Novel * F. Scott Fitzgerald * American Modernism Defined * 1925
Yeah all right fine. The Great Gatsby is good. I accept that most of my antipathy towards this novel is rooted in having the book poorly taught to me at several points in my life, which isn’t fair to the actual words on the page. Those are fine. What I’m not going to back down from is my assertion that the English did Modernism better. There was simply more at stake, socially, in Europe at the time when these people were writing. The United States of the 20th century morphed from scrappy underdog to single world power largely because they were able to keep themselves on the periphery of the two apocalyptic events that essentially burned the European powers to the ground. World War I wasn’t the only major blow to the ancient power structures, the French Revolution was the first, but it was enough to send the world powers of the time into a tailspin that would end up wrecking even more havoc only twenty years later. Meanwhile, the United States was an ocean away and more than content to reap the benefits of the European powers tearing themselves to shreds. In the aftermath, America was obviously in a better position to benefit economically from the new state of the world. I mean, we basically threw in with the winning side a few months before the end of the war so we could claim moral victory as well, but you know. Details.
The 1920’s (and the fact that in a couple of years we’re going to need to make it clear which “Twenties” we’re talking about makes me feel old for some reason) are generally considered to be a decade of ridiculous excess: money flying everywhere, young people doing sex on each other, bootleg booze flowing, shiny new cars zooming around brightly lit big cities. Yet this was largely an American phenomenon, because we didn’t lose millions of young men in a pointless bloodbath in the mud pits of France. I don’t want to trivialize our role in the conflict, but we lost more soldiers to the influenza epidemic of 1918 than we did to combat. You simply can’t compare our losses to those of the European combatants. That said, when it comes to art and literature, American writers served – and some of our best of the era were right in the middle of the war, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. The effect of this was twofold. The most apparent is the sheer disillusionment that transpired from witnessing the slaughter of the war. That’ll mess anyone up, and it’s no surprise that the survivors turned to drink and revelry after the war was over. For an American veteran, the other effect was to introduce them to a whole other world. There’s a reason our best writers of the era spent a good deal of time in London and Paris (and in T.S. Eliot’s case changed citizenship), and that’s in some part down to having that wider experience of the world.
The Great Gatsby isn’t about Paris or the war, however. It’s about being a young man in New York City surrounded by the nouveau riche and witnessing the decline and fall of an older era. It’s the raw speed of technology and the accelerated pace of civilization and urban living. Like their European counterparts, Americans were also dealing with the unprecedented rate of technological development and the radical shift in not only social values, but in raw ambition. America has always been a place without centuries-old reified social structures, but it wasn’t until the 1920’s that there was the actual possibility of a Jay Gatsby. This is mostly due to the fact that prior to this era, Gilded Age monopolies squashed ambition. The best you could hope for was a position in a monopolistic industry because there wasn’t anything left to conquer yourself. Yet the beginning of the 20th century shifted the game. As I’ve said in pretty much every article I’ve posted about Modernism, technological development skyrocketed. This, of course, opened up new avenues of innovation and created new fields to develop and get rich off of. Meanwhile, Europe cannibalized themselves at this crucial moment so the plucky Americans slid right into the vacuum left behind. Once the war was over and a new world order was up for grabs, American money was everywhere.
More than anything, The Great Gatsby is about money. It’s a story about people flailing around in an economic bubble, and I’d be lying if I haven’t thought about where these characters ended up like six years after the events of the novel. I doubt people like Tom and Daisy Buchanan did particularly well during the Depression, you know? Nick Carraway, our intrepid narrator, seems even-keeled enough to get by, which is why he anchors this story of a bunch of terrible people interacting with one another. Yep, this being Modernism pretty much every character is an awful human being. Even Nick has his issues, even if a kind of terminal passiveness is the worst of his traits. Tom and Daisy are the actual worst. Jay Gatsby is a crazy person who can’t even deal with life. Nick’s golfing girlfriend Jordan is icy, cynical, and dull. And that’s pretty much it, because The Great Gatsby is also a novel of small scale. Not a whole helluva lot happens here, which is fine because again that’s not what this book is about. It’s a small story about small people who happen to reflect the repercussions of an apocalyptic event an ocean away.
I hope things have changed in the classroom since I was taught The Great Gatsby in high school (three times), or even that I had an atypical experience with this novel. Obviously, English class was my favorite. I generally had good teachers. However, because I moved around a lot, when I’d get into a new school the administration was generally reluctant to place me in the honors version of their English program, regardless of previous achievements. It’s like, “yeah yeah, you did fine there but here you’re going to have to prove yourself!” And that’s how I got to essentially retake an entire year’s worth of material. Anyway, personal tangent aside, when the curriculum assumes that you don’t like literature, it goes out of its way to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have to think that Gatsby is required reading for pretty much everyone, it’s right up there with To Kill a Mockingbird in that regard. Two of the three times Gatsby was taught at me the instructor almost exclusively focused on the use of symbolism in the novel. That’s a wonderful way to poison positive experiences with literature and to skew perception about analysis.
Instead of receiving any historical context of the time when the novel was written, or being encouraged to push at the narrative in any meaningful way, or questioning the author’s intentions, or engaging with character choices in the story, we were given a symbol hunt. Everything boiled down to discovering seemingly innocuous things and decoding them. To be fair, Fitzgerald does have a habit of placing conspicuous items and moments in the prose. However, it’s unfair to the text to assume the author had a list of some kind. Like, “green light = the future via Daisy.” And then that’s the end of the discussion. It turns English into math, and with respect to my science peeps that’s the allure of the humanities. There’s no one answer, there’s no formula for literature-solving. An argument can be made that teaching symbolism in The Great Gatsby is an attempt to force students to look deeper than they otherwise would, but it’s been clear to me in the years since that those who are not disposed toward the humanities dismiss literary analysis as pointless deciphering of symbols that may or may not exist. There are much more engaging ways to talk about books.
The best way, in my most humble of opinions, is to latch onto something in the text which is relevant to our current experience. Yes, Gatsby is a period piece. It’s hard to vibe with what was happening nearly a hundred years ago unless you’re predisposed to historical thinking. Yet the secret of good books is that human nature doesn’t change much. Social attitudes move at a glacial pace, so most of the issues Fitzgerald examines are still very much in play now. Take a look at this exchange:
“You make me feel uncivilized, Daisy,” I confessed on my second glass of corky but rather impressive claret. “Can’t you talk about crops or something?”
I meant nothing in particular by this remark but it was taken up in an unexpected way.
“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard?”
“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.
“Well, it’s a fine book and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
“Tom’s getting very profound,” said Daisy with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. “He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we – ”
“Well, these books are all scientific,” insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently. “This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us who are the dominant race to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”
“We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.
There’s more but you get the idea. Tom is the great capitalist alpha male. He’s also a racist garbage can of a person (Note: I looked up the book he referenced and couldn’t find anything, but Google probably thinks I’m racist now). In terms of 2017, someone like Tom Buchanan is the nostalgic standard of the alt-right. He’s the kind of idealized white masculinity that these Internet gremlins and tiki-torch wielding motherfuckers wish they could be. And yet here he is, trying to convince his peers that his ignorant, rank racism is something elevated, something right and true. These patently untrue sentiments are in a book with big words, therefore they are true, therefore my ugly feelings are correct. Not only are they correct, but they are right and pure. He’s using the same pathetic tactics to rationalize his gross feelings of inadequacy as these worthless, whining, racist-ass beta bitches we have today. I, uh, may have some strong feelings about the resurgence of the kind of ideals that Tom Buchanan believes in, but that’s exactly what good fiction is supposed to do.
The Great Gatsby puts in a lot of work for a novel with such a small focus, and there are plenty of places to jump to from the above passage. Starting with an otherwise unassuming passage and working out towards the topic of entrenched racism to the role of money and the politics of domination in said racism to what America looks like a hundred years later is more natural and interesting than quizzing people on what Tom’s shirts mean. This is not to say that symbolic gestures are not happening in the text – they totally are – but to make them the focus of a more nuanced and complicated story misses out on a lot of dynamic discussion that could otherwise happen spontaneously. Plus, pulling out actual text is a good way to remind yourself what a brilliant craftsman Fitzgerald was. “Winking ferociously toward the fervent sun” is a good fucking phrase. Also: “expression of unthoughtful sadness.” Sometimes I think I’m an okay writer and then I see shit like that and am forced to consider my nearly transcendental mediocrity. Actually, that makes for a pretty good description of Nick, now that I think about it. It all comes around in the end!