Fitzgerald’s masterpiece turns 80

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published 80 years ago, yesterday.

When I think of the novel, I think of Gatsby, Daisy, and Nick, sure, but I also think of Gatsby’s vast mansion, and of the dock lights and foghorn noises drifting across the Long Island Sound at night.

In yesterday’s Times, Patrick J. Lyons reported that the Eighth International F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference begins later this week at Hofstra University. The theme will be “Fitzgerald on Long Island and New York,” and “most of the new scholarship to be presented and discussed at the conference will focus on his fiction written on or about what he called ‘that slender riotous island.'”

A St. Paul, Minnesota boy, Fitzgerald moved to Great Neck, Long Island, as the community was transforming into one of the country’s first suburban outposts.

He sets up the importance of place in the opening pages of Gatsby, as Nick talks of his move East, from the Midwest, to “learn the bond business.” “The practical thing,” he says:

was to find rooms in the city, but it was a warm season, and I had just left a country of wide lawns and friendly trees, so when a young man at the office suggested that we take a house together in a commuting town, it sounded like a great idea. He found the house, a weather-beaten cardboard bungalow at eighty a month, but at the last minute the firm ordered him to Washington and I went out to the country alone….

It was a matter of chance that I should have rented a house in one of the strangest communities in North America. It was on that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of New York — and where there are, among other natural curiosities, two unusual formations of land. Twenty miles from the city a pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separate only by a courtesy bay, just out into the most domesticated body of sale water in the Western hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound. They are not perfect ovals — like the egg in the Columbus story, they are both crushed flat at the contact end — but their physical resemblance must be a source of perpetual conder to the gulls that fly overhead. To the wingless a more interesting phenomenon is their dissimilarity in every particular except shape and size.

I lived at West Egg, the — well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them. My house was at the very tip of the egg, only fifty yards from the Sound, and squeezed between two huge places that rented for twelve or fifteen thousand a season. The one on my right was a colassal affair by any standard — it was a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden. It was Gatsby’s mansion. Or, rather, as I didn’t know Mr. Gatsby, it was a mansion, inhabited by a gentleman of that name. My own house was an eyesore, but it was a small eyesore, and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor’s lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires — all for eighty dollars a month.

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