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American dreaming, from Gatsby to Draper

Last weekend, the film "The Great Gatsby" was reported to have earned a whopping $51 million, according to Business Insider. Just prior to its release, however, many critics ripped the film for distorting the classic novel on which it is based with over-the-top production, including 3-D images and a modern soundtrack produced by Jay-Z.

This is the third time that one of the most well-known flawed heroes of 20th century fiction has had his story told on the big screen. But unlike its B-movie 1949 adaptation or drab 1974 version starring Robert Redford, this film explodes with excess — just as Jay Gatsby had intended with his mansion parties on the West Egg. It also gives audiences yet another chance to analyze the one-time Bolton Hill resident F. Scott Fitzgerald's version of the Great American Novel, this time as told through the lens of director Baz Luhrmann.

This is a story of which we never seem to tire. Baltimore County, like thousands of other school districts across the country, still includes "The Great Gatsby" in its high school curriculum. In fact, it is the No. 1 choice for popular high school books on Goodreads.com. And why wouldn't it be? Pop culture seems to repeat versions of this tale of the American Dream again and again. We love "American Idol." We love "The Apprentice" and we love, love, love "Real Housewives." Gatsby seemed to have set the mold for this complex American hero. Sure, he was brave (he fought in World War I); he was handsome; but more importantly, he was a nobody who became rich.

Recall The New York Time's summer obsession with Sean Combs (aka Puff Daddy and P. Diddy), whose annual "White Parties" in the Hamptons in the early 2000s rivaled any of Gatsby's soirees. During that time, Mr. Combs said he not only read Gatsby, he was Gatsby.

And then there are the fictional characters who have popped up —Tony Soprano comes to mind — and of course, more recently, "Mad Men's" Don Draper. Like Gatsby, Draper has reinvented himself. When we meet Don, he is a mystery. But soon we learn that he has assumed another man's identity. He is quickly ascending Madison Avenue while simultaneously running from his past.

Both Draper and Gatsby are vulnerable, extremely handsome and impossible to resist. They have gained power in addition to their wealth. Social status for these men is helped by loving the right woman (or women). Women seem to make both of these men simultaneously reckless and controlling.

The potential emptiness that comes with achieving the American Dream — plainly evident in "Gatsby," "Mad Men" and any number of other examples, both real and fictional — is a risk and certainly a lesson for many of us to learn. However, underneath the obvious is a conflict that has become an archetype. It is of the humbleness of the Midwest meeting the decadence of the Coast. For Gatsby and Draper, their modest Middle American identities must be completely shed in order to make it big out East.

Almost 100 years after "The Great Gatsby" was published, Americans still struggle with this identity crisis. It is a conflict that seems to be highlighted with each election, each Supreme Court decision, each "Daily Show" report. While we are proud of our ability to achieve beyond our greatest expectations, we are simultaneously ashamed of our abundance. We are a nation that idolizes overachievers, yet so many of us fear leaving the safety of our couch.

Maybe this is the reason that millions of us flock to see "Gatsby," and millions more hang on to Season Six of "Mad Men." Like a dream that subconsciously navigates through our anxieties, we hope that watching these characters will ultimately help us work through the questions we have about our own pursuits of success and happiness.

Jacqueline Scott is a professor of English at the Community College of Baltimore County, Catonsville Campus. Her email is jvshome2004@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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