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.
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.