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Book of the Month: The Great Gatsby (illustrated by Michael Graves)

Book of the Month, Rare Books

In addition to the over 7,000 linear feet of archival collections made available for study at the University of Houston Special Collections, we are also proud to offer over 100,000 rare and antique books for use in our reading room.  Each month we will highlight a text from our collections.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, featuring artwork by Michael Graves

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, featuring artwork by Michael Graves

Book of the Month:  The Great Gatsby by Francis Scott Fitzgerald; illustrated by Michael Graves (San Francisco : Arion Press, 1984)

Why So Special?:  Required reading for just about every high school student as they come of age, Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus is as American as Francis Scott Key’s offering.  Routinely re-imagined every few decades on our collective silver screens to reflect our contemporary hopes and fears, Gatsby is often hailed as the novel on the subject of the American Dream, as amorphous an idea as that remains, full of all of our longing, anguish, confusion, desire, and “romantic readiness.” From Francis Cugat’s cover (commissioned and completed in the impatient haste of Scribners, seven months before the novel would even be ready–those eyes floating in the night, hinting at the enveloping darkness amid the carnival and light), to the sheer audacity and imagination of one James Gatz (convinced he cannot only reinvent himself of his own design, but he can will time to his bidding should he simply desire it enough), and on through the final words of the narrative, crystallizing our longing for and obsession with the illusory and the intangible (“So we beat on, boats against the current…”), The Great Gatsby has remained uniquely American.

Sometimes deceptively so.

For some it remains a pseudo-documentary of what Fitzgerald christened as “The Jazz Age,” The Roaring Twenties, “the most expensive orgy in history,” an American decade that found no proper suitor throughout her flirtations, and decided to stay on for the remainder of the century.  To others it is a love story that sees desire run amok as it flies too close to a blazing white sun.  Still others would present it as a cornerstone for the so-called “New York City novel,” an homage and tragic love story for Our New Paris; a story of The City that does not simply resign itself to the towering icons and alleyways of Manhattan, but also peers back behind the kitchen curtain windows of Long Island, revealing a complex web work of symbiotic and predatory class relations.

But Nick Carraway, our faithful and reliable narrator, would insist it has nothing to do with the New World’s metropolitan jewel, after all.  He reflects on his “middle-west,” against the backdrop of that fateful summer of 1922:

That’s my middle-west–not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. . . I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all–Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.

If the story of the American Dream is not rooted in the narrative of the so-called New World in the last handful of centuries leading up to that frenetic decade, full of all their blood and loss, then from where else does it originate?  As if to underscore the point, it finally occurs to Nick while flailing about for his lost Eden at the tale’s conclusion, preparing to flee the corruption of the east, bound for his old, familiar home, he sprawls out on the Long Island beach and broods “on the old unknown world”:

And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes–a fresh, green breast of the new world.  Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And so it has remained for all of us, as we come of age in the New World, chasing the siren songs of phantasmal green lights hovering on our horizons.

inside detail of The Great Gatsby

inside detail of The Great Gatsby

This Arion Press imprint is limited to 400 copies and features the artwork of Michael Graves, of the New York Five fame, on the binding and throughout Fitzgerald’s prose.  The text hops and springs over and around the illustrations of Graves, not unlike that running Buchanan lawn, “jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens.”  This particular volume also includes the signature of Graves below the colophon.  Types used are Goudy Light and Piehler Capitals and the paper is French mould-made Rives, with a deckle edge.

Location:  Available for study in the University of Houston Special Collections Reading Room (sorry, no beach reading with this one), Monday through Friday 9am-5pm.  Bibliophiles or the simply curious should request call number PS3511.I9 G7 1984.

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