Copyright © 1997 THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS. All rights reserved.
Old Values and New Times
The Great Gatsby is a postwarbook, but I think most readers have the wrong warin mind. The moral exhaustion we detect in characterand language is historical and literary. It does not proceeddirectly from the culture-shattering First World War, althoughsome excellent recent books have shown us howserious was the effect of that war on feeling and idea.Fitzgerald thought intelligently about social change andin an interview during January 1921 spoke about it in thefollowing 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 singleclause, "radical departures from the Victorian era." Toomuch weight should not be borne by one statement, butwe ought to pursue its theme in search of more evidence.
The emphasis of the novel's opening pages is post-CivilWar, on "three generations" of fathers and unclesand sons. The Carraway family, fittingly for this story, hasbeen steadily upwardly mobile. The Civil War beganits prosperity; the Gilded Age confirmed it. By the thirdgeneration Nick has gone to Yale and to easy associationwith millionaires. It has been a family decision to sendNick back eastaunts, uncles, and father are involved,and some are even implicated in his story. Especiallythe "hard-boiled" uncle who seems to have been the firstcause of the family's rise to prosperity. His brief biographyis the first in The Great Gatsby's spectrum of Americanlives. We will get a great deal of information fromthese lives, and they will offer thematic parallels tothe main story. This particular biography gives us a necessarysense of unheroic American realities, of the relationshipof money to all else. And of the falsifications ofhistory.
The references back across the generations to thecommercially satisfying Civil War set both protagonistand reader in "the Victorian era." But something has happened:the unregenerate uncle may look forever out ofhis painting with the same wise brutality that made forhis success, but the world of his assumptions is gone.Three generations ago, in the beginning, there was nononsense about ideas or identities. But both Middle Westand family have lost their initiative. They are what oneleaves behind for a stronger source of energy. The firstpage of the novel is in fact about kinds of energy; and itscalculated diminishment tells us that "the Victorian era"has little any longer to give or to command. The GreatGatsby begins with a hesitant and rather loose-jointedaccount of what a nineteenth-century father passes onto his twentieth-century son. The narration is inarticulate,suggesting the deficiencies of content through thoseof form. We expect greater things but hear only politefictions about family, class, and "clan." Expecting revelations,we hear of decencies: the text establishes thevirtues of reserve, tolerance, and of an idealized self-consciousnessthat seems to be nothing more than thesuppression of impulse.
The story has begun with the invocation of the sacredsubjects of life and literature from Scott through Stevenson:war and peace, family, "tradition," and "clan." We expectthe hero to have something to say in relation tothem. We also expect him to begin his journey with sometalisman that these great subjects provide. But the narrationgives us nothing that will guard against danger. Thisparticular story about seeking your fortune begins withan ended moment.
There is a tremendous upsurge of energy (literally, asin the description of Gatsby and the seismograph) whenwe move away from outmoded sources and towardmoney, sex, and self-fashioning. There are in fact talismansfor some of these things, "shining secrets" (7) thatshow us the way. With their mention the narrativechanges and becomes full of color and movement. But wedon't at this point suspect the powers of refiguration ofmoney or sexuality.
In New York and on West Egg, Nick (correctly)perceives character, statement, and idea in terms of dubietyand opposition. He recalls facts while establishinguncertainties and even anxieties about them. We areconstrained by the text to the visual but in terms ofits limits: "perpetual confusion ... factual imitation ...overlooked ... I had no sight.... appearance ... impression."Enormous power is diffused into ungovernedmotion through a language of "anticlimax" and, repeatedly,"drift." A kind of principle of uncertainty is beingelaborated that will extend from the use of language tothe nature of identity, historical and otherwise.
Uncertainty will be restated in many forms. Thestory has begun by invoking "the abnormal mind" asagainst 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 describedas 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 inpart because of her moral and stylistic deviance. Drunkenness,throughout, is a form of revelatory unconsciousness,an enormous part of the telling of the story. Dreamsdemand their interpretationand had since 1900 demandedThe Interpretation of Dreams. On one level thisis all convincing contextin 1925 Franklin P. Adams andBrian Hooker collaborated on music and lyrics of "Don'tTell Me What You Dreamed Last Night (For I've BeenReading Freud)." Everyone who reads in 1925 knowsabout sex and the unconscious mind. But the biggestdream in the text will never be explained by therapy. Explanationcomes easily and often in this text but is rarelyuseful.
More uncertainty: the conventional language of descriptionseems not to matter to the narrator. We don'tknow 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, Gatsbyand that "advertisement."
There is, however, much hidden information, aswhen Fitzgerald forcibly directs our attention to lyricsthat are on Daisy's mind: "I looked outdoors for a minuteand it's very romantic outdoors. There's a bird on thelawn that I think must be a nightingale come over on theCunard or White Star Line" (16). According to the notesin Matthew J. Bruccoli's edition, "there are no nightingalesin the United States" (183). Fitzgerald repeats theword "romantic" three times in a very short burst of dialogueto redirect us. In Keats and Shelley (and later inEliot), the nightingale awakens dead souls from "dulloblivion." The process, Eliot reminds us, is unwilling,and the nightingale's song is unheard by most. The subjectof entropy resurfaces often in contemporary reflectionson a national life of complacency and moral inertia,and I will return to this point.
When Daisy speaks and is described, certain wordsenforce attention. The reader who overlooks "promise"and "promising" will miss their connection to the restatementof "promise" in the narration. Even more, the readerwill miss the meaning of the phrase in its time as a synonymfor American dreaming. It is a phrase often appliedto the idea of the nation. And it is linked, in essays andmagazines and political visions, to "reward" and to "progress."Vanity Fair, for example begins each issue with thehope that it has recorded "the progress and promise ofAmerican life." And in 1922, the Saturday Evening Post isone of many voices linking success to life in "a land ofpromise." To be sure, her voice is full of money if it is fullof promise.
When we first meet Daisy and Jordan, we are askedto think of subjectivity and theatricality: she and Jordanlook "as though upon an anchored balloon" and "as if"they had just been blown back after a flight around thehouse; 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 extemporizingbut a stirring warmth flowed from her as ifher heart was trying to come out to you concealed in oneof those breathless, thrilling words" (15). "As if," a kind offalse subjunctive, is connected firmly to "concealed ...words." Display and concealment will often be linked inthe text and by no means only in the case of Jay Gatsby.
Much of what Nick discovers is the opposite of whathe sees, hears, or is assured. Even among the banalitiesof introduction he can sense the difference between gestureand fact, speech and sensibility. In half a sentence"Ifshe saw me out of the corner of her eyes she gave nohint 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 seesanything? Is her silence an expression of character or aform of female strategy? Her self-possession and unself-consciousnessare a contrast to Daisy's expressivenessand reliance on sound and movement. Are these complicatingand supporting female roles? As Marjorie tells usin "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," even sixteen-year-olds havea "line."
Tom shows effeminate swank and Jordan looks like "ayoung cadet" (12). Nick says a lot of interesting thingsthingsthat might become interestingbut he keepsthem to himself. They do not become dialogue, so thatthey hang in the air as a secondary set of subjects shadowingthose things that are stated and argued. For thisreason the novel has both a surface and uncharted depth.The style of modernism conjoins the sexes, but we maybe intended to sense here Jordan's probing of boundaries,her own readiness, in a novel of identities, to assume acharacter.
There are many telephone calls in the novel, like theone 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 suggestsinformation to be revealed and truths necessary to theunderstanding of events. The telephone suggests not onlyreality but realism. But any sense we have of communicability,hence of actuality, coexists with a highly indeterminatedialogue: The Great Gatsby depends to an enormousdegree on the communication of lies, fictions, andmisinformation. For example, what Nick has learned atYale has to be revised and abandoned. What he hearsfrom Daisy is a social fiction: "This was a permanentmove, said Daisy over the telephone, but I didn't believeit" (9). The Buchanans are old friends scarcely known atall; Nick is described as a rose but knows that he is "noteven faintly like" one (15); Daisy's explanations reveal"basic insincerity" (17); the word "secret" is repeated anumber of times, finally suggesting that even "turbulentemotions" do not find honest expression. The word "sophisticated"means holding off truth. "But we heard it,"Daisy says of Nick's nonexistent engagement. Fitzgeraldintroduces into the text gossip, rumor, and "story," givingus to understand that they become part of both narrativeand character private and public. The idea of "story" itselfis deeply affected.
I have argued for a sense of difficulty in interpretingthe language of the text, which means a modification ofliterary method. The following critical advice is helpfulbut 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." Whatis visual in this text is often also indiscernible. And it issimply not enough to determine kinds of imagery: thetext is insistent in its statement of terms that counteractthe perception and the understanding of "images." Thefirst chapter warns us that "words" deceive, that meaningis "concealed," that "concentration" falters, that "meaning"is hard to ascertain, that the evening described hasdissolved into "broken fragments" (16). The text is itselfa collection of fragments. It is not really possible to constructimagistic certainties from a text that denies the capacityrightly to conceive, perceive, or conclude.
One of the great conflicts in the novel's opening chapteris literary-textual, between the values of realism andthe complexities that cannot be expressed or understoodby conventional description. Nick does not fully see orunderstand what he perceives, and neither do we. Dialogueresists analysis because so much of its motivationis suspect and so much of its statement untrue. As Nickstates of one moment, what he overhears is only "on theverge of coherence" (15). Description uncontaminated bydialogue repeatedly denotes perceptual uncertainty. Itmay be that "a certain hardy skepticism" (16) is called for,which is to say, the ability to see through things as theyare, because they are not what they seem to be. (Jordan,without dreams, has the right kind of mind for thisworld.) The use of weighted summary phrases that establishconclusions reached by Nick at the end of episodes("confused," "basic insincerity," "trick," "untrue," "Icouldn't guess what Daisy and Tom were thinking)" (16)establishes the limits of our knowledge because of thelimits of perception. The admonition from Tom to Nicktoward chapter's end is really from narrator to reader:"Don't believe everything you hear" (19).
Some ideas and assumptions came to Fitzgerald fromother textshe was himself indefatigable in pointing outthe "influences" on him. Character and plot came fromhigh culture and also from daily newspapers and themagazines of mass culture: The Great Gatsby expressesfreely its own observations and reliance on popular songs,movies, scandal sheets, "news," and even advertisements.In the background also are other sources, some of themproceeding from Public Philosophy. There were manywritings by William James that echo in this text; and alsowritings by others who referred themselves to him. AsI've noted, in the guise of the amateur in Flappers andPhilosophers, 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 scholarshiphas illuminated the effects of Darwinism on novel writing,its provision of the great themes (and some of thegreat metaphors) of chaos, chance, natural redundancy,and sexual selection. Late nineteenth-century fictionwas forced to deal with these theoretical presences, evento adjust its language into appropriate metaphor. Earlytwentieth-century fiction too has its bedrock, and wemay expect to find in it certain refractions: the questioningof idealism; the comparison of past to present; the issueof true American identity; and the (frequent) examinationof a "modern society ... devoid of moral tension,"all issues scrutinized by James and debated with greatvigor over Fitzgerald's lifetime.
James was a central figure in the world that Fitzgeraldbegan in. Jacques Barzun points out that he set the termsfor the examination of American intellectual and sociallife and was admired by intellectuals from Whiteheadand Holmes to Gertrude Stein. He was especially interestedin the discerning power of fiction and believed "artwas an extension and clarification ... of experience."Mencken recalled him as himself a public figure, the officialGreat Thinker of America from the century's openinguntil his eventual replacement by John Dewey: "Thereign of James ... was long and glorious. For three or fouryears running he was mentioned in every one of thoseAmerican Spectators and Saturday Reviews at least oncea week, and often a dozen times.... there was scarcelya serious rival." Mencken adds (not entirely happily)that James's "ghost went marching on" for years after hisdeath in 1910. He was being nothing less than literal: in1922, the year of the setting of The Great Gatsby, the February15 issue of the New Republic ran a full-page ad onthe treatment of "Nerves" that quoted the Baltimore EveningSun on James's accessible mind and style; the March1 issue carried Walter Lippmann's introductory chapterof Public Opinion, which ended with extensive remarkson James and national culture; the April 12 issue carriedJohn Dewey's "Pragmatic America" piece, which referreditself in both title and body to James's views on Americanidentity; and the June issue of the Dial ran George Santayana'spiece on Jamesian psychology. That year, whenCivilization in the United States (a reformist survey ofAmerican culture) appeared, it contained the statement,"In even the briefest and most random enumeration oftowering native sons, it is impossible to ignore the nameof William James. Here for once the suffrage of town andgown, of domestic and alien judges is unanimous.... heis far more than a great psychologist, philosopher, or literaryman."
The voice of William James could be heard echoingin every argument over the shortcomings of democracy.He very nearly monopolized the subject of American socialand personal identity, and as long as Lippmann andDewey were alive, there would be continuing allusions toand development of his own arguments. The focus wason American lives: Pragmatism, to mention only one ofhis shelf of works, contains central ideas on our individualconceptions of truth; on our responsibility to livewithin defined space and time; on the evidence of "merefacts," 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 concreteparts of life." James was greatly concerned withheroism and particularly with the energies that made itpossible. I will allude to these points more fully when thetext concentrates on Gatsby; meanwhile other issues ofPublic Philosophy ought to be reviewed.
Public Philosophy frames some of the questions askedby the text of this novel, and it provides an ironic backgroundfor the answers to these questions. At its heart isthe idea of obligation. It states relentlessly our duties toour own individual development and toward others in thesocial unit. It is highly specific, and often novelistic in itspractice, picturing the dilemmas of philosophy in anecdotesof social life. It is full of exemplary American characterswho have to make choices. It is consciously literary:James's famous address "Is Life Worth Living?"begins with a citation from Shakespeare, moves to WaltWhitman and then to Rousseau, and from there recites,at enormous length, the poetry of James Thomson. Jamesinvokes Leopardi and Ruskin and Marcus Aurelius, andworks his way through the sinuousities of Carlyle.Throughout, his assumption is that literature and philosophyhave common ends and tactics. In another essay,"The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life," he arguesthat ethics must be allied with literature: "I mean withnovels and dramas of the deeper sort." This, incidentally,was a reiterated point for James, for Royce, and especiallyfor John Dewey. As far as James, the principalfigure of Public Philosophy was concerned, he specificallyintended to find common ground with poetry andfiction. He invited authorship dealing with his ideas. Hetook pains, like Theodore Roosevelt, to address an audienceof the young and educatedhis best-known addressescontaining among them "talks" delivered at collegesand to teachers.
The tactical subjects of Jamesian Public Philosophyare resistance to the temptations of a deeply materialisticculture, moral and intellectual improvement, the conversionof natural energies to worthy purposes, and our socialduties in America. Public Philosophy provides part ofthe background for the debates in Fitzgerald's narrativeconcerning family and human relationships and for thehopeful concept of individualism.
The dialogue of the opening chapter takes up certainspecific issues. Here and throughout, the Buchanans usea moral and often moralistic terminology. Even this earlyin the story, Tom and Daisy and Jordan invoke (or defendor passively follow) rules that mean very little to them.And when they want most to be subjective, they most invokethe canonical language of idealized American socialrelations. They keep telling us what they believe, whichrequires that we recognize not only what they are sayingbut what relationship they have to their statements.
One subject of discussion is the idea of American"civilization." That would seem to be a condition achievedthrough the slow and painful advance of mind and artbutit turns out that "civilization" in this narrative issomething assumed, conferred, and denied. The idea ofbeing truly American is an important part of Tom Buchanan'sown identity. In some ways, he is no different fromGatsby: he only picks a different model. He emphasizesand exaggerates his Americanismalthough the suspicionsraised in the novel's opening pages about the nineteenth-centurybackground unavoidably shade his argumentbecause Tom looks ever backward to the verities of"the Victorian era." He will prove to be increasingly concernedwith empty "decencies," which for him are the(usefully) nominal forms of respectability.
Like the word "promise," the word "civilization" washighly contextual in the early twenties. In fact, it was aword 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 backwardfrom 1924-1925) from debate over an importantbook that I have cited, Civilization in the United States,edited by Harold Stearns. Tom's own literary sourceshave told him, in opposition to writers like Stearns whoprotested the distinction, that America is a product of"Nordic" or of "Anglo-Saxon" culture. They have also toldhim that American "civilization" is threatened by blackemigration from the southern states and white immigrationfrom eastern Europe. It is our social duty to restorethe native balance. This was a respectable position at themoment, restated by the White House and Congress,validated by journals like the Saturday Evening Post, diffusedto an active audience that includes Tom Buchanan,accepted by a more passive audience that includes Daisyand Jordan Baker. But American "civilization" and itssynonyms like "culture" and "society" were ideas understress and in the process of change.
Fitzgerald mirrors debate on American culture fromthe time when the novel takes place to the time when itwas being written. For example, in 1924 H. L. Menckensummarized the view that the "arts" and "sciences" werenow being advanced by recent immigrants to this countrywho admittedly did not come from northern or "Nordic"Europe. And the defense of nativist and other forms ofracist culture had begun to be excoriated (in the springof 1922) by Walter Lippmann. Such ideas, Lippmannobserved, were simply ammunition for the untalented.Hannah Arendt has noted that these ideas began to becirculated in the last quarter century of that "Victorianera." But of course, under the influence of the debateon immigration, they were at their most intense exactlywithin the period 922-1924.
A second issue concerns internal social change, andMorton White reminds us that Public Philosophy in the"golden age" of James, Royce, Santayana, and Dewey consistentlydebated the transformation of America fromprovincial to urban life. The city was a special topicespeciallyin its new and amoral incarnation. James wroteoften about the uneasy relationship of the urban, isolated"individual" to traditional, provincial ideas of society. Thecity of moderns and modernism offered too much freedomand far too little restraint. It was morally anonymous.The sexually predatory Tom Buchanan understandsthat it is his new natural habitat and volunteersthat he'd be a "God Damn fool to live anywhere else" (12).New York is necessary for Gatsby but also for Tom. Anumber of pieces written by Mencken at this time (1924-1927)depicted New York (from Baltimore's more rusticpoint 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 experienceEast Egg through the sensibility of the provinces.Josiah Royce, a revisionist Jamesian, understood the conflictthat lies at the heart of The Great Gatsby betweenwhat Nick calls "the warm center of the world" and "theragged edge of the universe" (6). Royce was himself convincedthat 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 athome with its own." The values of the "provincial" lifematter greatly in this text and in Fitzgerald's short storiesin the early twenties about the fascinations of the DeepSouth and Midwest. The "social mind" of those places isthe subject of his work; aware of itself, as Daisy is whenshe describes herself ironically as having become "sophisticated"out of her own Southern innocence. We arereminded often of moral relativity, and also of the relativityimposed by the swift passage of time. Not Gatsbyalone but all the main characters of the novel have beensomething other than what they are and have changedfrom their provincial identity. They are working out a dilemmaof American philosophy.
Royce had even suggested the plot for an Americannarrative: as Morton White states Royce's position, "alienationmight be overcome ... if Americans were tocombat the forces leading to detachment and lonelinessby repairing to the provinces." It is a plot that Fitzgeraldconsiders; although it might be said that he changes thescenario from a cavalry charge to an exhausted retreathere and in "The Ice Palace" and in Tender Is the Night.
John Dewey assumed that the Jamesian philosophycentered on "the free responses of the American peopleto the American scene." Santayana thought, however,as did Lippmann, that the responses of the public mighthave little freedom to display. The latter was a highly industriousmeliorist, but the former eventually abandonedthe world of urban, democratic realities. There wassimply too much competition among new peoples for oldideas to prevail. And the authority of ethics was in anycase giving way before that of consumer society, with itsmany subjective gratifications. People got their ideas nowfrom the Saturday Evening Post, not the Public Philosophycreated by William James. Some of them, like TomBuchanan, 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, theylistened only to those editorialists whose ideas had beendiffused onto the North Shore.
In The Great Gatsby we have been plunged into publicissues since the moment of entering the text. Sequentially,do we have a true relationship to our past? What infact are the "fundamental decencies" (5)? Are the great"secrets" of our world only about banking and credit andinvestment securities? Does wealth imply more than itsown enjoyment? Finally, do words actually mean anything?Or do we simply spout allegiances into vanishingair? Some of these issues are directly stated, often in theinterrogative mode: Daisy, characteristically, wants toknow what people do with their lives; Tom insists that welive up to the moral challenge of keeping "control ofthings" (14). Nick wonders about the right response tothe many insincerities of which a social moment is constituted.But "insincerity" fails to convey the full characterof the issues. The first chapter, which is indeed aboutthe American scene, is rich in the statement of moralconflicts 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.