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Old Values and New Times
The Great Gatsby is a postwar book, but I think most readers have the wrong war in mind. The moral exhaustion we detect in character and language is historical and literary. It does not proceed directly from the culture-shattering First World War, although some excellent recent books have shown us how serious was the effect of that war on feeling and idea. Fitzgerald thought intelligently about social change and in an interview during January 1921 spoke about it in the following way:
I am tired, too, of hearing that the world war broke down the moral barriers of the younger generation. Indeed, except for leaving its touch of destruction here and there, I do not think the war left any real lasting effect. Why, it is almost forgotten right now.
The younger generation has been changing all thru the last twenty years. The war had little or nothing to do with it. I put the change up to literature. Our skepticism or cynicism, if you wish to call it that, or, if you are older, our callow flippancy, is due to the way H. G. Wells and other intellectual leaders have been thinking and reflecting life.
He put the character of the cultural moment into a single clause, "radical departures from the Victorian era." Too much weight should not be borne by one statement, but we ought to pursue its theme in search of more evidence.
The emphasis of the novel's opening pages is post-Civil War, on "three generations" of fathersand uncles and sons. The Carraway family, fittingly for this story, has been steadily upwardly mobile. The Civil War began its prosperity; the Gilded Age confirmed it. By the third generation Nick has gone to Yale and to easy association with millionaires. It has been a family decision to send Nick back eastaunts, uncles, and father are involved, and some are even implicated in his story. Especially the "hard-boiled" uncle who seems to have been the first cause of the family's rise to prosperity. His brief biography is the first in The Great Gatsby's spectrum of American lives. We will get a great deal of information from these lives, and they will offer thematic parallels to the main story. This particular biography gives us a necessary sense of unheroic American realities, of the relationship of money to all else. And of the falsifications of history.
The references back across the generations to the commercially satisfying Civil War set both protagonist and reader in "the Victorian era." But something has happened: the unregenerate uncle may look forever out of his painting with the same wise brutality that made for his success, but the world of his assumptions is gone. Three generations ago, in the beginning, there was no nonsense about ideas or identities. But both Middle West and family have lost their initiative. They are what one leaves behind for a stronger source of energy. The first page of the novel is in fact about kinds of energy; and its calculated diminishment tells us that "the Victorian era" has little any longer to give or to command. The Great Gatsby begins with a hesitant and rather loose-jointed account of what a nineteenth-century father passes on to his twentieth-century son. The narration is inarticulate, suggesting the deficiencies of content through those of form. We expect greater things but hear only polite fictions about family, class, and "clan." Expecting revelations, we hear of decencies: the text establishes the virtues of reserve, tolerance, and of an idealized self-consciousness that seems to be nothing more than the suppression of impulse.
The story has begun with the invocation of the sacred subjects of life and literature from Scott through Stevenson: war and peace, family, "tradition," and "clan." We expect the hero to have something to say in relation to them. We also expect him to begin his journey with some talisman that these great subjects provide. But the narration gives us nothing that will guard against danger. This particular story about seeking your fortune begins with an ended moment.
There is a tremendous upsurge of energy (literally, as in the description of Gatsby and the seismograph) when we move away from outmoded sources and toward money, sex, and self-fashioning. There are in fact talismans for some of these things, "shining secrets" (7) that show us the way. With their mention the narrative changes and becomes full of color and movement. But we don't at this point suspect the powers of refiguration of money or sexuality.
In New York and on West Egg, Nick (correctly) perceives character, statement, and idea in terms of dubiety and opposition. He recalls facts while establishing uncertainties and even anxieties about them. We are constrained by the text to the visual but in terms of its limits: "perpetual confusion ... factual imitation ... overlooked ... I had no sight.... appearance ... impression." Enormous power is diffused into ungoverned motion through a language of "anticlimax" and, repeatedly, "drift." A kind of principle of uncertainty is being elaborated that will extend from the use of language to the nature of identity, historical and otherwise.
Uncertainty will be restated in many forms. The story has begun by invoking "the abnormal mind" as against that of "a normal person" (5). However, characters (Tom, Myrtle, Catherine) will think routinely of being "crazy" as an explanation of feeling. Dan Cody will be described as on and then over the "verge of soft-mindedness" (78), like the brewer who liked roofs thatched with straw. Tom believes in "science" but also in "a second sight" (95) that tells him what to do. Jordan is sexually attractive in part because of her moral and stylistic deviance. Drunkenness, throughout, is a form of revelatory unconsciousness, an enormous part of the telling of the story. Dreams demand their interpretationand had since 1900 demanded The Interpretation of Dreams. On one level this is all convincing contextin 1925 Franklin P. Adams and Brian Hooker collaborated on music and lyrics of "Don't Tell Me What You Dreamed Last Night (For I've Been Reading Freud)." Everyone who reads in 1925 knows about sex and the unconscious mind. But the biggest dream in the text will never be explained by therapy. Explanation comes easily and often in this text but is rarely useful.
More uncertainty: the conventional language of description seems not to matter to the narrator. We don't know what Daisy looks like. Nick is never described. Jordan exists in terms of style and form and attitude. People "resemble" things: Daisy and her daughter, Gatsby and that "advertisement."
There is, however, much hidden information, as when Fitzgerald forcibly directs our attention to lyrics that are on Daisy's mind: "I looked outdoors for a minute and it's very romantic outdoors. There's a bird on the lawn that I think must be a nightingale come over on the Cunard or White Star Line" (16). According to the notes in Matthew J. Bruccoli's edition, "there are no nightingales in the United States" (183). Fitzgerald repeats the word "romantic" three times in a very short burst of dialogue to redirect us. In Keats and Shelley (and later in Eliot), the nightingale awakens dead souls from "dull oblivion." The process, Eliot reminds us, is unwilling, and the nightingale's song is unheard by most. The subject of entropy resurfaces often in contemporary reflections on a national life of complacency and moral inertia, and I will return to this point.
When Daisy speaks and is described, certain words enforce attention. The reader who overlooks "promise" and "promising" will miss their connection to the restatement of "promise" in the narration. Even more, the reader will miss the meaning of the phrase in its time as a synonym for American dreaming. It is a phrase often applied to the idea of the nation. And it is linked, in essays and magazines and political visions, to "reward" and to "progress." Vanity Fair, for example begins each issue with the hope that it has recorded "the progress and promise of American life." And in 1922, the Saturday Evening Post is one of many voices linking success to life in "a land of promise." To be sure, her voice is full of money if it is full of promise.
When we first meet Daisy and Jordan, we are asked to think of subjectivity and theatricality: she and Jordan look "as though upon an anchored balloon" and "as if" they had just been blown back after a flight around the house; Jordan looks "as if" she were balancing something, and Daisy laughs "as if" she had said something witty (10-11). One of Daisy's lies is in this mode: "She was only extemporizing but a stirring warmth flowed from her as if her heart was trying to come out to you concealed in one of those breathless, thrilling words" (15). "As if," a kind of false subjunctive, is connected firmly to "concealed ... words." Display and concealment will often be linked in the text and by no means only in the case of Jay Gatsby.
Much of what Nick discovers is the opposite of what he sees, hears, or is assured. Even among the banalities of introduction he can sense the difference between gesture and fact, speech and sensibility. In half a sentence"If she saw me out of the corner of her eyes she gave no hint of it" (10)there are complications of time, probability, intention, sincerity, display, concealment, and perception: does Jordan see him or ignore him? If the first, does that have something to do with the way she sees anything? Is her silence an expression of character or a form of female strategy? Her self-possession and unself-consciousness are a contrast to Daisy's expressiveness and reliance on sound and movement. Are these complicating and supporting female roles? As Marjorie tells us in "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," even sixteen-year-olds have a "line."
Tom shows effeminate swank and Jordan looks like "a young cadet" (12). Nick says a lot of interesting thingsthings that might become interestingbut he keeps them to himself. They do not become dialogue, so that they hang in the air as a secondary set of subjects shadowing those things that are stated and argued. For this reason the novel has both a surface and uncharted depth. The style of modernism conjoins the sexes, but we may be intended to sense here Jordan's probing of boundaries, her own readiness, in a novel of identities, to assume a character.
There are many telephone calls in the novel, like the one that interrupts Tom's following lecture to Daisy, Jordan, and Nick on "science and art and all that" (14). The "shrill metallic urgency" (16) of these calls suggests information to be revealed and truths necessary to the understanding of events. The telephone suggests not only reality but realism. But any sense we have of communicability, hence of actuality, coexists with a highly indeterminate dialogue: The Great Gatsby depends to an enormous degree on the communication of lies, fictions, and misinformation. For example, what Nick has learned at Yale has to be revised and abandoned. What he hears from Daisy is a social fiction: "This was a permanent move, said Daisy over the telephone, but I didn't believe it" (9). The Buchanans are old friends scarcely known at all; Nick is described as a rose but knows that he is "not even faintly like" one (15); Daisy's explanations reveal "basic insincerity" (17); the word "secret" is repeated a number of times, finally suggesting that even "turbulent emotions" do not find honest expression. The word "sophisticated" means holding off truth. "But we heard it," Daisy says of Nick's nonexistent engagement. Fitzgerald introduces into the text gossip, rumor, and "story," giving us to understand that they become part of both narrative and character private and public. The idea of "story" itself is deeply affected.
I have argued for a sense of difficulty in interpreting the language of the text, which means a modification of literary method. The following critical advice is helpful but only to a certain extent:
Fitzgerald took literary impressionismwith its emphasis on the incremental impressions of light falling upon the eye of a single limited observer fixed in time and placetoward its extreme limits. He eliminated almost all images of sound, touch, taste, and smell in favor of images of the eye and then restricted these almost entirely to visions of 1) motion and stillness, 2) light and darkness, and 3) the primary colors.
But Fitzgerald has also limited "images of the eye." What is visual in this text is often also indiscernible. And it is simply not enough to determine kinds of imagery: the text is insistent in its statement of terms that counteract the perception and the understanding of "images." The first chapter warns us that "words" deceive, that meaning is "concealed," that "concentration" falters, that "meaning" is hard to ascertain, that the evening described has dissolved into "broken fragments" (16). The text is itself a collection of fragments. It is not really possible to construct imagistic certainties from a text that denies the capacity rightly to conceive, perceive, or conclude.
One of the great conflicts in the novel's opening chapter is literary-textual, between the values of realism and the complexities that cannot be expressed or understood by conventional description. Nick does not fully see or understand what he perceives, and neither do we. Dialogue resists analysis because so much of its motivation is suspect and so much of its statement untrue. As Nick states of one moment, what he overhears is only "on the verge of coherence" (15). Description uncontaminated by dialogue repeatedly denotes perceptual uncertainty. It may be that "a certain hardy skepticism" (16) is called for, which is to say, the ability to see through things as they are, because they are not what they seem to be. (Jordan, without dreams, has the right kind of mind for this world.) The use of weighted summary phrases that establish conclusions reached by Nick at the end of episodes ("confused," "basic insincerity," "trick," "untrue," "I couldn't guess what Daisy and Tom were thinking)" (16) establishes the limits of our knowledge because of the limits of perception. The admonition from Tom to Nick toward chapter's end is really from narrator to reader: "Don't believe everything you hear" (19).
Some ideas and assumptions came to Fitzgerald from other textshe was himself indefatigable in pointing out the "influences" on him. Character and plot came from high culture and also from daily newspapers and the magazines of mass culture: The Great Gatsby expresses freely its own observations and reliance on popular songs, movies, scandal sheets, "news," and even advertisements. In the background also are other sources, some of them proceeding from Public Philosophy. There were many writings by William James that echo in this text; and also writings by others who referred themselves to him. As I've noted, in the guise of the amateur in Flappers and Philosophers, Fitzgerald let the reader know that he knew (or at least knew about) this part of the marketplace.
We might think of the way that recent scholarship has illuminated the effects of Darwinism on novel writing, its provision of the great themes (and some of the great metaphors) of chaos, chance, natural redundancy, and sexual selection. Late nineteenth-century fiction was forced to deal with these theoretical presences, even to adjust its language into appropriate metaphor. Early twentieth-century fiction too has its bedrock, and we may expect to find in it certain refractions: the questioning of idealism; the comparison of past to present; the issue of true American identity; and the (frequent) examination of a "modern society ... devoid of moral tension," all issues scrutinized by James and debated with great vigor over Fitzgerald's lifetime.
James was a central figure in the world that Fitzgerald began in. Jacques Barzun points out that he set the terms for the examination of American intellectual and social life and was admired by intellectuals from Whitehead and Holmes to Gertrude Stein. He was especially interested in the discerning power of fiction and believed "art was an extension and clarification ... of experience." Mencken recalled him as himself a public figure, the official Great Thinker of America from the century's opening until his eventual replacement by John Dewey: "The reign of James ... was long and glorious. For three or four years running he was mentioned in every one of those American Spectators and Saturday Reviews at least once a week, and often a dozen times.... there was scarcely a serious rival." Mencken adds (not entirely happily) that James's "ghost went marching on" for years after his death in 1910. He was being nothing less than literal: in 1922, the year of the setting of The Great Gatsby, the February 15 issue of the New Republic ran a full-page ad on the treatment of "Nerves" that quoted the Baltimore Evening Sun on James's accessible mind and style; the March 1 issue carried Walter Lippmann's introductory chapter of Public Opinion, which ended with extensive remarks on James and national culture; the April 12 issue carried John Dewey's "Pragmatic America" piece, which referred itself in both title and body to James's views on American identity; and the June issue of the Dial ran George Santayana's piece on Jamesian psychology. That year, when Civilization in the United States (a reformist survey of American culture) appeared, it contained the statement, "In even the briefest and most random enumeration of towering native sons, it is impossible to ignore the name of William James. Here for once the suffrage of town and gown, of domestic and alien judges is unanimous.... he is far more than a great psychologist, philosopher, or literary man."
The voice of William James could be heard echoing in every argument over the shortcomings of democracy. He very nearly monopolized the subject of American social and personal identity, and as long as Lippmann and Dewey were alive, there would be continuing allusions to and development of his own arguments. The focus was on American lives: Pragmatism, to mention only one of his shelf of works, contains central ideas on our individual conceptions of truth; on our responsibility to live within defined space and time; on the evidence of "mere facts," which are so unsatisfactory to the "romantic" mind. The more absolute our adorations, James wrote, the more likely that we will lose "contact with the concrete parts of life." James was greatly concerned with heroism and particularly with the energies that made it possible. I will allude to these points more fully when the text concentrates on Gatsby; meanwhile other issues of Public Philosophy ought to be reviewed.
Public Philosophy frames some of the questions asked by the text of this novel, and it provides an ironic background for the answers to these questions. At its heart is the idea of obligation. It states relentlessly our duties to our own individual development and toward others in the social unit. It is highly specific, and often novelistic in its practice, picturing the dilemmas of philosophy in anecdotes of social life. It is full of exemplary American characters who have to make choices. It is consciously literary: James's famous address "Is Life Worth Living?" begins with a citation from Shakespeare, moves to Walt Whitman and then to Rousseau, and from there recites, at enormous length, the poetry of James Thomson. James invokes Leopardi and Ruskin and Marcus Aurelius, and works his way through the sinuousities of Carlyle. Throughout, his assumption is that literature and philosophy have common ends and tactics. In another essay, "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life," he argues that ethics must be allied with literature: "I mean with novels and dramas of the deeper sort." This, incidentally, was a reiterated point for James, for Royce, and especially for John Dewey. As far as James, the principal figure of Public Philosophy was concerned, he specifically intended to find common ground with poetry and fiction. He invited authorship dealing with his ideas. He took pains, like Theodore Roosevelt, to address an audience of the young and educatedhis best-known addresses containing among them "talks" delivered at colleges and to teachers.
The tactical subjects of Jamesian Public Philosophy are resistance to the temptations of a deeply materialistic culture, moral and intellectual improvement, the conversion of natural energies to worthy purposes, and our social duties in America. Public Philosophy provides part of the background for the debates in Fitzgerald's narrative concerning family and human relationships and for the hopeful concept of individualism.
The dialogue of the opening chapter takes up certain specific issues. Here and throughout, the Buchanans use a moral and often moralistic terminology. Even this early in the story, Tom and Daisy and Jordan invoke (or defend or passively follow) rules that mean very little to them. And when they want most to be subjective, they most invoke the canonical language of idealized American social relations. They keep telling us what they believe, which requires that we recognize not only what they are saying but what relationship they have to their statements.
One subject of discussion is the idea of American "civilization." That would seem to be a condition achieved through the slow and painful advance of mind and artbut it turns out that "civilization" in this narrative is something assumed, conferred, and denied. The idea of being truly American is an important part of Tom Buchanan's own identity. In some ways, he is no different from Gatsby: he only picks a different model. He emphasizes and exaggerates his Americanismalthough the suspicions raised in the novel's opening pages about the nineteenth-century background unavoidably shade his argument because Tom looks ever backward to the verities of "the Victorian era." He will prove to be increasingly concerned with empty "decencies," which for him are the (usefully) nominal forms of respectability.
Like the word "promise," the word "civilization" was highly contextual in the early twenties. In fact, it was a word often encountered in print in the summer of 1922. Tom gets his ideas from magazines and the popular press, conceivably even (Tom is, under authorial impulsion, looking slightly ahead, while Fitzgerald is looking backward from 1924-1925) from debate over an important book that I have cited, Civilization in the United States, edited by Harold Stearns. Tom's own literary sources have told him, in opposition to writers like Stearns who protested the distinction, that America is a product of "Nordic" or of "Anglo-Saxon" culture. They have also told him that American "civilization" is threatened by black emigration from the southern states and white immigration from eastern Europe. It is our social duty to restore the native balance. This was a respectable position at the moment, restated by the White House and Congress, validated by journals like the Saturday Evening Post, diffused to an active audience that includes Tom Buchanan, accepted by a more passive audience that includes Daisy and Jordan Baker. But American "civilization" and its synonyms like "culture" and "society" were ideas under stress and in the process of change.
Fitzgerald mirrors debate on American culture from the time when the novel takes place to the time when it was being written. For example, in 1924 H. L. Mencken summarized the view that the "arts" and "sciences" were now being advanced by recent immigrants to this country who admittedly did not come from northern or "Nordic" Europe. And the defense of nativist and other forms of racist culture had begun to be excoriated (in the spring of 1922) by Walter Lippmann. Such ideas, Lippmann observed, were simply ammunition for the untalented. Hannah Arendt has noted that these ideas began to be circulated in the last quarter century of that "Victorian era." But of course, under the influence of the debate on immigration, they were at their most intense exactly within the period 922-1924.
A second issue concerns internal social change, and Morton White reminds us that Public Philosophy in the "golden age" of James, Royce, Santayana, and Dewey consistently debated the transformation of America from provincial to urban life. The city was a special topicespecially in its new and amoral incarnation. James wrote often about the uneasy relationship of the urban, isolated "individual" to traditional, provincial ideas of society. The city of moderns and modernism offered too much freedom and far too little restraint. It was morally anonymous. The sexually predatory Tom Buchanan understands that it is his new natural habitat and volunteers that he'd be a "God Damn fool to live anywhere else" (12). New York is necessary for Gatsby but also for Tom. A number of pieces written by Mencken at this time (1924-1927) depicted New York (from Baltimore's more rustic point of view) as a paradigm for sexual opportunism.
The idea of the provincial itself was an American issue, as it is in Fitzgerald's text. We are made to experience East Egg through the sensibility of the provinces. Josiah Royce, a revisionist Jamesian, understood the conflict that lies at the heart of The Great Gatsby between what Nick calls "the warm center of the world" and "the ragged edge of the universe" (6). Royce was himself convinced that life was at its best in "the provincial community," and he added, emphatically, that only "in the province" is the "social mind ... naturally aware of itself as at home with its own." The values of the "provincial" life matter greatly in this text and in Fitzgerald's short stories in the early twenties about the fascinations of the Deep South and Midwest. The "social mind" of those places is the subject of his work; aware of itself, as Daisy is when she describes herself ironically as having become "sophisticated" out of her own Southern innocence. We are reminded often of moral relativity, and also of the relativity imposed by the swift passage of time. Not Gatsby alone but all the main characters of the novel have been something other than what they are and have changed from their provincial identity. They are working out a dilemma of American philosophy.
Royce had even suggested the plot for an American narrative: as Morton White states Royce's position, "alienation might be overcome ... if Americans were to combat the forces leading to detachment and loneliness by repairing to the provinces." It is a plot that Fitzgerald considers; although it might be said that he changes the scenario from a cavalry charge to an exhausted retreat here and in "The Ice Palace" and in Tender Is the Night.
John Dewey assumed that the Jamesian philosophy centered on "the free responses of the American people to the American scene." Santayana thought, however, as did Lippmann, that the responses of the public might have little freedom to display. The latter was a highly industrious meliorist, but the former eventually abandoned the world of urban, democratic realities. There was simply too much competition among new peoples for old ideas to prevail. And the authority of ethics was in any case giving way before that of consumer society, with its many subjective gratifications. People got their ideas now from the Saturday Evening Post, not the Public Philosophy created by William James. Some of them, like Tom Buchanan, got their ideas from the best-sellers of racism. Others, like Daisy Buchanan, listened only to what the "most advanced people" thought (17), which is to say, they listened only to those editorialists whose ideas had been diffused onto the North Shore.
In The Great Gatsby we have been plunged into public issues since the moment of entering the text. Sequentially, do we have a true relationship to our past? What in fact are the "fundamental decencies" (5)? Are the great "secrets" of our world only about banking and credit and investment securities? Does wealth imply more than its own enjoyment? Finally, do words actually mean anything? Or do we simply spout allegiances into vanishing air? Some of these issues are directly stated, often in the interrogative mode: Daisy, characteristically, wants to know what people do with their lives; Tom insists that we live up to the moral challenge of keeping "control of things" (14). Nick wonders about the right response to the many insincerities of which a social moment is constituted. But "insincerity" fails to convey the full character of the issues. The first chapter, which is indeed about the American scene, is rich in the statement of moral conflicts and their embodiment:
"Good night," called Miss Baker from the stairs. "I haven't heard a word."
"She's a nice girl," said Tom after a moment. "They oughtn't to let her run around the country this way."
"Who oughtn't to?" inquired Daisy coldly.
LIFE PORTRAITS A Catalogue of Pictures 1564-1860
Edited by Emma Lila Fundaburk
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS
Copyright © 1958 Emma Lila Fundaburk. All rights reserved.