantly related to the man who composed “The Star-Spangled Banner?” That, in fact, he was named after him?

I didn’t – Though, of course, Fitzgerald geeks are probably way ahead of me. Since beginning research for our latest project, the Literary Traveler team has closely followed the media attention that the Fitzgeralds attract even from beyond the grave. This sounds both melodramatic and macabre – but the Fitzgeralds are among those writers  – like Sylvia Plath – who attract the kind of personal, possessive fan attention that most celebrities only endure while they’re alive. Jumping in a fountain at The Plaza, or curled up asleep after a party, it seems as if they belong to us, American sweethearts in disgrace.

At Literary Traveler, however, we have been gearing up, not for the glamour of the movie or for dirt on the Fitzgeralds’ personal lives, but the real-life ingredients that went into The Great Gatsby. The main ingredient for us, since we’re a travel website, is place. We don’t only want to know why and how it happened — we want to know where, and we want to show where.

Many associate The Great Gatsby with the archetypal mansion or resort setting. But we think it’s crucial that readers understand the connection Fitzgerald himself made in the novel, between origin and destination, between starting out and success. That, after all, is the essence of the American dream: the difference between the two, and the near impossible journeys of those who made it to the top.

Readers of Gatsby will notice how the novel is structured along the arc of the journey east, from humble Midwestern origins, to glitzy palatial homes on the Gold Coast.  When Nick Carraway picks his Midwest, he rejects the wheat fields and lazy prairies. Instead, he relishes the sharp air of homecoming at Christmas, the bite of the bone-dry, wintry weather and of the bittersweet feeling of homecoming itself. Gatsby is a novel about heart as well as heartlessness – it is a book about how the heart experiences a wrenching journey from what’s familiar to what’s extraordinary – and ends up pining for the thing it cannot have.

Through the virtual travel of my research, I found myself at the grave of Scott and Zelda. Fitzgerald chose to be buried with his Maryland family members, one of whom was the famous author of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (Francis Scott Key), who gave Fitzgerald part of his name. But Scott and Zelda had to wait to settle down in their final resting place until the 70s – Fitzgerald, having married a protestant, was barred from being buried in his ancestral plot at St. Mary’s in Rockville, Maryland.

One of Fitzgerald’s preferred titles for The Great Gatsby was “Under the Red, White, and Blue.” And the other place I found myself investigating (again virtually) was an ostentatious Long Island Dwelling. A New York Times article from June 30th, 1918 reports that Clarence H. Mackay had a dinner for forty guests and a reception for several hundred people at his mansion, Harbor Hill.

“A large American flag done in colored electric lights topped the house and, as Harbor Hill is the highest point on Long Island, it could be seen for miles around,” the article tells us.

The Fitzgeralds were in Paris by this time, but they had attended a party there the year previously. They may have heard about this blow-out event and drawn on its legendary parties for inspiration. For the one night that this glittering flag was flying over Long Island, everything there was “Under the Red, White and Blue.” But what about the family connection with the star-spangled banner?

Naming your son or daughter after a famous family member is an aspirational gesture. Similar to naming your child after a celebrity, it’s a blueprint for a green light, imparting a fatedness and limitlessness to the child’s future – whether they asked for it or not.

It’s very likely that when it came to mapping the red white and the blue of an American success story, Fitzgerald felt that he was expected to go far. There are more connections between Jay Gatsby and the humble James Gatz than you might expect, and the clues are found both between the pages of the novel and in Fitzgerald’s life – in the places Gatsby aspired to and the places he left behind.