Gatsby’s Pristine Dream: The Diminishment of the Self-Made Man in the Tribal Twenties
by Jeffrey Louis Decker


The Great Gatsby (1925) represents the diminishing moral authority of uplift stories in an age of declining faith in the nation’s ability to assimilate new immigrants. Through the eyes of Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, Gatsby appears in the guise of the archetypal, if somewhat misguided, self-made man in America. Gatsby’s upward struggle is inspired by traditional purveyors of middle-class success, such as Ben Franklin and Horatio Alger Jr. However, another less virtuous narrative of Gatsby’s self-making unfolds, which connects our hero’s business schemes to the tainted hand of immigrant gangsters. A story of entrepreneurial corruption, accented by the language of nativism, competes with and ultimately foils the traditional narrativeof virtuous American uplift. In this way, Gatsby stages a national anxiety about the loss of white Anglo-Saxon supremacy in the Twenties…

Racialist and Nativist Doctrine

Fitzgerald’s familiarity with the grammar of nativism was likely informed by his professional affiliation with The Saturday Evening Post in the Twenties. During this period Fitzgerald placed many of his short stories with the Post and, as such, it became his most lucrative source of income while composing Gatsby. As the nation’s most popular magazine, the Post began publishing nativist opinions in its pages as early as the spring of 1920. At this time Post editorials advocated the racialist doctrines of Madison Grant. During the same year the Post’s editor, George Horace Lorimer, sent Kenneth Roberts abroad to report on European immigration to the United States. According to historian John Higham, Roberts’s articles, which appeared in the Post and which were published in a 1922 collection under the title Why Europe Leaves Home, became the most widely read effusions on Nordic theory of its day (265, 273). Roberts began from the twin premises of Nordicism: “The American nation was founded and developed by the Nordic race” and “Races can not be cross-bred without mongrelization.” Writing overseas, Roberts speculated that “if a few more million members of the Alpine, Mediterranean and Semitic races are poured among us, the result must inevitably be a hybrid race of people as worthless and futile as the good-for-nothing mongrels of Central America and Southeastern Europe” (22).

Nordicism, a form of racial nativism that became popular in America following World War I, provides a context for understanding the production of classic American literature at mid-decade. For example, William Carlos Williams’s relocation of the discovery of America in the voyages of “Red Eric” (father of Leif Ericson) in the opening page of In the American Grain (1925) might signal something more than the anti-Puritan impulse also common to writers of this era. Fitzgerald’s Dutchmen [on the final page of Gatsby], like Williams’s Norsemen, bear the inadvertent mark of nativism specific to the Twenties. Nick’s invocation of the Dutch sailors’ vision of the New World adheres to the nativist logic of President Coolidge’s April 1924 Message to Congress onthe passage of the Immigration Bill: “America must be kept American” (quoted in Grant 347)…

The Limits of American Dream Scholarship

Lionel Trilling’s statement that Gatsby “comes inevitably to stand for America itself” (251) best exemplifies the consensus among Fitzgerald critics who have turned The Great Gatsby into the novel of the American dream. This sentiment, I believe, carries with it residual traces of 1920s nativism that are embedded in the book’s ending. One of the earliest critics to identify the theme of the American dream in The Great Gatsby was Edwin Fussell. In “Fitzgerald’s Brave New World” (1952), he suggests that Gatsby is corrupted “by values and attitudes that he holds in common with the society that destroys him.” Within a “mechanized” world, Fussell points out, “a dream like Gatsby’s cannot remain pristine, given the materials upon which the original impulse toward wonder must expend itself” (295).

Nevertheless, we are left with the persistent question. Despite mounting evidence supporting Tom’s accusations regarding his rival’s entrepreneurial corruption through shady associations with immigrant gangsters, how does Gatsby maintain “his incorruptible dream” in the eyes of the narrator and readers alike? The standard procedure among critics is to interpret Gatsby’s dream according to Nick’s narrative demands: like Nick, critics usually separate modern corruption from a pristine dream located in the nation’s distant past. This type of commentary reads Gatsby according to an opposition between present and past, between Gatsby’s unethical business connections and the pastoral promise he inspires. Marius Bewley, in his “Scott Fitzgerald’s Criticism of America” (1954), was one of the first commentators to use this now widespread formulation. “The theme of Gatsby”. Bewley flatly states, “is the withering of the American dream” in industrial society (223). “We recognize that the great achievement of this novel,” he concludes, “is that it manages, while poetically evoking a sense of the goodness of that early dream, to offer the most damaging criticism of … deficiencies inherent in contemporary manifestations of the American vision itself” (245-46). Regardless, Fussell’s and Bewley’s interpretive models share the assumption that Gatsby’s dream is principally a product of the past. These critics assume that the emergence of the American dream is conterminous with either European discoveries of the New World or the birth of the United States as a nation.

Alternatively, I want to argue two points. First, the “American dream” is not a trans-historical concept but, as I discuss at the end of this paper, a term invented after the Twenties in an effort to address the crisis of the Great Depression. Second, the social climate of the early 1920s, specifically as it isexpressed in increasingly racialized forms of nativism, creates the conditions under which Fitzgerald’s narrator imagines Gatsby as a figure for America. Gatsby’s dream is a pure product of the Tribal Twenties. This latter point builds upon the provocative work of Walter Benn Michaels, who situates American national literature of the period, including Gatsby, within a discourse of nativism…

The Rising Tide of Immigrant Enterprise

Higham reports that around 1920 Nordicists began attacking new immigrants—particularly Catholics and Jews, but Japanese on the Pacific Coast as well—under a nativist banner which now tied racial to more traditional religious xenophobia (266). During the latter half of 1920, the gathering tide of anti-immigration sentiment was fueled by both an economic downturn and a sharp increase in the importation of cheap labor from abroad. These twin factors, the state of the economy and the scale of immigration, regularly play a role in establishing the level of nativism in the United States. However, Higham puts forward a third determinant in nativist politics that exploded on the scene in 1920 and assumed greater importance than ever before: namely, the connection between foreigners and crime (267).

The conflation of new arrivals and unethical business practices provides obvious motivation for reading The Great Gatsby according to the rise of nativism and the fall of the self-made man. Gatsby’s association with immigrant crime, particularly in the form of bootlegging, jeopardizes both the purity of his white identity and the ethics of his entrepreneurial uplift. The association of immigrants with lawlessness was crystallized during Prohibition, which was no less than a moral crusade to preserve the American Way through social control and conformity. The Eighteenth Amendment propelled organized gangsterism to new heights and, indoing so, opened opportunities for new arrivals by creating a lucrative trade in illicit alcohol. It also activated the stereotype of the non-Anglo-Saxon immigrant as gangster…

Gatsby, although apparently not the child of an immigrant, is a bootlegger who associates with unsavory new arrivals and vile members of the underworld. The association forces Gatsby to make up improbable stories about his past because, as he explains to Nick, “I didn’t want you to think I was just some nobody.” While Nick desperately wants to believe in Gatsby’s grand self-descriptions, contemporary reviewers were not always so sympathetic. One insists that the “Great Gatsby wasn’t great at all—just a sordid, cheap, little crook” (Kenny). Evidence marshaled by Tom Buchanan’s investigation into Gatsby’s past supports such a reading.

“Who are you anyhow?” broke out Tom. “You’re one of that bunch that hangs around with Meyer Wolfsheim—that much I happen to know. I’ve made a little investigation into your affairs… I found out what your ’drug stores’ were.” He turned to us and spoke rapidly. “He and this Wolfsheim bought up a lot of side-street drug stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter. That’s one of his little stunts. I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him and I wasn’t far wrong.”

Gatsby brazenly refuses to deny Tom’s accusation of his rival’s bootlegging activities, responding politely: “What about it? … I guess your friend Walter Chase wasn’t too proud to come in on it.” Tom’s findings not only implicate his rival in various unnamed criminal schemes by providing almost irrefutable evidence of his involvement in the illegal sale of alcohol. Tom, hoping to play to the nativist fears of his audience, binds Gatsby’s identity to the Jewish gangster Wolfsheim.

Nick’s stereotypical description of Wolfsheim is colored by racial nativism to the extent that it carries with it traces of degeneracy associated with Semites. Upon being introduced by Gatsby to his friend, the narrator provides the following description of Wolfsheim: “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.” Nick repeatedly characterizes the man he finds “looking for a business gonnection” according to his gross physical appearance, typified by references to “his tragic nose.” The descriptions implicate Nick in a form of what Sander L. Oilman calls"pathological stereotyping” (18). Immutable stereotyping of this sort licenses the construction of a rigid difference between the vigorous Anglo-Saxon, Tom Buchanan, and degenerate Jew, Meyer Wolfsheim. Gatsby, whose original surname (“Gatz”) carries a Jewish inflection, is caught in a no-man’s-land between the two ethnic extremes.

Wolfsheim’s business activities are not merely illegal. They threaten the integrity of the national sporting event, baseball’s World’s Series. Eventually we learn that Wolfsheim runs his illicit business out of “The Swastika Holding Company,” a name that continues to befuddle readers. It is unlikely that Fitzgerald would have known that Hitler was using the swastika as the symbol of his fledgling Nazi party. Instead the swastika was widely recognized at the time as an ancient Aryan symbol of good luck. Wolfsheim’s possession of the swastika as the name of his holding company manifests the widely perceived threat to an Aryan nation posed by enterprising immigrants, particularly Jews. Burr, in his book America’s Race Heritage (1922), insists that the “most objectionable classes of the ’new’ immigration are rapidly breaking down American institutions and honorable business methods.” In the context of discussing recent Jewish arrivals, he describes “business trickery” as a “trait… so ingrained that one may doubt whether it could be eradicated for generations” (195).

Gatsby’s illicit business association (indeed, his friendship) with immigrant gangster Meyer Wolfsheim compromises the ethics of our hero’s self-made success while undermining the stability of white ethnic difference. His enterprising efforts among shady foreigners stages the nation’s growing suspicion of immigrants after World War I. This sentiment is confirmed, for instance, in a contemporary commentator’s use of an anti-Catholic slur to describe Gatsby upon his first encounter with Daisy. Stated Thomas Chubb, in his review of the novel in the August 1925 issue of Forum magazine: “He is still poor as an Irishman on Sunday morning” (311). Even Nick, after meeting the mysteriousGatsby for the first time at one of his gala parties, immediately thinks of his host as a stranger in his own home: “I would have accepted without question the information that Gatsby sprang from the swamps of Louisiana or from the lower East Side of New York.”

Tales of “Luck and Pluck”

Nick’s suspicions about the source of Gatsby’s wealth are heightened just after he is introduced to Wolfsheim. Gatsby, having boasted that it took him only three years to earn his fortune, is caught off guard and becomes noticeably upset when Nick points out that he was under the impression that Gatsby “inherited” his money through a legacy of family wealth. In the chapter which follows this uneasy exchange, Nick casts young Jimmy Gatz in the role of Alger boy-hero who has a fortunate encounter with wealthy yachtsman Dan Cody. Nick’s telling of Gatsby’s “luck and pluck” tale suggests the loss of faith in stories of the self-made man at this time. For example, Gatsby’s benefactor, Cody, is not the genteel aristocrat of Alger’s stories but “the pioneer debauchee.” He is a product of “the savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon,” and thus a considerable cry from even the celebrated frontier individualist imagined by Progressive Era historian Frederick Jackson Turner. When he sets sail for the West Indies and the Barbary Coast (places associated with pirating, the African slave trade, and colonialism), Cody employs the impressionable teenager in some “vague personal capacity” and gives him a “singularly appropriate education” before he dies suddenly. Fitzgerald’s appropriation of the Alger formula reflects the fact that the traditional ideal of virtuous uplift, recently associated with the melting-pot model of immigrant success, was undercut by a growing interest in get-rich-quick schemes and a declining commitment to assimilating new arrivals during the Roaring Twenties. In this social climate, the moral efficacy of Alger’s respectable “rags to riches” stories began to lose their appeal in America…

Another illustration of Gatsby’s original ambition, one apparently modeled on the prescriptions of middle-class morality, … takes a page out of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. However, because it mocks the conventions of the self-made man, this illustration ultimately functions to undermine evidence for Gatsby’s virtuous uplift. More specifically, the reader is presented with Jimmy Gatz’s transcription, on the flyleaf of a dime novel, of a Franklin-style timetable and resolves. Unlike young Ben Franklin, who builds the “perfect Character” by pondering questions of inner goodness before setting out for a day of hard work (72-73), sixteen-year-old Gatsby’s morning itinerary is conspicuously devoid of moral questions. Instead, Fitzgerald’s boy-hero focuses on the enhancement of self-image through “Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling.” Furthermore, his general resolves focus more on external presentation of self (“No more smoking or chewing”) than on Franklin’s interest in cultivating the virtuous inner person in the “Project of arriving at moral Perfection” (66).

Fitzgerald’s mock-representation of young Gatsby’s attempt at Franklinesque uplift demonstrates the extent to which, with the consolidation of consumer society in the twentieth century, the cult of “personality” (based on image-making and competitiveness) eclipses an earlier producer-oriented notion of “character” (founded on an inner sense of duty and piety). The displacement of character by the newer concept of personality did not alone undermine traditional narratives of virtuous success. However, when coupled with rising suspicions regarding the rectitude of new immigrants, the apparent excesses of the personality craze contributed to the diminishing authority of the myth of the self-made man in the Twenties. The resultant crisis in an American national identity is represented by Fitzgerald through the figure of Gatsby…

The American Dream

The decline of the national myth of the white Anglo-Saxon self-made man during the 1920s predates the birth of the term “American dream.” The term was not put into print until 1931, when middle-brow historian James Truslow Adams used it in his popular history of the United Statesentitled The Epic of America. Thus, despite a half-century of literary criticism on the expression of the American dream in Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, the phrase is a misnomer when used to characterize the book’s nationalist vision.

Adams makes no mention of Fitzgerald or Gatsby in his book, nor should he. The author articulates the fledgling idea of the American dream through a vague concept of moral economics meant to address and subdue the imminent threat of class antagonism caused by the Great Depression. By explicitly appealing to a shared, rather than tribal, sense of the nation’s dream, Adams steers clear of group conflict.

The point is that if we are to have a rich and full life in which all are to share and play their parts, if the American dream is to be a reality, our communal spiritual and intellectual life must be distinctly higher than elsewhere, where classes and groups have their separate interests, habits, markets, arts, and lives. (411)

Adams’s American dream is inspired by pre-war Progressive ideals of individual uplift and ethnic assimilation, values intended to assist readers in managing the crises of the Thirties. It comes as little surprise when, at the very end of The Epic, the historian offers a lengthy quotation from Mary Antin’s optimistic autobiography of Russian Jewish melting-pot success, originally published in 1912.

Nothing could be further from the Nordic inflection given to the national imaginary as it is expressed in Fitzgerald’s fiction. Gatsby’s pristine vision of America past does not belong to the American dream of the Great Depression. Rather, it is a product of the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in the 1920s, which activated narrowing definitions of whiteness and, in doing so, weakened the moral authority of the myth of the self-made man. If we want to interpret The Great Gatsby historically, we should stop using the American dream as an analytical category altogether. Yet it is not enough to say that Gatsby’s dream is simply an aspect of what Fitzgerald coined the Jazz Age. It is also swept along by racial nativism peculiar to the Tribal Twenties.

Works Cited

  • Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. Boston: Little, 1931.

  • Alger, Jr., Horatio. Ragged Dick; or Street Life in New York. Boston: Loring, 1868.

  • Antin, Mary. The Promised Land. Boston: Houghton, 1912.

  • Bewley, Marius. “Scott Fitzgerald’s Criticism of America.” Sewanee Review 62 (1954): 223-46.

  • Bicknell, John. “The Waste Land of F. Scott Fitzgerald.” In F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Criticism. Ed. Kenneth Eble. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973. 67-80.

  • Burr, Clinton Stoddard. America’s Race Heritage. New York: National Historical Society, 1922.

  • Callahan, John F. The Illusions of a Nation: Myth and History in the Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1972.

  • Chubb, Thomas Caldecot. “Bagdad-on-Subway.” Forum 74 (1925): 310-11.

  • Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography. New York: Norton, 1986.

  • Fussell, Edwin S. “Fitzgerald’s Brave New World.” ELH 19 (1952): 291-306.

  • Gilman, Sander L. Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

  • Grant, Madison. “America for the Americans.” Forum 74 (1925): 346-55.

  • Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. New York: Atheneum, 1963.

  • Kenner, Hugh. A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. New York: Knopf, 1975.

  • Kenny, Jr., John M. “The Great Gatsby.” Commonweal 3 (June 1925): 110.

  • Michaels, Walter Benn. “Anti-Imperial Americanism.” Cultures of United States Imperialism. Eds. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease. Durham: Duke UP, 1993. 365-91.

  • Michaels, Walter Benn. “The Souls of White Folk.” Literature and the Body: Essays on Populations and Persons. Ed. Elaine Scarry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988. 185-209.

  • Michaels, Walter Benn. “The Vanishing American.” American Literary History 2 (1990): 220-41.

  • Nevins, Allan. James Truslow Adams: Historian of the American Dream. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1968.

  • Piper, Henry Dan, ed. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: The Novel, The Critics, The Background. New York: Scribner’s, 1970.

  • Roberts, Kenneth L. Why Europe Leaves Home. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1922.

  • Rohrkemper, John. “The Allusive Past: Historical Perspective in The Great Gatsby.” College Literature 12 (1985): 153-62.

  • Scharnhorst, Gary. “Scribbling Upward: Fitzgerald’s Debt of Honor to Horatio Alger, Jr.” Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual 1978. Eds. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Richard Layman. Detroit: Gale, 1979. 161-69.

  • Scharnhorst, Gary, and Jack Bales. The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.

  • Steinbrink, Jeffrey. “’Boats Against the Current’: Morality and the Myth of Renewal in The Great Gatsby.Twentieth Century Literature 26 (1980): 157-70.

  • Trilling, Lionel. The Liberal Imagination. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1950.

  • Troy, William. “Scott Fitzgerald—the Authority of Failure.” Accent 6(1945): 56-60.

  • Watkins, Floyd C. “Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatz and Young Ben Franklin.” New England Quarterly 17 (1954): 249-52.


    From Novel: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 28, no. 1, Fall 1994.

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