The Gatsby state of mind

Cultural cadence

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Meagan L. Ragan/Courtesy

“If that’s a freaking Gatsby-themed party, I’m going to stab my eyes out,” my brother scoffed as he glanced across the restaurant before taking a sip of his Old Fashioned in true Don Draper style. This was a couple of weeks ago on a typical crisp San Francisco night — quite far from the glamorous Long Island nights of the 1920s. Yet, there were wannabe “flappers” with feathers haphazardly sticking up from their curls and guys with crooked bow ties and greased-back hair prancing around taking pictures in a way that completely enhanced their Jazz Age steez: with an iPhone. I peered over and emitted a soft laugh, musing over the irony of these 20-somethings using a distinctly modern technology amid a party of the 20-somethings.

As I watched this party unfold, I pondered the cultural fixation with “The Great Gatsby.” Clearly, the 1920s trend isn’t going away anytime soon. But as this fixation continues, our generation needs to shift our understanding of the era we’re so obsessed with mimicking.

“The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s beloved novel and today’s high school staple, has been prevalent in American society for decades. However, it has taken on an increasingly intense source of yearning and imitation in recent culture. My Instagram feed is filled with high school friends dressed in suits and pearls, dancing to some Cole Porter while champagne glasses clink together around them. And by this, of course, I mean grinding in a musty frat house with Avicii blowing people’s eardrums out while vodka splashes all over some girl’s sequined dress. Recently, several of my friends tweeted their burning desire to attend a genuine Jay Gatsby party, meet the man and even assume the role of the charismatic character. On a more widespread scale, the trend has been seen in Justin Timberlake’s retro, dapper resurgence, as seen in his “Suit & Tie” Grammy performance. In movies such as Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” the protagonist literally goes back and forth between the modern day and the streets of 1920s Paris. And, of course, we all know of the Leonardo DiCaprio-helmed film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” that took over theaters earlier this year in order to capitalize on the ‘20s fad.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m drawn to this time period as well. I long to own a slim, gray suit so I can dress as suave as Gatsby. I brush my teeth in the mornings as Louis Armstrong wisps throughout my apartment from my record player, and I acted like a giddy child last spring as I sat and sipped hot chocolate at Cafe de Flore in Paris, where people such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald used to hang out. However, the commercialization and ubiquitousness of the idealized nature of the era has led to it become unoriginal and rampant with a lack of creativity — a direct antithesis of the very time period people are trying to replicate.

The 1920s, or at least the grandiose picture people have of the 1920s, has been turned into a cliche. Ironically, the ‘20s were a time filled with innovation, as artists and writers produced works that are still looked at today as some of the best in history. It was an incredible boom in every facet of life, especially in culture, as people created their own lifestyles and ideas in a postwar, liberal world. Everyone was trying to one-up his or her competitors, and it was a fight to see who could write the most elegant line or brush the most sublime stroke. Individuals developed their own fashions and styles, went against every previous convention, sought an avenue for self-expression — a type of self-expression our own era can only aspire to.

This air of individuality and artistic flair has been watered down into banal party themes and lackluster imitations. We’ve tarnished the remarkable creativity that streamed throughout the decade by simply regurgitating it in our own vision rather than establishing our own golden age. Fitzgerald’s magnum opus has turned into a pop culture idea, as people ignore the realities of what the novel is trying to express in favor of the blissful appearance of it being one giant party. People tend to forget the emptiness that Gatsby feels even while he’s right in the midst of everything people so desire, that all the parties, liquor, suits and fancy cars were all just an attempt to gain the attention of a long lost lover before paving a path toward a tragic ending.

Furthermore, people forget Fitzgerald used “The Great Gatsby” to illustrate the severe income inequality prevalent in Jay and Nick’s world — this is the one thing our era actually does have in common with Gatsby’s. While the richest 5 percent raked in 31.9 percent of the nation’s total income in 1922, in 2010 the top 5 percent rake in about 35.7 percent of total income. Yet, because these sad facts are not part of the ‘20s ideal, they are conveniently pushed aside and replaced by wistful thinking. It condenses the novel’s complexity and themes into simple conceptions people can exploit.

Any excuse to get dressed up all classy and have fun with your friends is undeniably an appealing and welcomed thing. As an aspiring writer, I find it cool to see how a piece of work can transcend time so strongly and continue to make a significant impact. I’m still going to appreciate the offerings the Jazz Age provided and continue to tell people that “Midnight in Paris” is my favorite movie of all time and that “The Great Gatsby” is indeed one of the best novels ever written.

However, the era should be appreciated for what it actually was and looked upon as a source of inspiration, not as a means to travel back to something that is better only in theory. Pablo Picasso’s spearheading of the cubism movement shocked all because it went completely against any piece of artwork leading up to that point. Ernest Hemingway’s concise and blunt prose changed the nature of the novel by displaying a straightforward manner of storytelling. They observed what came before them, took it into account and then twisted it to make their own style. That was the mentality. It wasn’t a time of constant historical references, because the present was empty — they made it full. If we want to take on the ideals and aura of the ‘20s, we need to be conscious of its drawbacks as well as aspire to its ingenuity. More important than the party themes and imitations, we need to adopt the mindset.

 Image courtesy of Meagan L. Ragan.

Contact Taran Moriates at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @taranmoriates.