The Great Gatsby and the 1920s

This year I’ve decided to read more well known American literature during the early 1900s, while I’m no Mark Hayes (my former high school English teacher who taught my World literature, and American literature classes). For whatever reason I never read the Great Gatsby when I was in middle/high school like most American students. I wanted to know why it is considered such an important book in American literature.  The book paints a nice portrait of America’s well to do indulging themselves during the 1920s commonly referred to colloquially as the roaring twenties.  Written in 1925 before the great depression, the period was a prosperous time for America, an industrial boom was taking place. Recurring themes in the book: alcohol, infidelity, suspense, heartbreak, and restlessness.

The steps of the art institute of Chicago circa 1920
On the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago circa 1920

Set in Long Island, New York we explore the seemingly larger than life character Jay Gatsby, a character who hosts wild house parties at his mansion where many guest invited and uninvited have no idea where or how he amassed his large amount of wealth. Later on in the book we find out that Gatsby was a bootlegger which is how he made his money. From 1920 to 1933 the 18th Amendment prohibited the sale, manufacturing, and transportation of alcohol. Selling alcohol illegal was very profitable it is believed Chicago gangster Al Capone made millions of dollars by smuggling alcohol in from Canada. It’s a bit hard for me to imagine that alcohol was banned for almost 13 years in the United States.

The theme of restlessness and being stuck with someone or something you don’t want to be stuck with or in resonates throughout the story. I suppose a lot of people come into this problem, marrying someone you realize, you shouldn’t have. We see this with Gatsby’s love interest, Daisy who’s husband is carrying on an affair with a woman married to a repair shop mechanic. Furthermore we see her husband who wishes he ran a more successful auto-shop and could make his wife happy. Daisy on the other hand wishes she could be with Gatsby. The interesting double standard we see in the book with regards to affairs is when Daisy carries on an affair with Gatsby her husband gets angry, yet no one questions her husbands affair.

The book got me thinking about life in the 1920s, no alcohol, long train trips across the United States, ocean voyages and no credit cards (strictly speaking all cash payments, although the idea of a line of credit was created). All communication was still relegated to the telephone and mail, from time to time I still write letters and exchange post cards with acquaintances. It probably would have been something to hear reports on the radio about Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. Perhaps this semi-disconnected slower pace of life where information didn’t travel at the speed of light was not too terrible with all the Jazz music to listen to.

Some Famous Events of the 1920s:

  1. Jazz becomes a new music style
  2. Lindbergh crosses the Atlantic Ocean
  3. Sales of the Model-T plateau and a new model will be introduced by 1927
  4. The stock market crashes and the great depression starts in 1929
  5. Penicillin is discovered
  6. Robert Goddard became the first person to launch a liquid-fuel rocket
  7. The Teddy Bear becomes more popular
  8. The first movies with a soundtrack become available