Note: This story appears in the April 2013 issue of Reason magazine and originally appeared on Reason.com on April 29, 2013.
Very few American novels have demonstrated the remarkable staying power of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Published in 1925, it remains a critical darling, a widely read popular novel, and the scourge of indifferent high school students who suffer through it as that most soul-killing of literary forms, “assigned reading.”
Gatsby looms so large in the American imagination that it’s already been filmed four times (the first time in 1926, as a silent movie) and will hit theaters yet again in May, with an A-list cast (Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire) and director (Baz Luhrmann). Surprisingly, the new film also boasts state-of-the-art 3D, as if the filmmakers are worried that the story alone—which includes sex, murder, and copious amounts of Prohibition-era booze—isn’t quite riveting enough to put asses in seats.
Luhrmann and crew might just be prudently hedging their bets. After all, the most ambitious adaptation of Gatsby—the 1974 version featuring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and a script by Francis Ford Coppola—had all the moxie of a sun-faded Ralph Lauren clothing catalog. Despite decent box office, it was widely panned as little more than a failed fashion statement that attempted to bring back jodhpurs and two-tone men’s shirts.
Based on the trailers and ads made available so far, the new movie likely errs in the same fundamental way that the Redford version did. That is, it conceives of Gatsby ultimately as a grand love story between the title character and the object of his obsessive love, Daisy Buchanan. Given the barebones plot of the book, that’s understandable but regrettable, as those two are the least compelling characters in the novel. Despite occasional moments of darkness and depth, Daisy works hard and mostly succeeds at maintaining a superficial lightness. Gatsby, despite the whirl of excitement and mystery about him, is an empty suit. Even the novel’s adulatory narrator confesses that when he’s alone with Gatsby, “I found to my disappointment, that he had nothing to say.”
The reason that Gatsby (the novel, if not the character) still has plenty to say to us is that it captures the precise moment that modern America came into recognizable shape. It is about the move from countryside to metropolis, from unum to pluribus, from hierarchy to heterarchy in all aspects of cultural and economic life. It captures a world in which nothing is fixed in terms of status, fortune, and self-fashioning—and it narrates the anxieties by such freedom.
James Gatz, a poor kid from the Midwest, reinvents himself with the help of bootleggers as Jay Gatsby, a mysterious and super-rich figure who throws huge, bacchanalian parties at his Long Island mansion. As events unfold through the eyes of Gatsby’s neighbor and Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway, we learn that Gatsby and Daisy had a torrid, tortured love affair that ended years before with Daisy marrying the oafish Tom Buchanan.
A former classmate of Nick’s at Yale, Buchanan has made his money the old-fashioned way: He inherited it. Reunited in Long Island, Gatsby and Daisy take up with one another again, and through a series of misunderstandings, Scotch-fueled showdowns, and arguably the greatest literary depiction of vehicular manslaughter ever, Gatsby loses not only Daisy but his life.
While other U.S. novels written around the same time—Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, say, or Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury—still have their critical admirers and literary influence, they don’t inhabit the national imagination as they used to. Novels that once read as modernist masterpieces now seem much more dated, in both their settings and their concerns. (For that matter, so does the rest of Fitzgerald’s oeuvre.) But Gatsby still speaks directly to large-scale, ongoing shifts in American society.
Partly set in the fictional environs of West Egg and East Egg, Long Island, Gatsby foregrounds tensions between what passes for old money and new in these United States. The Buchanans live in East Egg, while Gatsby lives in West Egg, described by Nick as “the—well, less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them.” Where the Buchanans reside in a “cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion” that Nick describes in terms of grace and unity, Gatsby lives in a “huge incoherent failure,” a preposterous “imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy” built by a crass, overreaching brewer who ostensibly went bust because of Prohibition.
Gatsby, however, is not simply a story about class differences. It’s about the breakdown of class differences in the face of a modern economy based not on status and inherited position but on innovation and an ability to meet ever-changing consumer needs. Ultimately, Gatsby is the great American novel of the ways in which free markets (even, and perhaps especially, black markets) overturn established order and recreate the world through what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.”
Schumpeter defined creative destruction as that force which “incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one” in response to constantly changing demand. Properly understood, creative destruction affects far more than the economic order. Taking a page from Marx, Schumpeter underscored that the market’s ceaseless “mutations” and “gales” are constantly remaking the social order as well.
Taking place in 1922, Gatsby captures the country’s move from the countryside and small, regional centers to large cities “where anything can happen” (as Nick puts it). Although the era after World War I is sometimes discussed as “a return to normalcy,” it was anything but. Mass industrialization, the opening of global markets, and relatively unfettered laissez faire radically altered commerce. After years of slow-to-no growth and government rationing, common workers in particular saw huge earnings gains that led to new and barely constrained forms of consumption. A host of new (or newly affordable) products, ranging from movies to radios to tabloid newspapers to automobiles, scrambled the status quo like never before. “There never again will be precisely the old order,” announced President Warren G. Harding in 1922. That was bad news for the people who had benefited from it.
The 1920 U.S. Census was the first one in which most Americans lived in cities and towns. More than a dozen cities had more than 600,000 inhabitants, with New York City boasting more than 5.5 million. As important, the people pouring into the Big Apple and other cities came not just from all over the country but from all over the globe. Between 1901 and 1920, more than 14 million immigrants entered the United States, largely from Southern and Central Europe (by contrast, prior to 1890, about 80 percent of immigrants hailed from Northern European countries). African Americans were pouring into Northern cities too, with New York’s black population more than doubling during the ’20s. In 1921 The New York Times spoke for the WASP establishment when it fretted that the country was being “mongrelized.”
Read with a contemporary eye, Gatsby’s New York and Long Island are haunted by surprisingly well-to-do ethnics who discombobulate Nick Carraway’s sense of ease and entitlement even as they engage his sense of adventure. (Throughout the novel, he remains “aware of [New York’s] superiority to the bored, sprawling towns beyond the Ohio” river.) As Nick and Gatsby drive into Manhattan, Carraway remarks, “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” His reverie is immediately broken by two sightings of natives who don’t quite belong in such a pristine, mythic tableau.