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  • Willow Whitaker

Self-Made: What It Means to Retell a Classic Like ‘The Great Gatsby’


Cover of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald


Next year marks the hundredth anniversary of the publishing of The Great Gatsby, a recognizable American classic that is endlessly taught in classrooms. In 2022, Anna-Marie McLemore worked with Macmillan Publishers to create Self-Made Boys, which contributed to their Remixed Classics collection. But what does it mean to ‘remix’ a classic exactly? 


In the original novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald tells a story which focuses on the decaying of the American Dream, the clash between the old pre-war aristocracy still clinging to prevalence and the shiny new-money taking their place, as well as the loss of morals in the race for material gain. All of his central characters embody these themes through their actions. Jay Gatsby is in love with the idea of Daisy Fay, his long-imagined dream of what their life should be. He does anything and everything with his new financial power to obtain her. Nick Carroway is surrounded by vapid, empty people — with the exception of Gatsby of course — who he can’t seem to make a decent connection with. He ends up returning home to the west, believing that “the orgastic future…year by year recedes before us.” 


The wild, racing quality of the characters and the roaring world they live in is best encapsulated in the line “All I kept thinking about, over and over, was ‘You can't live forever; you can't live forever.’” The same could be said for the novel itself. The world has changed and grown so much since 1922, and, with time, all stories grow to represent new beliefs, new ideals. 


Cover of Self-Made Boys by Anna-Marie McLemore


In the author’s note of Self-Made Boys, Anna-Marie McLemore says that with their first encounter of The Great Gatsby, “I had a feeling this story wasn’t done with me.” Macmillan Publishing explains on their website that their ‘Remixed Classics’ collection invites “authors from diverse backgrounds [to] take different literary classics from centuries past and reinterpret them through their own unique cultural lens.” In this case, McLemore incorporates their experiences as a queer, transgender, Latine writer into their own story of Nick, Jay, Daisy, and Jordan — a story which is strikingly different from its precursor. 


In McLemore’s book, the readers see the world of 1920s New York through the eyes of those who have to work twice as hard to establish themselves there. Nicolás Caraveo wants to succeed in his profession and earn enough to support his family back home, but he hits what feels like wall after wall of stereotypes and racism for his Mexican heritage. On top of that, Nick wants desperately to establish himself as a man after hiding his being trans for so long. Jay Gatsby has succeeded in this feat, but is struggling to find purpose or meaning after his traumatic experiences in the war, and chooses to cling optimistically to the American Dream. Daisy Fabrega-Caraveo is struggling to fit herself into the stately, wife-material, white mold of Daisy Fay. She can only find solace in her loved ones and friends around her — Jordan, Nick, and Jay — who eventually help to save her, and set her free. 


McLemore tells the readers in their author’s note, “I wanted to write about the American dream for what it is, a hope so many of us have but that, for so long, didn’t belong to so many of us, and often still doesn’t.” They tell a story less about the emptiness of the world but “the impossible magic of so many hearts being fearlessly themselves.” 


Self-Made Boys is a retelling of The Great Gatsby, but it is its own story. While Fitzgerald criticizes the loss of the American Dream, McLemore builds off of this by questioning if it was ever something that needed to be obtained in the first place. However, while Jay Gatsby’s reliance on the ideals of this dream cause him to meet a gruesome snuffing-out in the classic, the remix gives him a softer ending. 


Retellings allow us to combat and question the original stories, and also give power to themes, messages, and people who didn’t have a place before. McLemore has the space today to build off of Fitzgerald’s original novel in order to tell these stories in their novel. In this case, readers can enjoy the existence of queerness which thrives, even in a time which threatens that it shouldn’t. As well as a point-blank message that the American dream does not work to lift ‘anyone’ up, but instead shoves only the few blindly towards a useless ideal of what it means to be an American — which, in reality, is anyone’s guess.

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