He felt then that if the pilgrimage eastward of the rare poisonous flower of his race was the end of the adventure which had started westward three hundred years ago, if the long serpent of the curiosity had turned too sharp upon itself, cramping its bowels, bursting its shining skin, at least there had been a journey; like to the satisfaction of a man coming to die—one of those human things that one can never understand unless one has made such a journey and heard the man give thanks with the husbanded breath. The frontiers were gone—there were no more barbarians. The short gallop of the last great race, the polyglot, the hated and the despised, the crass and scorned, had gone—at least it was not a meaningless extinction up an alley. (The Crack-Up, p. 199)
After a brief revival, the novels of Scott Fitzgerald seem destined again for obscurity, labeled this time, by their most recent critics, as darkly pessimistic studies of America’s spiritual and ideological failures. The Great Gatsby, we are now told, is not simply a chronicle of the Jazz Age but rather a dramatization of the betrayal of the naive American dream in a corrupt society.(See Edwin Fussell, “Fitzgerald’s Brave New World,” ELH, XIX (Dec. 1952), 291-306; Marius Bewley. “Scott Fitzgerald’s Criticism of America.” SR. LXII (Spring 1954), 223-246; John W. Bicknell. “The Waste Land of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” VQR, XXX (Autumn 1954). A somewhat different but equally negative interpretation is R. W. Stallman’s “Gatsby and the Hole in Time,” MFS. I (Nov. 1955), 1-15.) I would agree that in Gatsby Fitzgerald did create a myth with the imaginative sweep of America’s historical adventure across an untamed continent. But his fable of East and West is little concerned with twentieth-century materialism and moral anarchy, for its theme is the unending quest of the romantic dream, which is forever betrayed in face and yet redeemed in men’s minds.
From the start, Fitzgerald’s personal dreams of romance contained the seeds of their own destruction. In his earliest works, his optimistic sense of the value of experience is overshadowed by a personal intuition of tragedy; his capacity for naive wonder is chastened by satiric and ironic insights which make surrender to the romantic impulse incomplete. Though able to idealize the sensuous excitement of an exclusive party or a lovely face, Fitzgerald could not ignore the speciosity inherent in the romantic stimuli of his social world—in the unhurried gracious poise that money can buy.Invariably he studied what fascinated him so acutely that he could give at times a clinical report on the very rich, whose world seemed to hold the promise of a life devoid of the vulgar and commonplace. A literalist of his own imagination (and therefore incapable of self-deception), he peopled extravagant fantasy with superbly real “denizens of Broadway.” The result in the earlier novels is not so much an uncertainty of tone as a curious alternation of satiric and romantic moments—a breathless adoration of flapper heroines whose passionate kisses are tinged with frigidity and whose daring freedom masks an adolescent desire for the reputation rather than the reality of experience.
The haunting tone of Gatsby is more than a skilful fusion of Fitzgerald’s satiric and romantic contrarieties. Nick Carraway, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the variety of life, attains Fitzgerald’s mature realization that the protective enchantment of the romantic ideal lies in its remoteness from actuality. He knows the fascination of yellow windows high above the city streets even as he looks down from Myrtle Wilson’s gaudy, smoke-filled apartment. He still remembers the initial wonder of Gatsby’s parties long after he is sickened by familiarity with Gatsby’s uninvited guests. In one summer Nick discovers a profoundly melancholy esthetic truth: that romance belongs not to the present but to a past transfigured by imagined memory and to the illusory) promise of an unrealizable future Gatsby; less wise than Nick, destroys himself in an attempt to seize the green light in his own fingers.
At the same time that Fitzgerald perceived the melancholy nature of romantic illusion, his attitude towards the very rich crystallized. In Gatsby we see that the charming irresponsibility of the flapper has developed into the criminal amorality of Daisy Buchanan, and that the smug conceit of the Rich Boy has hardened , into Tom Buchanan’s arrogant cruelty: We know in retrospect that Anthony Patch’s tragedy was not his poverty,“but his possession of the weakness and purposelessness of the very rich without their protective armor of wealth.
The thirst for money is a crucial motive in Gatsby as in Fitzgerald’s other novels, and yet none of his major characters are materialists, for money is never their final goal. The rich are too accustomed to money to covet it. It is simply the badge of their “superiority” and the justification of their consuming snobberies. For those who are not very rich—for the Myrtle Wilsons as well as the Jay Gatsbys—it is the alchemic reagent that transmutes the ordinary worthlessness of life. Money is the demiurgos of Jimmy Gate’s Platonic universe, and the proof, in “Babylon Revisited,” of the unreality of reality (“…the snow of twenty-nine wasn’t real snow. If you didn’t want it to be snow, you just paid some money”). Even before Gatsby, in “The Rich Boy,” Fitzgerald had defined the original sin of the very rich: They do not worship material gods but they “possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful….” Surrounded from childhood by the artificial security of wealth, accustomed to owning rather than wanting, they lack anxiety or illusion, frustration or fulfillment. Their romantic dreams are rooted in the adolescence from which they never completely escape—in the excitement of the prom or petting party, the reputation of being fast on the college gridiron or the college weekend.
Inevitably, then, Fitzgerald saw his romantic dream threaded by a double irony. Those who possess the necessary means lack the will, motive, or capacity to pursue a dream. Those with the heightened sensitivity to the promises of life have it because they are the disinherited, forever barred from the white palace where “the king’s daughter, the golden girl” awaits “safe and proud above the struggles of the poor.” Amory Blaine loses his girl writing advertising copy at ninety a month. Anthony Patch loses his mind after an abortive attempt to recoup his fortune peddling bonds. Jay Gatsby loses his life even though he makes his millions because they are not the kind of safe, respectable money that echoes in Daisy’s lovely voice. The successful entrepreneurs of Gatsby’s age are the panderers to vulgar tastes, the high pressure salesmen, and, of course, the bootleggers. Yet once. Fitzgerald suggests, there had been opportunity commensurate with aspiration, an unexplored and unexploited frontier where great fortunes had been made or at least romantically stolen. And out of the shifting of opportunities from the West to Wall Street, he creates an American fable which redeems as well as explains romantic failure.
But how is one to accept, even in fable, a West characterized by the dull rectitude of Minnesota villages and an East epitomized by the sophisticated dissipation of Long Island society? The answer is perhaps that Fitzgerald’s dichotomy of East and West has the poetic truth of James’s antithesis of provincial American virtue and refined European sensibility. Like The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors, Gatsby is a story of “displaced persons” who have journeyed eastward in search of a larger experience of life. To James this reverse migration from the New to the Old World has in itself no special significance. To Fitzgerald, however, the lure of the East represents a profound displacement of the American dream, a turning back upon itself of the historic pilgrimage towards the frontier which had, in fact, created and sustained that dream. In Gatsby the once limitless western horizon is circumscribed by the “bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions which spared only the children and the very old.” The virgin territories of the frontiersman have been appropriated by the immigrant families, the diligent Swedes—the unimaginative, impoverished German farmers like Henry Gatz. Thus after a restless nomadic existence, the Buchanans settle “permanently” on Long Island because Tom would be “a God damned fool to live anywhere else.” Thus Nick comes to New York with a dozen volumes on finance which promise “to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas, Morgan and Maecenas knew.” Gatsby’s green light, of course, shines in only one direction—from the East across the continent to Minnesota, from the East across the bay to his imitation mansion in West Egg.
Lying in the moonlight on Gatsby’s deserted beach, Nick realizes at the close just how lost a pilgrimage Gatsby’s had been:
… I became aware of the old island here that had flowered once for Hutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pondered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams: for a transitory moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
Gatsby is the spiritual descendant of these Dutch sailors. Like them, he set out for gold and stumbled on a dream. But he journeys in the wrong direction in time as well as space. The transitory en-chanted moment has come and gone for him and for the others, making the romantic promise of the future an illusory reflection of I (he past. Nick still carries with him a restlessness born of the war’s excitement; Daisy silently mourns the romantic adventure of her “white” girlhood; Tom seeks the thrill of a vanished football game. Gatsby devotes his life to recapturing a love lost five years before. When the present offers nothing commensurate with man’s capacity for wonder, the romantic credo is the belief—Gatsby’s belief- in the ability to repeal the disembodied past. Each step towards—the green light, however, shadows some part of Gatsby’s grandiose achievement. With Daisy’s disapproval the spectroscopic parties cease. To preserve her reputation Gatsby empties his mansion of lights and servants. And. finally only darkness and ghostly memories tenant the deserted house as Gatsby relives his romantic past for Nick after the accident.
Like his romantic dream Jay Gatsby belongs to a vanished past. His career began when he met Dan Cody. a debauched relic of an earlier America who made his millions in the copper strikes. From Cody he received an education in ruthlessness which he applied when the accident of the war brought him to the beautiful house of Daisy Fay. In the tradition of Cody’s frontier, he “took what he could get, ravenously and unscrupulously,” but in taking Daisy he fell in love with her. “She vanished into her rich house, into her rich full life, leaving Gatsby—nothing. He felt married to her, that was all.”
“He felt married to her”—here is the reaction of bourgeois conscience, not of calculating ambition. But then Gatsby is not really Cody’s protege. Jimmy Gatz inherited an attenuated version of the American dream of success, a more moral and genteel dream suited to a nation arriving at the respectability of established wealth and class. Respectability demands that avarice be masked with virtue, that personal aggrandizement pose as self-improvement. Success is no longer to the cutthroat or the ruthless but to the diligent and the industrious, to the boy who scribbles naive resolves on the flyleaf of Hopalong Cassidy. Fabricated of pulp fiction cliches the impoverished materials of an extraordinary imagination), Gatsby’s dream of self-improvement blossoms into a preposterous tale of ancestral wealth and culture. And his dream is incorruptible because his great enterprise is not side-street “drugstores,” or stolen bonds, but himself, his fictional past, his mansion, and his gaudy entertainments. Through it all he moves alone and untouched; he is the impresario, the creator, not the enjoyer of a riotous venture dedicated to an impossible goal.
It may seem ironic that Gatsby’s dream of self-improvement is realized through partnership with Meyer Wolfsheim, but Wolfsheim is merely the post-war successor to Dan Cody and to the ruthlessness and greed that once exploited a virgin West. He is the fabulous manipulator of bootleg gin rather than of copper, the modern man of legendary accomplishment “who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919.” The racketeer, Fitzgerald suggests, is the last great folk hero, the Paul Bunyan of an age in which romantic wonder surrounds underworld “gonnegtions” instead of raw courage or physical strength. And actually Gatsby is destroyed not by Wolfsheim, or association with him, but by the provincial squeamishness which makes all the Westerners in the novel unadaptable to life in the East.
Despite her facile cynicism and claim to sophistication. Daisy is still the “nice” girl who grew up in Louisville in a beautiful house with a wicker settee on the porch. She remains “spotless,” still immaculately dressed in white and capable of a hundred whimsical, vaporous enthusiasms. She has assimilated the urbane ethic of the East which allows a bored wife a casual discreet affair. But she cannot, like Gatsby’s uninvited guests, wink at the illegal and the criminal. When Tom begins to unfold the sordid details of Gatsby’s career, she shrinks away: she never intended to leave her husband, but now even an affair is impossible. Tom’s provinciality is more boorish than genteel. He has assumed the role of Long Island country gentleman who keeps a mistress in a midtown apartment. But with Myrtle Wilson by his side he turns the role into a ludicrous travesty. By nature a libertine, by upbringing a prig, Tom shatters Gatsby’s facade in order to preserve his “gentleman’s” conception of womanly virtue and of the sanctity of his marriage.
Ultimately, however, Gatsby is the victim of his own small-town notions of virtue and chivalry. “He would never so much as look at a friend’s wife”—or at least he would never try to steal her in her husband’s house. He wants Daisy to say that she never loved Tom because only in this way can the sacrament of Gatsby’s “marriage” to her in Louisville—his prior claim—be recognized. Not content merely to repeat the past, he must also eradicate the years in which his dream lost its reality. But the dream, like the vanished frontier which it almost comes to represent, is lost forever “some where back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark field of the republic rolled on under the night.”
After Gatsby’s death Nick prepares to return to his Minnesota home, a place of warmth and enduring stability, carrying with him a surrealistic night vision of the debauchery of the East. Yet his return is not a positive rediscovery of the wellsprings of American life. Instead it seems a melancholy retreat from the ruined promise of the East, from the empty present to the childhood memory of the past. Indeed, it is this childhood memory, not the reality of the West which Nick cherishes. For he still thinks the East, despite its nightmarish aspect, superior to the stultifying small-town dullness—from which he fled. And by the close of Gatsby it is unmistakably clear that the East does not symbolize contemporary decadence and the West the pristine virtues of an earlier America. Fitzgerald does not contrast Gatsby’s criminality with his father’s unspoiled rustic strength and dignity. He contrasts rather Henry Gatz’s dull, gray, almost insentient existence, “a meaningless extinction up an alley,” with Gatsby’s pilgrimage Eastward, which, though hopeless and corrupting, was at least a journey of life and hope—an escape from the “vast obscurity” of the West that once spawned and then swallowed the American dream. Into this vast obscurity the Buchanans finally disappear. They are not Westerners any longer, or Easterners, but merely two of the very rich, who in the end represent nothing but themselves. They are careless people. Tom and Daisy, selfish, destructive, capable of anything except human sympathy, and yet not sophisticated enough to be really decadent. Their irresponsibility. Nick realizes, is that of pampered children, who smash up “things and creatures …and let other people clean up the mess.” They live in the eternal moral adolescence which only wealth can produce and protect.
By ignoring its context one can perhaps make much of Nick’s indictment of the Buchanans. One can even say that in The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald adumbrated the coming tragedy of a nation grown decadent without achieving maturity—a nation that possessed and enjoyed early and in its arrogant assumption of superiority lost sight of the dream that had created it. But is it not absurd to interpret Gatsby as a mythic Spenglerian anti-hero? Gatsby is great, because his dream, however naive, gaudy, and unattainable is one of the grand illusions of the race, which keep men from becoming too old or too wise or too cynical of their human limitations. Scott Fitzgerald’s fable of East and West does not lament the decline of American civilization. It mourns the eternal lateness of the present hour suspended between the past of romantic memory and the future of romantic promise which ever recedes before us.
Published in College English magazine XVIII (December 1956), pp. 139-143.