Focus on F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby: The Nowhere Hero
by Richard Lehan


The American writer, torn between mutually exclusive cultural imperatives, has long suffered from a kind of schizophrenia. Over and over, he has tried to reconcile a materialism which he could not accept with an idealism that he could not realize. Henry James is a case in point. His Christopher Newman in The American turns his back on a greedy America and goes to Europe in search of vague cultural ideals. What he finds in Europe is that such ideals do not exist—that if America has money without tradition, Europe has tradition without the means to finance it. Honor has become meaningless. . . .

James himself discussed America as a kind of cultural limbo in The American Scene, written in 1904, after his long absence from America. The horror he expressed in the face of a growing American materialism is the same kind of horror that Henry Adams voiced in The Education of Henry Adams, where he symbolized the new materialism in termsof the dynamo, which for Adams represented a principle of uncontained, even destructive energy, an apocalyptic threat.

While Mark Twain was perhaps more ambiguous, he treated the same duality in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur‘s Court, and once more showed modern man tearing down an old world of hierarchy and principle for a new world of western “know-how.” An American sense of pragmatism competed once again with a world of fixed values.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was as much concerned about these cultural dualities as were James, Adams, Twain, and the host of other American writers who have treated this theme. In many ways, the problem for Fitzgerald focused upon his father, a Southerner who embodied “the old courtesies” in a new industrial world where success demanded the kind of ruthless energy that his father lacked. Fitzgerald was both embarrassed by and proud of his father‘s failures—embarrassed because it revealed that the times were too much for his father; proud because conversely his father was better than the times.

Three Equations

Nick Carraway has these same ambivalent feelings about Gatsby. Gatsby is obviously not with it. He is no match for Tom Buchanan, who represents the kind of energy and force—the spirit of Adams‘ dynamo—which is necessary for success in a materialistic America. Gatsby, who is really a phony broker, has become a grotesque distortion of the successful man, a pathetic extension of what Tom Buchanan embodies. Yet Gatsby‘s fidelity to an ideal, to a dream, is an admirable, albeit a romantic quality of mind. Fitzgerald equated the dream with the spirit of the past, with the spirit of the Dutch sailors for whom America was a dream, a matter of possibility, a new world waiting to be formed. He also equated it with the spirit of Benjamin Franklin, who best embodies the kind of western pragmatism which finally won out as well as the rags-to-riches ideal which Gatsby accepted so completely. And lastly, he equated the ideal with a woman, with Daisy Fay, who had abandoned Gatsby for Tom Buchanan, the man who best embodied the final heritage of Benjamin Franklin.

These three “equations” are the source of Gatsby‘s dream and Nick Carraway‘s nightmare, for Gatsby never learns that the dream is dead, and Nick‘s discovery of this fact leaveshim . . . hopeless . . . [and] culturally displaced. . . . Indeed, such is the fate of the new man in the land discovered by Christopher; and if we look closely at these three “equations,” we can clearly see what Fitzgerald was trying to tell us about America and how, as a novelist, he was saying it.

The references to America as a new world are “laid on” the novel—that is, this idea is never systematically developed but is instead implied. Nick thinks of himself as a Westerner, and here we have the suggestion of the frontier, long since gone, of course, when Fitzgerald was writing the novel. Nick also thinks of himself as a frontiersman when he gives directions to a man lost on West Egg. And lastly, Nick wonders what the Dutch sailors thought when they first saw Manhattan. All these references link Nick and Gatsby with a world that no longer exists, a world that has been lost in the back rush of time, a world that offered more in promise than has been realized in fact. While this theme is not the key one in the novel, it is important, because it sets the context within which Gatsby‘s story is told; it establishes the fact that, like Gatsby, all Americans live in a world of betrayed promise, a world that could never be—and “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Here we have the theme that links Fitzgerald so closely with writers like James, Adams, and Twain, who contrast the values of modern America with those of the past. Fitzgerald‘s view is really as apocalyptic as Henry Adams‘ because it leaves no real basis for hope. We can only look nostalgically back at what could have been; we have no way to exercise the will to realize an ideal. Nick‘s return to the West is ... [a] meaningless . .. gesture. ... It is an act in and for itself, not heroic as the critics insist, but antiheroic, a subliminal recognition of cultural defeat—of a world that offers no basis for an act beyond itself, no basis for meaningful commitment.

The Decline of the West

If Adams, James, and Fitzgerald share this theme among themselves, they also share it with Oswald Spengler. In a letter to Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald said that he read Spengler the summer he was writing The Great Gatsby, "and I don‘t think that I ever quite recovered from him.” The importance of this remark has been somewhat belied by the fact thatSpengler‘s The Decline of the West was not translated into English until after Fitzgerald‘s novel was published, and Fitzgerald did not read German. To believe, however, that he did not know Spengler because he had not read him directly is to be a victim of literal-mindedness—and does not take into consideration the use that Fitzgerald often made of secondary sources and of what friends told him. Spengler was in the air during the early part of the twenties; there were countless summaries of his ideas (which is probably what Fitzgerald had in mind when he spoke of reading Spengler); and Fitzgerald could not long have talked with friends like Edmund Wilson without being exposed to these ideas. Moreover, many of Spengler‘s ideas had been approximated by Brooks Adams (Henry‘s brother) in The Law of Civilization and Decay, published in 1896.

Spengler discussed at great length two kinds of cultural periods—the Faustian and the Apollonian. The Apollonian, or classical period, was one of order and harmony with man generally self-satisfied. The Faustian or modern period is one of flux and disruption with man generally dissatisfied and longing for the unattainable. Spengler felt that there was nowhere to go after the Faustian period (that it marked the kind of cultural limbo within which Nick Carraway . . . [finds himself]) and that after the rise of the big cities controlled by the monied thugs ("the new Caesars,” he called them) the last Faustian man would be destroyed, to be replaced by the “colored” races—the Negroes and the Chinese— who would use Western man‘s technological know-how against him.

Whether or not Spengler directly influenced The Great Gatsby can perhaps be argued. What cannot be argued, however, is the remarkable similarity between Spengler‘s ideas and the design of the novel. Gatsby is the last of the Faustian men, the modern man living in the flux of the big city, longing for the unattainable, doomed in his combat with the Tom Buchanans, the new Caesars, in a world that contrasts remarkably with an older order, a world that has been covered by the ashes of time—just as the green breast of the new world has given way to the Valley of Ashes in the novel itself. That Tom‘s world will in time give way to another, more primitive, culture is suggested in a number of ways. Tom, for example, discusses with some fear the rise of the colored races, and Nick and Gatsby see a white chauffeur driving two Negroes (an inversion of their [usual] roles) across the Queensboro Bridge.

When Tom is discussing these matters, he refers to Goddard‘s The Rise of the Colored Empires, a nonexistent book. Fitzgerald was obliquely referring to Lothrop Stoddard‘s The Rising Tide of Color, published by Charles Scribner‘s Sons in 1920. Like Spengler, Stoddard believed that the colored races would eventually control the world. He argued that the white man controlled four-fifths of the world but lived primarily in Europe and North America, which composed only one-fifth of the land. As a result, one-fifth of the white race, around 110 million persons, were expected to preserve the status quo in the face of a disgruntled colored population eleven times that number. The night of the big party, the owl-eyed man picks Volume 1 of Stoddard‘s lectures from a shelf in Gatsby‘s library.

Because so much of what Fitzgerald was saying about America was said obliquely, through the use of descriptive detail and allusion, the import of these matters has been lost on many of the critics. Fitzgerald placed his two principal characters, Gatsby and Nick Carraway, in a cultural limbo, where the past has been corrupted and where the idealists crash upon the hard rocks of ruthless materialism; he placed them in a world of Tom Buchanans, where the Faustian man is an intruder.

Embodiment of an Inverted Dream

For if Gatsby cannot seal the hole in time, cannot buy back the past, he also cannot commit himself to the future. Fitzgerald inverted the rags-to-riches story and made Gatsby the victim of his Benjamin Franklin-Dan Cody (James J. Hill) dreams. One way that Fitzgerald did this was to make Gatsby an ersatz profiteer. Like a character in an inverted Horatio Alger novel, he struggles up from his bleak beginnings to make a great deal of money and to buy a mansion overlooking Long Island Sound. Only the mansion is on West Egg, which houses the new rich, and not East Egg, which houses the established rich; and the money comes from bucket shops [overly aggressive brokerage houses that push highly speculative stocks], bootlegging, and gambling.

Gatsby in many ways marks the logical end of the Alger tradition. He is, to put this differently, the end product of theAmerican Dream, the grotesque embodiment of what America can offer its ambitious young. At one point in the novel, Tom Buchanan buys a dog for Myrtle Wilson from “a gray old man who bore an absurd resemblance to John D. Rockefeller.” Gatsby himself also has an absurd resemblance to the robber barons. To be sure, he lacks their ultimate refinement of taste and their final established status; but he shares their motives, wants what they want, and is just as unscrupulous in the way he operates. Rockefeller‘s dealings with Standard Oil share a quality of mind that Gatsby brought to Meyer Wolfsheim‘s operations. Enough money can buy respectability in America—just as today we know that the Mafia has moved into many “legitimate” businesses—and when Daisy leaves Gatsby because he lacks the proper social credentials, she is being more faithful to the letter than the spirit of the law.

As I pointed out in my F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Craft of Fiction, Gatsby grotesquely resembles Tom Buchanan. Both Gatsby and Tom are brokers—only Gatsby is a phony broker; but where the legitimate ends and the phony begins is a debatable point in Fitzgerald‘s world, where Gatsby‘s motives are in many ways at one with Tom‘s. Only Gatsby‘s lack of taste marks the substantial difference, and this is also a matter of degree—Gatsby with his silver suits, golden ties, and pin-striped shirts; Gatsby in his phony feudal castle built by a wealthy brewer (be it noted ) who wanted to thatch the roofs of the surrounding houses; and Gatsby in his oversized yellow car embellished with chrome. Yet the grotesque qualities of Gatsby seem, at times, to extend to America itself, or at least to New York, which Nick at one point describes as a “city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish.”

Gatsby becomes the absurd incarnation of Benjamin Franklin and the Gilded Age tycoon. Mr. Gatz makes the connection when he shows Nick the copy of Hopalong Cassidy in which Gatsby set down Franklin‘s formula to success and when he remarks that if Gatsby had lived he would have become another James J. Hill. Gatsby did not just become another Franklin or Hill; he went beyond them and became their grotesque extension in time. He came to embody the values that Henry James turned from in terror in The American Scene. He came to represent the decline of culturalideals which Henry Adams warned us about in apocalyptic terms in his autobiography. . . .

What Might Have Been

When the dream fails them, Fitzgerald‘s characters look first nostalgically to the past and see it in terms of what might have been. Soon this nostalgia turns to horror as they realize how they have betrayed the promises of youth, how they have wasted their talents. Thus we move from one circle of experience to another in The Great Gatsby, the personal experience duplicating and reinforcing the cultural experience, Gatsby‘s sense of lost promise duplicating the lost promises of America itself. In The Great Gatsby, we move with Nick Carraway from dream to horror—from the dream of the early explorers who first saw the green breast of the new world, to the commuters who pass daily through the Valley of Ashes, which parallels our move from a young army officer named Gatsby to his grim and pathetic funeral.

When Nick leaves Gatsby the night of Myrtle Wilson‘s fatal accident, he says, “So I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight—watching over nothing.” At the very end of the novel, as Nick looks out into the dark of Long Island Sound, he realizes that both Gatsby‘s dream and that of the republic lie behind us, and his last sentence catches the rhythm of his previous words, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Gatsby watches over nothing, and we beat on into the past. The two ideas merge on the level of style as well as on the level of narrative theme. We move from hope to despair, from the present to the past where the promises of a young country and a young man have given way to—"nothing.”

The meaning of Gatsby‘s story was not unknown to Henry James, Henry Adams, and Mark Twain. Gatsby was not the first of the nowhere heroes, and he is obviously not the last; but he is perhaps the most vital, and his story reveals a quality of mind that is our legacy from the Gilded Age.


From American Dreams, American Nightmares, ed. by David Madden, 1970.


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