The Most Famous Character in American Literature?

header.pngSome time ago, I visited Louisville, KY to do some research for a novel. I stayed at the grand Seelbach Hotel. First opened in 1905, the Seelbach has hosted nine US presidents, gangster Al Capone, numerous Hollywood celebrities, and most relevant to us, F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

Fitzgerald frequently visited the hotel during his Army assignment at nearby Camp Taylor and the establishment clearly made an impression upon him. “In June she married Tom Buchanan of Chicago, with more pomp and circumstance than Louisville ever knew before,” Fitzgerald writes in The Great Gatsby. “He came down with a hundred people in four cars, and hired a whole floor of the Seelbach Hotel.”

The hotel didn’t just serve as the book’s wedding location, it reportedly played a key role in the inspiration for the title character. “George Remus was a Cincinnati gangster known as the ‘King of the Bootleggers,'” writes hotel historian Larry Johnson. “While getting rich running booze northward, he would spend time at the Seelbach for business and pleasure… F. Scott Fitzgerald, who also frequented the Seelbach, was fascinated by Remus, and took the mobster as his inspiration for Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby.”

The hotel continues to honor (or capitalize, I reckon, depending on your perspective) its Fitzgerald history to this day. There are suites dedicated to both the author and the character. “Named after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic masterpiece, our 1,000-square-foot Gatsby Suite is a perfect example of the exquisite and comfortable surroundings that beckoned Fitzgerald to The Seelbach in 1918,” the hotel’s website proclaims.

Shortly after my wonderful stay at the Seelbach, I traveled to Long Island for a wedding. The Glen Cove Mansion was a lovely old establishment (although the more moden addition was pretty industrial in appearance) overlooking peaceful rolling lawns. You could easily imagine 1920’s flappers playing croquet on those manicured greens. As I checked in, I saw a sign on the counter advertising the hotel’s “Gatsby Package.”

Along with an overnight stay for two, the package included a copy of the book, a map highlighting the surrounding Gold Coast area as depicted in the novel, tennis rentals, and a minature of Gatsby’s roadster.

And all of this Gatsby stuff reminded me of the news that Lindsay Lohan celebrated her 20th birthday in last July with a Great Gatsby themed dinner party held at the Polaroid Beach House in Malibu. The party was sponsored by Life & Style magazine. Hotels, teenybopper actress parties, and so forth, all referring to Gatsby?

So I pose this question: is Jay Gatsby the most famous character in American literature?

Maybe fame isn’t the proper word. Maybe we should be discussing commercial viability. In addition to the examples mentioned above, the fashion word is replete with references to Gatsby-style. Architecture magazines frequently comment that this mansion would be perfect for one of Gatsby’s parties or that chateau would be a great place for Gatsby and Daisy to have tea. As a representation of an attitude, a fashion, a style of entertaining, is there a more well-known, more commercially utilized literary character?

I’m sure there are tons of Huck Finn Inns along the Mississippi River. And there’s the Tom Sawyer Island at Disney World. And he, of course, got his own Rush song so that goes a long way. Plenty of restaurants make references to Moby Dick, including the oddly named chain of kebab shops in the DC area.

Ernest Hemingway comes close in terms of symbolizing a way of life and a style for the masses. Hell, there’s even a line of furniture designed to conjure up Hemingway attitudes. But he’s an author, not a character.

Hester Prynne is pretty well-known by the American masses. But no fashion designer brags, “The vibrant red colors and the letter screenprinting conjures images of Hester Prynne and the town square.” Holden Caulfield is a cherished character of American lit, but art galleries don’t advertise their exhibitions by promoting “Graffiti art by contemporary masters that evoke the emotions of Holden Caulfied staring at the bathroom wall.”

I certainly can’t think of another character utilized so commerically as Jay Gatsby. Which is ironic given F. Scott Fitzgerald’s chronic financial difficulties. It’s quite a testament to the way Fitzgerald’s most famous novel has permeated our culture. Even people who haven’t read the book understand what the title character symbolized.

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