His name was Henri, with an I. Who could ever have thought that something so tiny, so insignificant as a letter tacked on to the end of a name would end up representing the summation of his identity? It was so majestically, so deliberately French that just a few minutes after meeting him even Americans would often end up calling my grandfather Monsieur Henri. My parents made sure my middle name was also spelled Henri with an I, so that there would be no confusion as to my namesake. We knew there’d be hell to pay if somehow his tennis pass or his medical forms came back spelled Henry with a Y. And for a man who had always wanted to be French, the I made so much sense. After nearly a century of repeated deportations and immigration and expatriation, one constant remained in his life: his I.
And then a few months after he died, we began looking through his lesson books from Constantinople, and suddenly there it was: Henry with a Y. The American spelling.
But because there was perhaps no man less American than my grandfather, I have come to the conclusion over the last 10 years that it was not America itself that my grandfather dreamed of from that small stuffy classroom in Turkey, but rather of the opportunity for complete self-reinvention that America offered. The Y represented his longing for a new identity. And in no piece of American fiction is this more evident than in The Great Gatsby: His name was James Gatz, with a Z.
For a book with a modicum of plot (not that this is a bad thing) despite belonging to one of the most plot-driven literary traditions in history, The Great Gatsby has become so iconically American and its effects have lingered so hauntingly over the last century precisely because it is about self-erasure and reinvention. It’s about the friction between our past lives and the lives we have designed ourselves, and about just how quickly this friction can unravel us. It’s a reminder that even after a whirlwind reinvention there is forever some version of us out there rowing away in a tiny boat amid the splash of a moonlit tide. That even something as superficial as the spelling of a name can tear us in half, and that this is simply the price we pay for reinvention. Gatsby was forced to shed entire parts of himself in order to pay for a few extra letters.
Gatsby-style reinvention isn’t about running away from a version of ourselves, but is instead about moving toward some idealized notion of the person we had always hoped to become. We could be so much more if it weren’t for this fusty old name and these dirty old clothes. Gatz was an identity mired in stodgy middle-American (and, in some other capacity, probably very Jewish) values. Gatz could never have been rich, and so it was the creation of Gatsby—the reinvention of his entire self into a sort of savvy bon vivant—that allowed him to become great, really, truly Great. If there is something so eminently charming about Gatsby—that world-weary warmth, that affable down-to-earth nature despite all his riches, that sort of demure seductiveness—to the point where we almost desire each of these attributes for ourselves, it is because every part of Gatsby was methodically crafted to perfection.
It makes sense that America is the home of reinvention because unlike almost every other country in the world, it didn’t take a 2,000-year stumble into its current self, but instead was designed methodically, purposefully—every part of it sculpted against a series of carefully chosen ideals. Whether that worked out or not is another question, but there is no question that America itself was—perhaps is—the greatest reinvention of all time. Reinvention is so deeply woven into the American national identity that often these reinventions were forced upon people who arrived here and were then given new letters for free or had their old names truncated, whether they liked it or not. Reinvention is doled out upon arrival.
One of the most famous scenes in The Great Gatsby is the one where Gatsby hurls luxurious shirt after shirt at a tearful Daisy. And if this scene feels almost silly, it’s because Fitzgerald never gave this sobbing woman the words to articulate what is so painfully overwhelming for her at that moment: that here, surrounded by the finest cloths and haberdashery, are the brightest and most stunning trappings of a successful reinvention. Here lies the entire essence of Gatsby for her to see. Look who I have become. Clothes, like letters, are the foundation on which we build our new selves. It is for this reason that when my grandfather left Egypt, some of the only things he took with him to America were his bespoke suits. He wasn’t just packing clothes. He was trying to bring with him the identity that he had worked so hard at crafting. He was packing himself.
What nobody tells you is that this operation is one you can only go through once. My grandfather had run out of steam by the time he’d arrived in America; in Egypt he had carefully drawn up the blueprint for a life that was tragically cut short, and so there was nothing left to reinvent once he left. He had invested every part of himself into becoming a successful businessman and dapper socialite, and so after losing yet another part of himself upon leaving Egypt, he sat and withered away for decades in America. Gatsby is killed so that we do not have to watch him attempt and bungle family life. He could have existed forever as party host and tycoon, but wouldn’t have been able to shed himself again and reinvent himself for a life with Daisy. Too much of Gatsby had been drowned in champagne coupes and in the waters of West Egg for him to survive another reinvention.
Read Alexander Aciman’s Bookworm column in Tablet magazine on Mondays.