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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.