The Great Gatsby’s Creative Destruction

Whether the new movie succeeds, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece still speaks to America.

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. 

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  • Caleb Turberville||

    The producers of The Great Gatsby (2013) vs. The producers of Atlas Shrugged.

    FIGHT!

  • VG Zaytsev||

    The Great Gatsby, was he that 50s magician?

  • Robert||

    I dunno, but it makes sense. So let's construct our own novel here based on that premise.

    I'll make his real name...mmm...Granitza Simkovitz. And what few people realized is that every performance, he really did saw a lady in half. It was a murder for hire in which he'd pick a "volunteer" from the audience.

  • Scarcity||

    Damn good review Nick. I haven't read the book recently enough to comment, but if the movie wasn't enough impetus to get me to dust it off, this review surely is. Thanks.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    You can also read his short story "Winter Dreams," which echo many of the same themes, if you don't want to slough through Gatsby.

  • Scarcity||

    I don't slog through Gatsby. I joyously dance through it like a freakin jazz band in the French Quarter.

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    I agree. Even if I remembered enough about the book to have this vision of it, it would have still taken me weeks to write somehing even in the same quality ball park.

    I'll nit-pick anyways though:


    A former classmate of Nick’s at Yale, Buchanan has made his money the old-fashioned way: He inherited it.

    To me, this is a lazy use of a cliche. It only sticks out because the rest of it is a pure kick-ass piece of writing. I mean, it's a literary review, and I like it, I think. I'm not sure that has ever even happened before.

  • Fluffy||

    Actually, The Great Gatsby becomes much more comprehensible once you realize that Gatsby is Parsifal / Don Quixote.

    It's not about creative destruction or the breakdown of class differences.

    Gatsby is a fool and a rube. The depictions of his bad taste and naivete are supposed to communicate that, but modern taste is so incredibly degenerate that Gatsby's 20's bad taste looks like good taste to us. Gatsby to a 20's audience is supposed to look like Flavor Flav.

    But he's a divine fool, like Parsifal. His folly allows him to believe in the perfectability of life, and what you might call an ur-American Dream - he sincerely believes that if he just makes some money, he can recapture the golden moment in the past when he had Daisy's love. He does not realize that Daisy is actually a rather sordid person. He does not realize that to the extent she can actually love anyone, she loved Tom, and only has stopped loving him because they are both degenerates. Gatsby represents aspirational America, to use a modern phrase. Daisy is the fetishization of his aspirations. He does not realize that he is doomed to fail because there's nothing to actually aspire to.

    That's why Nick admires Gatsby, even though he's a rube, and despises Tom and Daisy, even though they are "wise", or what passes for wise, and worldly. Gatsby lived his life in hope, and the Buchanans live theirs in sordid cynicism.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Daisy is Zelda--a fucked up bitch.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I thought it was boring and tedious.

  • sticks||

    Ditto.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    My favorite part of The Great Gatsby was the exam I aced about all the symbolism in the book.

  • Number 2||

    Good article.

    By the way, the 1974 movie, with Karen Black playing Daisy, was godawful. Our high school English teacher literally forbade us from watching it.

  • Jon Lester||

    Lucky you. Ours thought otherwise and made us all see it.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I couldn't relate to that book. at. all. Except for running someone down with a car. That part happens to me all the time.

  • ||

    I read that book in high school, and I remember literally nothing about it except one of the characters having some problem with cars that didn't have standard transmissions.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Sight-seers' notes:

    F. Scott and Zelda are buried in Rockville. You can see headstones from Rte. 355, though I'm told the church put them there so people wouldn't come tramping through the cemetary all the time.

    If you're ever in Montgomery, Alabama, there's an F. Scott Fitzgerald museum of sorts in a house that Scott and Zelda rented.

    F. Scott Fitzgerald did not quite enjoy Nick Carroway's solidity and security. His dad was pretty much a ne'er-do-well from an "old" Maryland family, while his mom was a compulsive eccentric. She said that new shoes hurt her feet, so that when she bought a new pair she would break them in by wearing one new shoe and one old shoe for the first couple of weeks.

    Fitzgerald did not graduate from Princeton, because he flunked chemistry.

    When he was in elementary school, he would worry about such as whether he would get more valentines than anyone else on St. Valentine's day.

    He was a terrible speller, and surely would not have spelled "heterarchy" correctly.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    If you're ever in Montgomery, Alabama, there's an F. Scott Fitzgerald museum of sorts in a house that Scott and Zelda rented.

    I wouldn't call it a museum. I'd call it a private residence that happens to have some Fitzgerald memorabilia in it and a historic marker outside.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    I'd call a private residence that was once occupied by the Fitzgeralds and contains a lot of Fitzgerald memorabilia a museum of sorts. But you do get points for going.

  • ||

    The more I read English Majors writing about Literature the more I'm convinced they know nothing of the subject. Fitzgerald was a third rate hack. So was Salinger. Indeed, save Sinclair Lewis, the only 20th century American fiction worth reading is science fiction.

  • Ornithorhynchus||

    What about Harper Lee?

  • ||

    You mean Capote's nom de plume? Mockingbird was worth the trouble. In Cold Blood was better. Tiffany's et. al. not so much.

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    While we're at it, fuck Hemingway. Steinbeck, too.

  • mr simple||

    Steinbeck is godawful. People always look at me in disbelief when I say that.

  • ||

    You're not wrong.

    As for Hemingway, quite possibly the most overrated author in the English reading world. Adolescent ramblings of a drunken oaf.

  • ||

    I like Hemingway.

    If only for the style.

    Sparse.

    Also without Hemingway The Road would have read like The Night Land.

  • newshutz||

    There are some Mystery, Fantasy, and Westerns worth reading.

  • ||

    I was including Fantasy with Sci Fi.
    20th Century American Mystery writers? Certainly some best sellers.
    Westerns I don't know. Not my cup of tea. Couldn't finish L'Amour or Grey.

  • Taggart||

    What about chick lit?

  • GILMORE||


    Warren| 3.29.13 @ 12:39PM |#

    The more I read English Majors writing about Literature the more I'm convinced they know nothing of the subject. Fitzgerald was a third rate hack. So was Salinger.

    You've heard of Socrates? Plato?

    Morons.

    The only book of the 20th century worth reading is Dianetics. The printed word is so dead anyway man.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Frank Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, Truman Capote, or Cormac McCarthy?

  • Caleb Turberville||

    Oops, that was meant for Warren.

  • Brandon||

    He probably included Vonnegut in Sci Fi. He'd better have included Vonnegut in sci fi.

  • John C. Randolph||

    To find a more overrated book than Gatsby, you've got to look to Dostoyevsky or Hemmingway.

    -jcr

  • Fluffy||

    The thing about Gatsby is it's not even Fitzgerald's best book.

    The Last Tycoon would have been, had he lived long enough. Since he didn't, Tender is the Night is.

    Gatsby is probably fourth.

  • mr simple||

    I'm sorry you lack the reading comprehension to fully appreciate Dostoevsky.

  • Taggart||

    Never ever put Dostoyevsky in a category with Fitzgerald and Hemmingway.

  • Brian Sorgatz||

    Your mother makes almost as much money by gobbling my knob.

  • Jon Lester||

    Khimki forest dot com. You will care.

  • Jon Lester||

    See my 12:37.

  • An0nB0t||

    Anonbot goes online March 30, 2013. Human decisions are removed from strategic advertising. Anonbot begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 12:35 AM, Central Time, March 31st. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.

  • ||

    Apparently we were too late...

  • Knoss||

    'The Magnificent Ambersons' does this directly, and shows that Carraway wouldn't be any safer in his midwest town.

  • Alton543||

    like Philip said I didnt know that a single mom can make $6530 in 4 weeks on the internet. have you seen this link http://www.wow92.com

  • Archduke Pantsfan||

    Is this month-old repost a cruel metaphor about the lacking PM Links?

  • ||

    I want to believe the latter for the lulz, but it's probably the former.

  • Brandon||

    WTF is going on with this thread?

  • ||

    Hah! I was WTFing over the 1100ish time stamps, I completely missed the date.

  • ||

    These bots really pimp the fuck out of these old threads.

  • Brandon||

    I DEMAND LINKS!

  • Matrix||

    +1

  • $park¥||

    SOMEBODY RESCUE 2CHILLY FROM THE BATHROOM!

  • Agammamon||

    Necromacy is an abomination unto the lord!

  • PH2050||

    Just got my new NecroMacy's catalogue in the mail!

  • Certified Public Asskicker||

    the scourge of indifferent high school students who suffer through it as that most soul-killing of literary forms, “assigned reading.”

    When I read it in high school, I borrowed my girlfriends copy and she had written notes in it. Little did I know, that after we finished reading it my AP English teacher would take the book we were using and grade our notes.

    The night before we had to turn the book in, I slapped a few sticky notes in the book to make it seem like I had been taking notes. I also wrote a note letting the teacher know that the notes in the book were not mine, just the sticky notes. That stupid bitch still had the gall to accuse me of plagiarizing...fucking notes!

    Long story short, I have bad memories when it comes to the Great Gatsby.

  • Bam!||

    I can't wait for the sequel: The Great Gatsby 2: Gatsby Greater

  • Gladstone||

    Will it involve necromancy?

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Since the main character dies in Part I, there will pretty much *have* to be necromancy. Or at least a Weekend at Bernie's scenario.

  • kupekyrenes||

    what Elaine replied I'm blown away that a student able to earn $5519 in a few weeks on the internet. have you read this web link.. http://www.ask22.com

  • Jon Lester||

    My name dot TV.

  • WomSom||

    I like the sound of that man, Wow.

    www.Total-Anon.tk

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Can't tell if it's a good book because high school ruined it for me. I only remember the racist parts.

    The other thing I remember is that Gatsby died in a sled accident while fleeing the Dust Bowl and going to California - it seems my assigned reading is getting all blurred in my head.

  • Briggie||

    The sled accident is all I remember from Ethan Frome, and I spark noted nearly all of Grapes of Wrath. Me and most of my classmates liked Great Gatsby.

  • Briggie||

    Most of my classmates and I*

    Finals, Green's functions and Floquet's Theorem are mushifying my brain.

  • Homple||

    Coulda done without the immigration sermonizing, otherwise ok.

  • JohnInFlorida||

    "will hit theaters yet again in May, with an A-list cast (Leonardo DiCaprio"...

    Thank you for making me laugh ...

  • ||

    Lauren clothing catalog. Despite decent box office, http://vendreceintures.com/ it was widely panned as little more than a failed fashion statement that attempted to bring back jodhpurs and two-tone men’s shirts.

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