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The Great Gatsby: Establishing the Historical Context with Primary Sources

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This post is by Rebecca Newland, the 2013-2015 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is one of the most often taught in American literature classes. However, the further we move away chronologically from 1922,  a time of economic boom following the devastation of World War I, the less students know about this significant time between the Great War and the War to end all Wars. Explore the historical context of the novel with primary sources from the Library of Congress.

Go over the top with U.S. Marines [1917]
Go over the top with U.S. Marines [1917]

"Over the top" - American soldiers answering the bugle call to "charge," 1918
“Over the top” – American soldiers answering the bugle call to “charge,” 1918

Both Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway served in the United States military during the Great War. Direct students to the recruitment poster. Use the Primary Source Analysis tool and questions selected from the Analyzing Photographs and Prints Teacher’s Guide to facilitate an analysis.


  • What view of war is expressed by the poster?
  • What details were meant to persuade men to join the Marines?
  • Which of these persuasive elements might have appealed to Nick and Gatsby?

Continue the conversation with the photograph of soldiers in the trenches, again asking students to consider what view of war is expressed, what the purpose was for creating the photo, and what elements of the scene in the photo might have appealed to Nick and Gatsby.

For deeper engagement, consider:

  • In what ways are the two images similar? In what ways are they different?
  • What is significant about the similarities and differences?
  • Ask students to write a caption expressing the message they believe is sent by each image.
  • What do the items illustrate about appearance vs. reality? In what ways does Fitzgerald express the motif of appearance vs. reality?
El Paso herald., October 03, 1917
El Paso herald., October 03, 1917

Supplement discussion of battlefield conditions with this article from 1917 about doctors studying shell shock.

Ask students:

  • How does information about the experiences of World War I soldiers foster an understanding of Gatsby and Nick as well as others with whom they associate?
  • In what ways might Gatsby and Nick’s military service have influenced their experiences and decisions?

Gatsby’s parties also are prominent in the novel. Fitzgerald’s detailed descriptions indicate that despite Prohibition, alcohol flows freely. Rumors abound that Gatsby may have made his money in the illegal alcohol business.

Personal liberty: we can't work if we don't get beer, 1919
Personal liberty: we can’t work if we don’t get beer, 1919

Offer the song “Personal Liberty: We Can’t Work if We Don’t Get Beer.” Support students in an analysis using questions selected from the Analyzing Sheet Music and Song Sheets Teacher’s Guide. Lead a deeper discussion by asking:

  • What issues does the song address in addition to the law against alcohol?
  • In what ways does Prohibition or the characters’ failure to follow the law affect the course of the novel?
  • Do you think Fitzgerald was for or against Prohibition? Cite evidence from the novel to support your hypothesis.

If time allows, engage students with additional primary sources related to World War I from the collections of the Library of Congress using this Guide to World War I materials.

What other elements of The Great Gatsby‘s context could you explore with primary sources?

Comments (4)

  1. Very much enjoyed this post and following the thinking behind the structure of the lesson plan.
    I think making these visible to the students helps them deepen their reading and also find new ways to approach events, current and historical.

  2. Anyone who doubts the power of incorporating primary sources into the English/Language Arts curriculum needs to read this post! The suggested primary sources go well beyond enrichment; they answer important questions about the political and social context of the time period and its influence on the author in creating his characters.

  3. I created an assignment for my kids last Friday that incorporated this wonderful material, and then it went missing from the website. They were unable to work with it over the weekend and today in class. Any idea on how it can be accessed once again??

  4. Ashley, I see all of the primary sources except the music, and I’m working on tracking that down. If you’re still experiencing difficulty accessing the materials, please let me know!
    Best regards,
    3/31: Updated URL for the sheet music.

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