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.”
The question that we came back to again and again was: “What made Gatsby great?” Was it the “wheels,” the clothes, the parties, the mansion? The extravagance? The aspirations?
The answer, I suggested, comes toward the end of the book via Henry C. Gatz – Jay Gatsby’s father.
I’ve looked up a number of reviews that were published when the book first appeared in May and June of 1925. Henry C. Gatz isn’t mentioned at all. And yet he does provide the single bit of documentary evidence of what made Gatsby Gatsby.
We first learn of – and meet – Henry C. Gatz toward the end of the book. He is “a solemn old man” who is genuinely saddened by his son’s death but who can’t help but marvel at the splendor of his son’s life: “His eyes leaked continuously with excitement....”
Fitzgerald describes Gatz’s sad pleasure as he takes in (for the first time) his son’s acquisitions and surroundings: Gatz “had reached an age where death no longer has the quality of ghastly surprise, and when he looked around him ... and saw the height and splendor of the hall and the great rooms opening out from it into other rooms, his grief began to be mixed with an awed pride.”
Gatz sees the splendor as the emblems of a station realized, a life (seemingly) fulfilled. If Jay Gatsby (the former Jimmy Gatz) had lived, he would have become an industrialist, a magnate, a mogul of wide renown and stature. Gatz believes his son would have helped “build up the country.” Maybe. Maybe not.