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Min Jin Lee on the ‘deep moral conscience’ of ‘The Great Gatsby’

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 12/22/2020 Lauren Daley
Min Jin Lee sitting in front of a building: Author Min Jin Lee wrote a new intro for "The Great Gatsby." © Art Streiber Author Min Jin Lee wrote a new intro for "The Great Gatsby."

Gatsby believed in the green light.

And Min Jin Lee believed so much in “Gatsby” that she green-lighted a request from Penguin Classics.

Earlier this year, the publisher asked Lee, writer-in-residence at Amherst College, to introduce F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” for their 2021 reissue.

“I’d been asked to write other introductions for Penguin, but I’d had to pass because of my work schedule. However, I found ‘The Great Gatsby’ a difficult one to let go. There was so much to say,” said Lee, author of the 2017 National Book Award finalist “Pachinko.”

“I found myself saying yes, not because it is an iconic work but because it is a story about coming to a place with big dreams,” explained Lee, who was born in Seoul and grew up in Queens. Her family came to the US in 1976 when she was 7 years old. “I’m an immigrant who grew up in a big city filled with dreamers.”

If you’re looking for a book to fall into this winter, it may be time to reread the tale of hapless dreamer and schemer Jimmy Gatz. Originally published in 1925, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece and American classroom staple officially enters the public domain on Jan. 1, with many new versions due for arrival shortly thereafter.

The Penguin Classics edition bearing Lee’s name releases on Jan. 5. We caught up with the former Seaport resident, who was a 2018-19 fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, to talk all things Gatsby.

Q. In your introduction, you mention that your copy of “Gatsby” has a notation of “2ndx 8/85,” meaning you read it for the second time in August 1985. What was your relationship to it then, and what is your relationship to it now?

A. I read it for the first time when I was 14 or so. It was not an assigned book, but as a super book nerd, I was interested in the classics and all the great works of literature. I used to write myself lists to read. “The Great Gatsby” is a book about American migrants as much as it is a book about class. Daisy, Tom, Gatsby, and Nick are Midwesterners. George and Myrtle Wilson — the garage owner and his wife — reside in the valley of ashes — i.e., Queens. Like Nick and Tom, I went to Yale, and like Myrtle and George, I grew up in Queens. Like Gatsby, I’ve wanted many things beyond my reach and aspired for more. It’s a social novel with a deep moral conscience, and I continue to find its lessons instructive.

Q. Have you taught the book before?

A. I’ve read it numerous times but have never taught or spoken about it. When I decided to introduce it, I approached it as a reader, novelist, and critic. I teach essay and fiction writing at Amherst College. I asked myself how I responded to the book as a novelist, what my college students may have wanted to know more about.

Q. Why should we reread “Gatsby” now?

A. It’s a perfectly structured work of literature. The economy of it is thrilling. Above all, I’m interested in Fitzgerald’s prescient indictment of capitalism — the excessive accumulation of capital and what this does to the indolent rich and to the rest of us.

Q. You write: “I cannot imagine a more persuasive and readable book about lost illusions, class, White Americans in the 1920s, and the perils and vanity of assimilation. It remains a modern novel by exploring the intersection of social hierarchy, White femininity, White male love, and unfettered capitalism.” Can you offer some specifics on why the story feels relevant today?

A. I’ll give you one quick example. Right now, Americans live in a nation that ties health care to employment. In a pandemic when our jobs are profoundly vulnerable, our inequitable health care system exposes poor and middle class to serious harms. Ironically, Fitzgerald, too, lived during a pandemic, and though he’s often associated with class aspiration and high living, he was critical of social inequity. Fitzgerald survived the Spanish influenza and just missed fighting in World War I. We’re living in a cataclysmic era, and I believe the personal drama of “The Great Gatsby,” reflecting the sheer recklessness of people living in a postwar era, is timely.

Q. You note that Fitzgerald felt he didn’t write women characters very well. What are your thoughts?

A. Fitzgerald himself believed that his women characters were badly done, and I have to agree somewhat. His female depictions in the book are like caricatures, and I think, rather unfair to White American women of that era. Not every White American woman in the 1920s was a rich flapper, professional golfer, or a millionaire’s married lover.

Q. You write: “Did Fitzgerald ever imagine that someone like me would think of him as I work on my third novel? Doubtful.” Can you tell me more?

A. I doubt that Fitzgerald could’ve imagined that I would be introducing what ended up being his most-beloved and widely-read novel. I am a writer who is also Korean-American, immigrant, female, and of humble origins. ... As a writer, I’ve been most affected by Tolstoy, Toni Morrison, Sinclair Lewis, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, James Baldwin, and Balzac — and I’m certain, none of them anticipated me as their ideal reader. I can live with that.

Interview was edited and condensed. Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. She tweets @laurendaley1.

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