While F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is probably the most studied novel in modern American literature, Christopher A. Snyder’s “Gatsby’s Oxford” considers the book from an important, if somewhat overlooked angle: its hero’s declaration that he was “an Oxford man.” Through this lens, Snyder — a professor at Mississippi State University and a research fellow at Oxford — examines the English university’s place in Fitzgerald’s imagination and, particularly, its associations with Romantic poetry, medieval traditions and architectural beauty.
Like Hamlet, Jay Gatsby is protean, a character who can support almost any interpretation thrust upon him. Do Gatsby’s masks and mystique hide the fact that he was actually a Jew? Does that account for his name change from Jimmy Gatz and his friendship with gangster Meyer Wolfsheim? Could he even be a light-skinned African American trying to pass? Or might his flamboyant garb — a pink suit, all those handmade shirts — as well as his close relationship as a young man with the millionaire Dan Cody suggest bisexuality?
Such possibilities may seem fanciful, but Gatsby eludes clear definition, even going unrecognized at his orgiastic parties, a figure of rumor, mystery and romance. Half dreamer, half self-mythologizer, this fool for love believes that asserting a thing strongly enough will make it so. Of course, you can relive the past! Of course, Daisy will come back to him, old sport! When Gatsby declares that his family traditionally sends its sons to study at Oxford, the reader suspects he is simply spinning a glamorous backstory to disguise some sordid criminal reality. Which is certainly the case, in part. But then Gatsby produces a picture of himself in Trinity quad wearing cricket garb and later still, under pressure, confesses that he spent five months at Oxford as part of a special program available to American officers at the end of World War I.
That program was real — it was officially called General Orders No. 30 and placed soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.) in French and English universities for the duration of the Armistice. With a certain twee daring, Snyder adopts the conceit that Maj. Jay Gatsby actually “pernoctated with the Oxford students once,” to adopt the striking phrase of the poet John Crowe Ransom. (Pernoctate means to stay out all night.) What, then would Oxford have meant to Gatsby, Fitzgerald and Americans of his generation?
Snyder begins by tracking how the university town became — in phrases made famous by Matthew Arnold — “the city of dreaming spires,” a kind of academic Eden that kept alive “the last enchantments of the Middle Ages” and was “the home of lost causes and forsaken beliefs.” Chivalry, courtly love, spiritual quests and other aspects of romantic “medievalism” certainly mattered deeply to Fitzgerald, who initially intended “The Great Gatsby” to be a “Catholic” novel. He carefully suffuses his masterpiece with Arthurian symbolism, until — as Snyder says — the dead Gatsby becomes a Grail Knight or tragic Fisher-King.
Several 19th-century Oxonians, through their life or their work, also contributed bits to the book’s texture, Snyder shows, in particular the tragically drowned poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, the inspirational Catholic convert John Henry Newman and the outrageous aesthete and dandy Oscar Wilde. There’s more than a little of Wilde’s Dorian Gray in Jay Gatsby.
Moving into the 20th century, Snyder then proffers short biographical sketches of several Americans who spent time at Oxford, such as Fitzgerald’s polo-playing friend Tommy Hitchcock and various Rhodes scholars. In particular, he zeros in on Alain Locke, the first African American to be awarded a Rhodes and later a distinguished member of the Harlem Renaissance. From this vantage point, he explores the impact of black culture during the Jazz Age, both in America and England.
T.S. Eliot was Fitzgerald’s favorite living poet and “The Waste Land” finds its prose analogue in the novel’s depiction of the “valley of ashes” overseen by the billboard eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. Snyder devotes several pages to Eliot and the English writers, intellectuals and socialities he associated with, from Lady Ottoline Morrell, whose Garsington home was near Oxford, to the originals of the Bright Young Things whose antics Evelyn Waugh chronicled in “Vile Bodies.” A later chapter peers more closely at Waugh, finding the apotheosis of the so-called Oxford novel in “Brideshead Revisited.” As every reader (or viewer of the fabulous television series) knows, it depicts Oxford University life as a lost paradise, as magical as those sweet-scented evenings when the young Jay Gatsby first fell in love with Daisy Fay.
For all its merits, “Gatsby’s Oxford” sometimes seems something of a grab-bag. Snyder, author of a book on Middle Earth, includes a chapter on J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and the Inklings. He interprets Princeton, where Fitzgerald was an undergraduate, as a kind of Americanized Oxford. Appendix A lists notable Oxford writers from 1829 to 1929; another gives the names of A.E.F. soldier-students at British universities in 1919. More problematic is the book’s slipshod proofreading: “canon” and “fare” appear as “cannon” and “fair;” we are told on two successive pages that Arnold Rothstein fixed the 1919 World Series; and some proper names are misspelled, H.G. Wells becoming H.G. Welles.
Fortunately, these are mild distractions from an otherwise entertaining and informative, albeit somewhat meandering, work of popular scholarship. Above all, “Gatsby’s Oxford” reminds us, yet again, that “The Great Gatsby” more than lived up to Fitzgerald’s initial intention to “write something extraordinary and beautiful and simple” but also — oh, yes indeed — “intricately patterned.”
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
By Christopher A. Snyder
Pegasus. 327 pp. $28.95