The Great Gatsby (1925- ), by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)


I wrote this piece in 2009 during the Subprime Mortgage crisis.


Post mortems on the Great Recession abound:

“Today we stand at the end of a long, historical stretch in which laissez-faire was glorified and the business community got almost its entire wish list granted by the state. To show its gratitude, the finance industry then stampeded us all over a cliff.”

— Thomas Frank, The Wall Street Journal

“(The economy) is a social, political and psychological process….”

— Robert Samuelson, The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath

To the first, considering the auspices, you’re tempted to exclaim “gasp!” and “wow!” To the second, “You wouldn’t kid me, would you?” and “I’m afraid that’s like observing that sunrise brings more light!”

I’ve occasionally wondered what economists might be imagining when they say “greed” and “profit motive” and “animal spirits” and similar. Is it something like the inscrutable obelisks in 2001: A Space Odyssey? There really isn’t any dynamic idea there, just a vibrating tall, gray, portentous emptiness; the things look really meaningful and there’s impressive music by Richard Strauss to cue awe. Or, maybe better put, the things are just about the right size, and just “compressing” enough, to be jammed into econometric models (as in the Procrustean bed). Anyway, does anyone really know what Clarke had in mind in 2001? (The impolite question is, “Does it matter?”). I once told the person in whose house Clarke finished 2001 under deadline pressure that to me the story just trails off “into the whiteness.” My friend didn’t become angry or even defensive, just laughed ruefully in what I could have sworn was tacit agreement. Anyway, you hear a lot of complaints these days that economists seem perplexed by the disastrous economic news. Or maybe a better way to put it is: there’s a lot of disagreement on profound levels and somebody is wrong; meanwhile, is anyone right? We must hope so, but then we must also hope such wise thinkers wouldn’t end up being prophets in the wilderness.

Still, those obelisks…. Are we here seeing economists not as scientists but as the flailing small-minded making cursed assertions? Wizards of Oz? Secular fundamentalists singing litanies of superstitions? Are we stranded on Easter Island amidst prominent brainless icons?

Apropos: it seems a good time to revisit The Great Gatsby.

Somehow, Fitzgerald has come to be seen too widely as a gentle, wistful, sad Romantic: the careless misreading that Jay, Daisy, Tom, Jordan and Meyer and those wild, extravagant parties might almost have come out of Sir Walter Scott (with maybe the parties toned down), revived in the US.

I take Fitzgerald as a genteel monster of sorts, a very honestly nasty hyperrealist. I don’t much like him, but I certainly admire him. He’s no nice egalitarian. He’s a real snob. He loves Old Money. He believes firmly in Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class and especially in conspicuous consumption; and, unlike Veblen, he doesn’t see all that much of a moral question here. Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, et al. …they too, says Veblen, came out of the primates of eons ago and, figuratively, hung the scalps of their vanquished challengers in their three-story Tudor tents on the beachfronts of the rich and famous. This chest-thumping anthropology animates Gatsby. Being rich is in part all about show. (Larry Ellison: “After a while, the money’s just a way to keep score.”) Fitzgerald’s in considerable part a Social Darwinist: Tom Buchanan is a predatory animal, the perfect Alpha male, who sexually craves that big, curvaceous, sensuous female animal, “‘Myrtle” Wilson, over his wife, the enchanting slender, frail angel, “Daisy” Fay (Fitzgerald thinking here of the right symbolic flora and fauna and greatly aiding very serious Literature classes in the 1940s and 1950s before Fitzgerald grew improper for university reading lists.)

There’s a lot of great, graceful writing in this wonderful, lyric, artful, literary novel, and perhaps, most importantly at the moment, a lot of timely Explanation.

Just a few points, leading from the smaller to the larger:

Jordan Baker, the famous golf champion, is “inherently dishonest.” She cheats in tournaments. She’s fraudulent. Golf officials want to cover it up. Sound up to date?

Those parties Gatsby throws to attract Daisy: People go there to escape the restraints of social convention and be anything they want to be. Celeb worship. King Sensational. Queen Hype. Silly contests. Heart swallowing head. Old money slumming. One long carnival of spontaneous circus acts. Anything goes from morning to midnight and beyond. (See TV Guide.)

Gatsby’s business associate and friend, Meyer Wolfsheim: He fixed the 1919 World Series. Narrator Nick Carraway wonders how this friend of Gatsby could make light of the faith of fifty million fans; not care about what he did to them. He has cuff links made of human molars. He eats with a “delicate ferocity.” How could he delude millions of baseball fans “with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe”? Gatsby explains, “He just saw the opportunity.” (These days see The Wall Street Journal.)

But perhaps the key passage, explaining why Prohibition bootlegger Gatsby will do anything, no matter how illegal or questionable–perhaps including murder–to run off with Daisy:

“He found her excitingly desirable. He went to her house (a huge, Old Money mansion in Louisville)…. It amazed him–he had never been in such a beautiful house before. But what gave it an air of breathless intensity was that Daisy lived there–it was as casual a thing to her as his tent out at the (WW1 mobilization center) was to him. There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors, and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender, but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered.”

Elsewhere, Fitzgerald says that Gatsby wanted refuge forever from the struggling masses. The eternal palace. The princess in the tower. He’d do anything to be there.

Daisy isn’t sexual at all. Her voice “sounds like money.” It’s “thrilling” in the Windsor Castle sense. She’s the most desirable character in The Great Gatsby. It’s the money.

Myrtle Wilson, in the cheap Manhattan apartment the immensely wealthy Social Darwinist Tom Buchanan rents for their trysts, buys furniture with tawdry images of Versailles gardens on it. Still the dream of refuge, of haven. Just a tasteless version.

Tom wins because of breeding, even though he’s straight out of chimp anthropology. Gatsby loses as soon as Daisy realizes he’s shady and believes him to be nouveau riche. I guess these days Old Money isn’t as distinctive as it used to be, but Gatsby’s sense of Daisy’s mansion and world–the sheer refuge of it–seems much more enlightening than those obelisks.

Sure is finally a static Heaven, though, isn’t it? A lot of us seem to want it above all else; which is, it seems to me, Fitzgerald’s point.