Now out of Congress for a year and a half, I can weigh in on issues of passion versus politics, namely the attempted expropriation of Long Island’s greatest literary triumph, “The Great Gatsby,” to Connecticut.
Two Connecticuters — if that’s even a word — argue that F. Scott Fitzgerald was inspired to write his classic novel not by Great Neck, but by Westport. Robert Steven Williams and Richard Webb Jr. present their evidence in a documentary coming out this fall. Webb has written a book about Fitzgerald’s book called “Boats Against the Current: The Honeymoon Summer of Scott and Zelda.”
First, Connecticutites (again, a word?) argued that their pizza was superior to ours. Now Williams and Webb perpetrate a mugging of Long Island’s literary identity. What next? Nelson DeMille’s “Gold Coast” was inspired by Groton? The “Amityville Horror” was originally called the “Naugatuck Nightmare”? Maybe Colson Whitehead wrote “Sag Harbor” while contemplating Seymour, which is actually the name of a town in Connecticut.
I’ve always thought that we devalue Long Island’s contributions to literature. Jack Kerouac (“On The Road”) lived for a while in Northport. DeMille is a consistent best-selling author whose thrillers — from “Gold Coast” all the way to “Plum Island” — capture the intrigue of our neighborhoods brilliantly. Theodore Roosevelt wrote prolifically from Sagamore Hill. And who ranks as one of the greatest poets in American history? Hint: There’s a mall named after him just across the street from The Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site.
Mario Puzo (“The Godfather”), Susan Isaacs (“Compromising Positions”), Michael Crichton (“Jurassic Park”), Alyson Richman (“The Lost Wife”) and others lived or live on Long Island. They wrote from or about Long Island. They are as much a reflection of our cultural identity as Jerry Seinfeld, Howard Stern or “The Long Island Medium,” which, until recently, I thought was the barrier separating eastbound from westbound on the Long Island Expressway.
In an age of streaming, tweeting and instant messaging, we’ve lost an appreciation for Long Island’s important place in meaningful literature. We’re not just malls and beaches and nail salons and pizza places and Chinese takeout. Nor should we be defined by the celebrity-packed Hamptons or the gated enclaves of the North Shore.
We have something to say here. We’ve shaped America’s view of itself on the pages our authors have written. I doubt Fitzgerald would have written “The Great Gatsby” had he not lived in Great Neck, seen the twinkling of the estates across the bay in Sands Point, or driven through Queens to get to Manhattan. My own writing has been shaped by observing Long Islanders, listening to them, understanding their unique subtleties. (“Waitah, we need maw bread.”)
Webb, seeking some compromise, writes, “Gatsby was probably a beachy blend of Great Neck and Westport.” Which is like saying that the Mystic Seaport is probably a nautical blend of Mystic and Massapequa.
On this matter, there is no compromise. My message to these Connecticut conspiracists is: Keep your hands off our books.
Steve Israel, a former Democratic congressman from Huntington, is the author of “Big Guns,” a novel set on Long Island.