Tag: The Lost Generation

The Great Gatsby and all that jazz

The Great Gatsby and all that jazz

The Great Gatsby novel showcases the rich but disenchanted youth of the 1920s Jazz Age. In fact, it was its author, F.Scott Fitgerald who coined the term The Jazz Age when he wrote his short story Tales of the Jazz Age. So, what was this Jazz Age and when did it occur? Let’s explore The Great Gatsby and all that jazz. Though not popular on release, the novel is now a staple bestseller worldwide and heralded as a wonder of American literature for its depiction of the American Dream.

What was The Jazz Age?

The Jazz Age was a time of musical innovation, namely the blues, brass music, ballads and ragtime also called the Harlem Renaissance. The music began in New Orleans in the late 19th century as an expression by oppressed African Americans It became more widespread through speak easy joints and radio. The music attracted the attention of the white population and became the means for returned soldiers and the young to celebrate their freedom at the end of WWI. In time it became the worldwide soundtrack for the 1920s.

Who embraced the Jazz era?

It was mostly the young who embraced the jazz movement. Adolescents at the time became known as the Jazz Generation and the returning soldiers became known as The Lost Generation. Both groups enjoyed this rebellion against the previous more serious generation of their parents. Not only did they dance till dawn to the great music but they drank and exhibited risky behaviour. Dancing on tables, sliding down bannisters, riding on taxi roofs, they partied all night. Even their manner of dressing was considered scandalous. Especially for the women. Abandoning corsets and bodily constraints, young women wore sack like dresses with higher hemlines. They also cut their hair into chic bob style and wore jewelled headbands around their foreheads.

What was it like?

Despite prohibition in America, liquor was surprisingly easy to obtain. Smoking was also the go especially for women who had never smoked before. Another risky behavior in the eyes of the older generation. But possibly the riskiest was the free sex embraced. With the stirrings of votes for women worldwide, women suddenly wanted it all. They had worked as equals during the war doing men’s work so why should they now return to the kitchen and domestic sphere? They wanted to be Thoroughly Modern Millies or flappers. This last term refers to the dance style where dance partners appear to flap. The Charleston and The Black Bottom were very energetic dances.

The Jazz Age was fast-paced

Along with the fast dances and energetic jazz beats was a tide of rising consumerism. Radios, planes and cars were very exciting additions to everyday city life. The economy seemed to be booming and many invested in stocks and bonds. It was a time of optimism and hopefulness. Not only were the musicians transmitting these vibes, but writers and artists joined the energetic craze sweeping the world.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitgerald, the writer of The Great Gatsby was born in 1896 in Minnesota, USA. His family were not rich and so his early love, Ginerva King rejected his courtship overtures. Devastated, he enlisted in the army since WWI was in progress. While at Camp Sheridan, awaiting deployment he met southern belle, Zelda Sayre, the 17-year-old daughter of a wealthy man. They fell in love but  again Fitzgerald was rejected for lack of money and status. Determined he took to writing as he enjoyed it and had a talent. His short stories made money, so then he turned his hand to novels.

This Side of Paradise

Fitzgerald’s debut novel, This Side of Paradise, published 1920, was an instant success. Suddenly money poured in, and he was over the moon because Zelda accepted his marriage proposal. They married in 1920 and lived in luxury at The Biltmore Hotel, partying like there was no tomorrow. In 1921 their first and only child Frances was born. She would always be called Scottie.

The Beautiful and The Damned

This was the title for his second novel published in 1922 about an artist and his flapper wife. Fitzgerald’s writing was again quite biographical they moved to Great Neck, Long Island. Across the bay was the classy Manhasset Neck. The situation would be used to model East and West Egg in his third novel, The Great Gatsby. The Beautiful and the Damned was not as well received as his first novel and money became scarce.

The Great Gatsby

Needing a break and inspiration, they moved to Paris in 1924. Many Americans gathered there to write and paint. He met Hemingway and the arty set and worked on his third novel which would become The Great Gatsby. Originally entitled Trimalchio then West Egg, it took off to a rocky start. Eventually his publisher, Schribners. insisted on the title The Great Gatsby after the main character, Jay Gatsby. Another intervention also paid off. Cugat, a Barcelonian artist responded to a commission to paint the book cover. His mesmerising image of giant tearful eyes overlooking a Coney Island Fair pleased Fitzgerald so much that he reworked the plot to include a roadside poster with similar large eyes near the turnoff past the Wilson garage. This is just one case of the brilliant use of symbolism in the novel.

Not a success

The Great Gatsby was not a success on release in 1925. Critics cited the improbable plot. They missed the symbolism entirely and were unappreciative of the beautiful prose and characterization. The book only ever made the author $2000 in his lifetime and sold only 20,000 copies. Some reviewers despaired of the lack of decent characters, especially a female one that readers could relate to. The shallow, vain and cruel Daisy Buchanan was not popular. She was neither the everywoman or a heroine to the mainly female reading audience.

But later became one

However since, Jay Gatsby’s attempt to raise himself up to nouveu riche standards is seen as the embodiment of The American Dream. Ie Anyone can make it in America. With the vision of distance, time has enriched the message taken from the novel and the public enjoyment of its story and prose. Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda both died young, unhappy and apart. Zelda had mental problems and ended her days at 47 years in a fire in a sanitorium. Fitzgerald died in 1940 three years earlier at just 44 years in 1940 from alcohol abuse and its related health issues. He published one book more in 1934, Tender is the Night. Interestingly, it was written in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, the location of one of my own novels, The Last Hotel. Another, The Last Tycoon, published after his death due to Edmund Wilson completing the manuscript.

Although Fitzgerald also wrote many short stories and Hollywood film scripts to keep himself and Zelda afloat financially, he was never a success in the literary world until after his death. During WW2, soldiers were given free copies of The Great Gatsby to read, and this kick-started an appreciation of this book and his writing. By 1960, The Great Gatsby was selling 100,000 copies per year. Now it has sold 30 million copies and is available in 42 languages. I guess the people of Fitzgerald’s own time were not ready for his work. The Jazz age with its sad optimism was too close and his message and prose fell on deaf ears. At the time the flawed characters of Gatsby and Daisy were not popular. Perhaps they were too real and like themselves. People wanted romantic escapism not reality. That is understandable! In the 1930s in the grip of The Great Depression, people wanted to escape or be cheered up.

Joni Scott is an Australian writer with four published novels. See her books and more on





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