The Great Gatsby’s Creative Destruction

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

(Page 2 of 2)

First, Nick sees a funeral procession of Italians, who far from being noble savages, “looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of southeastern Europe.” He adds paternalistically, “I was glad that the sight of Gatsby’s splendid car was included in their somber holiday.” Immediately after that encounter, Nick and Gatsby light upon an even more upside-down situation: “A limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.”

Those encounters lead Nick to muse that “anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge…anything at all.” That sense of flux, of near-chaos, informs a celebrated passage in which Nick absentmindedly lists “the names of those who came to Gatsby’s house that summer” for his legendary parties: “From farther out on the Island came the Cheadles and the O.R.P. Schraeders, and the Stonewall Jackson Abrams of Georgia, and the Fishguards and the Ripley Snells.…” Critics have traditionally praised the list of absurd, pretentious names as Fitzgerald’s withering take on the nouveau riche as the “embodiments of illusions,” of people trying too hard to ape the legitimate upper crust. The list, writes Marius Bewley in a characteristic gloss, “conjures up with remarkable precision an atmosphere of vulgar American fortunes and vulgar American destinies.” 

That’s one way of reading it. Another way is to see it as a moment of class anxiety, in which Nick Carraway, who comes from what passes for old money in the United States, is undercutting arriviste rivals. As the critic Marcus Klein perceptively asks, “Who were the Cheadles and the Stonewall Jackson Abrams of Georgia and the Fishguards and the Snells? The answer in all obviousness, was that they were mongrels. They were debasers of the social coin: imagine a man named Abrams who dared to call himself Stonewall Jackson and who has also dared to come from (American) Georgia.” 

Educated in the Ivy League and supported by his father while dabbling in “the bond business,” Nick is not nearly as flush as Tom and Daisy. But like them, he comes from a Midwestern city in which order, identity, and status are fixed and unchanging. What brave new world is this, where blacks have white chauffeurs and just about anyone can buy his way into polite society?

The mixing of class and ethnic identity is most obvious in the novel’s ambivalent depiction of Meyer Wolfsheim, the gangster with whom Gatsby works and who, we later learn, “made” Gatsby. Based on the legendary gambler, bootlegger, and organized crime figure Arnold Rothstein, Fitzgerald’s description of Wolfsheim is perhaps the purest distillation of literary anti-Semitism in all of American literature. Wolfsheim is simultaneously a criminal genius and sub-human. After being introduced to Wolfsheim in a dimly lit restaurant, Nick observes, “A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril. After a moment I discovered his tiny eyes in the half-darkness.” During the meal, Wolfsheim displays awful table manners, talks in guttural Brooklynese, mistakenly invites Nick into criminal activity, and brags about his cuff links, which he explains are made of the “finest specimens of human molars.” Welcome to New York, circa 1922.

Nick is subsequently floored to learn that Wolfsheim’s bestial appearance and bad manners camouflage a mastermind who is pulling all sorts of scams all across the country. After lunch, Gatsby casually informs Nick that Wolfsheim is “the man who fixed the World’s Series [sic] back in 1919.” The revelation “staggers” Nick, who thinks, “It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.” When Nick asks Gatsby why Wolfsheim isn’t in jail, Gatsby replies, “They can’t get him, old sport. He’s a smart man.”

Nick’s sense of disorientation and dislocation is made complete when he visits Wolfsheim to inform him about Gatsby’s funeral. He learns that Wolfsheim found Gatsby, discharged from the Army after World War I, wandering around New York. Wolfsheim cleaned him up and gave him his “start” in a series of vague, wide-ranging, and highly remunerative criminal activities. “I raised [Gatsby] up out of nothing, right out of the gutter,” Wolfsheim says. “I saw right away he was a fine-appearing, gentlemanly young man, and when he told me he was an Oggsford [had attended Oxford], I knew I could use him good.” Nick has already learned that Gatsby reinvented himself from a Midwestern rube into a cosmopolitan man of mystery, but he is stunned to realize that Wolfsheim—a lowbrow Jewish mobster, of all things!—was not only instrumental in Gatsby’s rise but has long been “using” him, just as he used the great American game of baseball, to line his pockets. 

Even more mind-blowing, Wolfsheim reveals himself to be an ethical character. The gangster feeds a hungry man, and he plays no role in Gatsby’s demise (which proceeds directly from the “rotten” behavior of the old-money Buchanans). As a bootlegger, Wolfsheim is merely supplying people with something they want. In turning down Nick’s invitation to attend Gatsby’s funeral, Wolfsheim articulates a moral code that Carraway himself fails to embody: “Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.”

Historian Geoffrey Perrett has written that the rise of a polyglot, heavily immigrant urban America in the early 20th century created in the WASP establishment “a sense of being cornered within their own country.” If Nick’s laconic reaction to Wolfsheim’s revelations about his role in Gatsby’s rise—he simply mumbles, “Oh”—doesn’t quite communicate a sense of being cornered, his subsequent flight from New York certainly does. After overseeing the preparations for Gatsby’s funeral (attended by just one mourner aside from Gatsby’s father) and ending things with his girlfriend, Jordan Baker, a competitive golfer accused of cheating during tournaments, Nick flees the East Coast and retreats to “his Middle West” in one of the most powerfully elegiac passages in American literature.

“One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time,” Nick recounts. “Are you going to the Ordways’? the Herseys’? the Schultzes’?…That’s my Middle West—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth.…I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”

Faced with adapting to a world whose economic and cultural rules were being rewritten by arrivistes, Nick opts instead to return home to “that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” Slipping into the first-person plural, Nick casts his decision to leave New York—the symbolic center of a modern and mongrelized America—as a universal insight steeped in tragic knowledge: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The poetry of the passage obscures the fact that Nick is speaking primarily for himself at this moment. His future may indeed be receding and getting bleaker; he is moving against economic and cultural currents that threaten to drown him and his way of life. He merely assumes the reader shares his perspective. 

But today’s reader—living in a country where the president is half-black, being Jewish is a marker for establishment success, and the last name of the actor playing Gatsby ends in a vowel—is likely to look at things differently than Nick does. The immigrant masses, the blacks, the nouveau riche, and the Wolfsheims flooding into New York and America in the 1920s certainly were not running into the past. If anything, they were running from the past, and the very place that Nick Carraway vacated was the beginning of their future. 

While the specific terms of the equation are always changing, it’s easy to see echoes of Gatsby’s basic conflict between established sources of economic and cultural power and upstarts in virtually all aspects of American society. On the broadest level, debates over immigration always revolve around fears of debasement of natives by newcomers with dubious genetics and super-human work ethics. One of the underappreciated ironies of contemporary immigration debates is that so many vociferous restrictionists—Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies—have exactly the sort of last names that would have barred them from entering serious conversations back in the early 20th century.

Established businesses and leading citizens are always denouncing the next new thing not simply as a bad idea but as positively evil. No stranger to prohibition, the liquor industry has nothing kind to say about legal marijuana. Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier, one of the heroes of the early days of cyberspace, accuses Facebook, Twitter, and Google of “digital Maoism.” The very movie industry now bringing Gatsby to the big screen yet again has spent most of its existence fighting against real and imagined threats to its dominance, constantly mistaking creative destruction for the apocalypse. Perhaps most emblematically, the industry fought tooth and nail to ban VCRs, fearing the technology would destroy Hollywood’s ability to make money. The head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti, cried in 1982, “The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” That such fears are typically totally misplaced—VCRs provided the bulk of Hollywood’s revenue in the 1980s and ’90s and created a new outlet for niche films—is less important than the fact that they are constantly being voiced.

Like Nick Carraway, the agents of the establishment—in whatever area—are always beating hasty retreats into the past while claiming to speak for those of us with an eye on the future. 

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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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