The Great Gatsby (1925)
- The American Dream
- Treatment of Discourse of White Supremacy
- Relationship Between the Narrator and the Protagonist
- The Jazz Age
- Representation of the city and urban landscape, specifically New York
- An American Wasteland
In my first lecture I mentioned that Gatsby embodies or epitomises a version of the American Dream. I want to start by exploring this idea in a little more depth. My 1991 Websters College Dictionary defines the American Dream as:
- The ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity traditionally held to be available to every American.
- A life of personal success and material comfort as sought by individuals in the U.S. (1930-5)
Whereas my 1919 Websters New International Dictionary doesn’t list the American Dream as a separate entity at all.
- of or pertaining to America; as American continent; American Indians.
- of or pertaining to the United States. "A young official of the American navy."
- A native of America; orig., an American aborigine; now specif., a person of European descent born in America.
- A citizen of the United States.
- A series of thoughts, images, or emotions occurring during sleep; any seeming reality or fragmentary and distorted representation of the experiences of waking life¸ though they are at times marked by consecutive reasoning or a storylike naturalness.
- Any experience of waking life having the characteristics of a dream; esp., a visionary or fanciful creation of the imagination; an "airy castle;" as, the dreams of youth; a state of mind marked by abstraction or by confusion of the sense of reality; reverie; abstraction; as, to live in a dream; sometimes, an object having the traits of a dream object; a vision; esp. something of strange exotic charm.
What this implies is that the American Dream had become a cliché by the 1990s, indeed even by the 1930s; but that when the 1919 edition of Websters was being compiled it hadn’t quite achieved that state of linguistic and ideological degeneration. Indeed the concept was arguably most viable around the time that Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby. In 1909, Herbert Croly in the Promise of American Life wrote:
The promise of American life is to be fulfilled … not merely by the abundant satisfaction of individual desires but by a large measure of individual subordination and self-denial.
In 1931, Charles Beard, wrote:
In the minds of most people why shout for individualism vociferously, the creed, stripped of all flashy rhetoric, means getting money, simply that and nothing more.
Or as Willa Cather put it in 1924: "judging success in terms of dollars."
I think each of these quotations implies that the concept of the American Dream revolves around material success and upward mobility, and also puts a lot of emphasis on individual accomplishment. Yet there is another strain to the concept, which is deeply imbued with idealism and the aspiration for a highly developed individual spiritual attainment. That earlier notion of the American Dream can be traced back to colonial times, with the Puritan emphasis on building a "City on the Hill," which is to say with constructing a theocratic society organized around the word of God. (Although even then material or secular success was perceived to be a good indicator of ones being the recipient of God’s grace.) Yet, the American Dream persists throughout the 19th Century as a concept, which combines individual achievement and social progress with inner transcendent fulfilment. By the turn of the century, an advanced capitalist economy was producing economic surpluses, so that success is indicated by exterior signs of elaborate ornamentation, which display "pecuniary wealth" rather than perform a functional necessity.
The Great Gatsby investigates this myth of the self-made man who not only achieves the American Dream but also ostentatiously and conspicuously displays the results of his achievements, and I believe teases out some of the tensions and contradictions inherent in the concept. [Discuss: pp. 76-9; 73-4; 143-5].
I also recommend Jim Cullen's The American Dream (O.U.P. 2003). See his discussion of The Great Gatsby, pages 179ff.
In seminar we've already had a discussion about Willa Cather’s unconsciously racist depiction of blind d’Arnault, which then allowed us to consider her treatment of the Hired Girls, and of Ántonia in a new light. So I want to try the same approach by considering a couple of sentences in Chapter 4:
As we crossed Blackwell’s island 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.
"Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge," I thought; "anything at all…."
Blackwell’s Island is an island in the East River between Queens and Manhattan. So one obvious first point to make about this is that Manhattan is constructed in the text as a type of "Unreal city." It is a metropolis, where the normal laws of existence no longer apply – as far as Fitzgerald and Carraway are concerned. Specifically what happens is that the accepted racial order is overturned here. "Negroes" are chauffeured by a white man. Just as with My Ántonia, it would be nice to think that Cather critiques Jim for his patronising racist perception of Blind d’Arnault, — so here, I am sure we would all feel relieved if we could convince ourselves that Nick Carraway, the narrator, was being racist in his alarm at the reversal of the normal racial hierarchy, but that Fitzgerald was being critical of Nick’s attitude. However, I’m not sure that we can make that distinction. Bert Bender has published a very useful, if disturbing article on Fitzgerald’s interest in evolution and eugenics. He points out that ideas about the evolution of the species, linked to ideas about the racial superiority of the white man over all other species, were very much in the air at Princeton, when Fitzgerald was a student there. Furthermore he demonstrates that these were ideas Fitzgerald was personally interested in. I think one needs to imagine that such ideas and discussions had the same kind of appeal of contemporaneity as discussions of the global village, and virtual reality have for us now. They were the new way of conceptualising human experience and identity in a modern world. I want to quote from Bender’s article, since I think he presents the material succinctly, if devastingly:
The American paleontologist E. D. Cope "preached it as the doctrine of Nordic supremacy": the "inferior" groups (including "races, sexes, and classes") were arrested in development at the level of the white male's child. Just as the white embryo's development recapituated the human descent from lower forms, so did the white child's development recapitulate the development of the lower or "childlike" races (who were supposedly arrested at that stage) until, triumphantly, the white males, at least, would go on to exhibit their superiority as a race.
One begins to see how the study of heredity might have appealed to Princetonians of those years, some of whom, like Fitzgerald, were so disturbed at seeing "the negroid streak creeping northward to defile the nordic race" that they were overly receptive to popular and less scientific writers like Lothrop Stoddard. [...] As Fitzgerald write to Edmund Wilson from Europe in the summer of 1921, "Raise the bars of immigration and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo Saxons + Celts to enter" (Letters 47)
From Bert Bender, "‘His Mind Aglow’: the Biological Undercurrent in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and Other Works" in Journal of American Studies 32 (1998), 399-420, p. 401-2.
So, in a letter to Edmund Wilson dated July 1921, Fitzgerald writes of "the negroid streak creep[ing] northward to defile the nordic race." If Fitzgerald writes like this in private correspondence, we have to assume that Carraway the narrator reflects Fitzgerald his author’s response when he laughs at the "yolks of [the modish negroes] eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry."
In turn this complicates how we as readers respond to the depiction of Tom and Daisy. My reaction is to read the text as if Carraway is critical of Tom, Daisy, Jordan, et al. But I’m not sure that I can find sufficient evidence to justify that reading. I want to consider the moment when Nick first visits Tom and Daisy at East Egg, "across the courtesy bay by the white palaces of fashionable East Egg" (8).
Tom is apparently a figure of fun, who can’t quite get the name of the author right, a muscle bound jock, struggling unsuccessfully with intellectual ideas which he has trouble grasping, even when they are presented in popularising form. Yet, as Bert Bender points out, he is the character who succeeds, who gets the girl and keeps her, owns this prestigous house on the right side of the bay, and has already procreated. In terms of the ideas he stutteringly articulates, he is at the top of the evolutionary ladder, ensuring the perpetuation of the "best" of the species, the successful, competitive nordic male. Daisy, dressed all in white, in the glittering prize; the confirmation of his masculine prowess and ascendency, and in her fashionable dress ostentatious proof of he financial strength as well.
So, is there much point worrying about the distance between F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, and Nick Carraway, first person narrator in the text? I still think there is, although I’m not sure if I can draw any hard and fast conclusions from it.
Diane Dufva Quantic is right when she describes The Great Gatsby as linked to "the optimistic westering myth of Manifest Destiny and the garden" (133), and she reminds us that Leo Marx offers a reading of Carraway and Gatsby in The Machine in the Garden, which depends on the fact that as Westerners, they both "recognize the pastoral ideal." I think it is well worth looking again at Leo Marx’s Epilogue to The Machine in the Garden where he offers a reading of Nick Carraway and Gatsby that teases out the difference between these two protagonists in Fitzgerald’s text. In a nutshell:
The difference between Gatsby’s point of view and Nick’s illustrates the distinction […]between sentimental and complex pastoralism. (362)
If we accept his reading, then they share a common set of western cultural assumptions; but the difference is that Nick is a realist and a pragmatist, – he can accept the realities of the historical process and where that has ended up in terms of a contemporary modernity –; whereas Gatsby is a sentimentalist and a "dreamer", – he wants to perpetuate an illusion about his contemporary situation which arises from reverie not reality. In so doing one might want to argue that he is representative or symptomatic of his age.
"Echoes of the Jazz Age" (November 1931) in The Crack Up. Yet the present writer already looks back to it with nostalgia.
The ten-year period that, as if reluctant to die outmoded in its bed, leaped to a spectacular death in October, 1929, began at the time of the May Day riots in 1919. When the police rode down the demobilized country boys gaping at the orators in Madison Square, it was the sort of measure bound to alienate the more intelligent young men from the prevailing order. (13)
It was characteristic of the Jazz Age that it had no interest in politics at all. (14)
It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire. […] With Americans ordering suits by the gross in London, the Bond Street tailors perforce agreed to moderate their cut to the American long-waisted figure and loose-fitting taste, something subtle passed to America, the style of man. (14)
This was the generation whose girls dramatized themselves as flappers, the generation that corrupted its elders and eventually overreached itself less through lack of morals than through lack of taste. May one offer in exhibit the year 1922! That was the peak of the younger generaton, for though the jazz Age continued, it became less and less an affair of youth. (15)
A whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure. […] [T]he general decision to be amused that began with the cocktail parties of 1921 had more complicated origins.
The word jazz in its progress toward respectability has meant first sex, then dancing, then music. It is associated with a state of nervous stimulation, not unlike that of big cities behind the lines of a war. (15-16)
So although Fitzgerald coined the term "the Jazz Age" his sense of it is not primarily to do with Jazz music. For him, it characterizes a decade from 1919 to 1929, i.e. from the time of the demonstrations in New York against the racial prejudice which returning black American soldiers experienced when they tried to integrate back into the peace time economy, to the time of the Wall Street crash. So he associates the Jazz Age very much with events taking place in New York, but he doesn’t associate it with Harlem and black American music particularly. He also associates it with increasing sexual license for young people, which came with the advent of the motor car. In his article he makes specific reference to the automobile as a place of "mobile privacy … given to young Bill at sixteen to make him ‘self-reliant’." He also associates it with alcohol, even during prohibition, when it becomes transgressive, and bootlegging involves a criminalization of drinking, in much the same way as cannabis is criminalized at the present time in this country. It is also associated with dancing and flappers and short skirts, and generally hedonistic behaviour. Certainly Fitzgerald’s sense of the Jazz Age, is one that emphasises a complex of social trends rather than an emphasis on jazz itself, which apparently he was not particularly familiar with. So he characterizes the Twenties as a time of nervous energy, of a transformation of moral values, and a hedonistic outlook, which interprets literally the Declaration of Rights guarantee of the "pursuit of happiness." Moreover, because of prohibition, ordinary people are more likely to have social interaction with a criminal class, and issues of moral probity become somewhat relativized. The other aspect of the Jazz Age, which constitutes part of Fitzgerald’s definition of it, is the sense of excess, and of an excess of money: "[e]ven when you were broke you didn’t worry about money, because it was in such profusion around you." (21) — and concommitant with this an excessiveness in style, which he sees as part of its eventual downfall.
pp. 33 & 41
"My Lost City" (July 1932) in The Crack Up
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
When I got back to New York in 1919 I was so entangled in life that a period of mellow monasticism in Washington Square was not to be dreamed of. The thing was to make enough money in the advertising business to rent a stuffy apartment for two in the Bronx. [...]
New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world. The returning troops marched up Fifth Avenue and girls were instinctively drawn East and North toward them – this was the greatest nation and there was gala in the air. […]
Incalculable city. What ensued was only one of a thousand success stories of those gaudy days, but it plays a part in my own movie of New York. […] To my bewilderment, I was adopted, not as a Middle Westerner, not even as a detached observer, but as the arch type of what New York wanted. This statement requires some account of the metropolis in 1920.
There was already the tall white city of today, already the feverish activity of the boom, but there was a general inarticulateness. (25-6)
For us the city was inevitably linked up with Bacchic diversions, mild or fantastic. […] Perhaps Peter Arno and his collaborators said everything there was to say about the boom days in New York that couldn’t be said by a jazz band. Many people who were not alcoholics were lit up four days out of seven, and frayed nerves were strewn everywhere; groups were held together by a generic nervousness and the hang-over became a part of the day as allowed-for as the Spanish siesta. (29-30)
One senses an ambivalence in Fitzgerald’s attitude to his own participation in New York during the Jazz Age. He seems to know it is gaudy and inarticulate, lacking political commitment, prone to excesses and excessive nervousness. And yet there is the most incredible nostalgia for it:
[A]nd it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more. (22)
And lastly from that period I remember riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again. (28-9)
For the moment I can only cry out that I have lost my splendid mirage. Come back, come back, O glittering and white! (33)
Under the brown for fog a winter noon …
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road …
So Fitzgerald exhibits some ambivalence in his own attitude to the Jazz Age and to the New York culture of the Twenties. He offers the rosy vision of the glittering white city, and he also writes the Valley of Ashes the place of waste which is its reverse, but which allows it to maintain its illusion of hygienic purity. He gives us Nick working at Probity Trust, but associating with Jordan Baker, suspected of cheating in a small way, and Meyer Wolfsheim, reputed to have cheated in a vast way. And he gives us two mid-Westerners, who share cultural assumptions about American ideology, who speak the same language, as it were, but who react quite differently as individuals in the face of it.
When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions iwith privileged glimpses into the human heart. […] Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrow and short-winded elations of men. (5-6)
So that leaves me wondering how to read the ending. Is it a reaffirmation of hope, a renewed optimistic belief in the pastoral ideal, and in its possibility on the American subcontinent? Or is it a statement born of weary cynicism, pointing out the futility of the belief that one can roll back time. Is it a nostalgic rosy view of the Big Apple or is it an older and wiser disillusioned sardonic comment? Or is it both!
Helen M Dennis
Primary Text Cited
F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby. Ed. Ruth Prigozy. Oxford University Press, 1998.
In preparation for the seminar
- Find examples from the text that illustrate the themes and topics I have discussed in this lecture.
- Please identify one extract in particular that encapsulates one or more themes and be prepared to analyse it not only thematically but also stylistically.