The student-inmates in my prison lit class were attracted to 'Gatsby' by scenes of opulence – and the thought of self-improvement.
Of course my student-inmates had their own unique take on the book – and it was a view much more pragmatic than romantic.
The character they felt influenced Gatsby the most? Not Daisy Buchanan. She was dismissed as too obvious or too trivial. Instead they favored a character who surfaces only briefly: the gambler and unrefined “reminiscencer” Meyer Wolfsheim.
My students admired Wolfsheim, the character who unabashedly sports “cuff-buttons” made from “the finest specimens of human molars"; a man who resembles a “real life” racketeer, mobster, and high-roller; the figure who fixed the 1919 World Series and undermined the national pastime, so he “could play with the faith of fifty million people, with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe," and who “saw the opportunity” and was so smart that he was never jailed for the fix.
And while my students gave Wolfsheim his “props,” they also allocated some admiration to Gatsby. But what they felt mostly was envy mixed with incredulity – and disdain for his devotion to Daisy. (“Get over it, Slick. Move on, fellow.”)
Scholars of the suspicious and the shady, post-graduates in sharp practice and “persuasion,” my students took inventory of Gatsby’s “rides,” his Prince Charming shirts, the draw and excesses of his “shambanginos” – and then, of course, his “crib.”
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