The Great Gatsby and American Wealth

I think that I have had and continue to have a fairly unusual relationship to wealth and money. I am interested in American and other views of wealth when expressed in the arts of fiction and film. Movies life Blow, Scarface, The Godfather, Wall Street and Trading Places have all dealt with the connections between varied crimes and money in ways much more explicit than the way in which The Great Gatsby deals with these issues. We know Jay Gatsby is a bootlegger but neither his crimes nor the problems he may have with the police really happen “on camera” even in the novel. The more securely rich people in the novel drink a great deal of prohibited booze but Gatsby must have a grander house in the less fashionable West Egg because he is associated with the underworld. His extravagance is in part to get along with the influential people at his parties and avoid their prying eyes in the part of his life we do not see either. In an America dependent on sweatshop labor abroad, millions of undocumented workers in the USA and with untaxed industries from drugs, to internet sales of all kinds to much of the sex industry we have to ask if the equivalents of East Egg respectable rich people today are living in more or less of a fool’s paradise than the characters in The Great Gatsby. I have known lots of people rich and poor as well as people on both sides of the law and as I see our deficits soar and our social cohesion in trouble I do wonder about America’s relations to the people both like and unlike Gatsby in our own world. I am very far from being a Jay Gatsby myself but can relate to him in a number of ways as I imagine many can.

I see promise in a film coming out soon: http://thegreatgatsby.warnerbros.com/

Leonardo Di Caprio and Carrie Mulligan will be seen in a new film adaptation of F. Scott FitzGerald’s The Great Gatsby in a few weeks. God willing, I hope to see it. I like the Robert Redford, Mia Farrow portrayal quite well. Yet I hope to and believe that I will like this Baz Lurhman directed film even better. I like reading Fitzgerald well enough. I am also a fan of movies and watch quite a few but this one is perhaps closer to the heart of some of Fitzgerald’s insights than many of his works were. There is less fantasy and more realism than in some of his short stories… Fitzgerald’s works and his relationship with Hemingway are among the defining products of modern American culture. The Great Gatsby is also a work which brings up the period of Prohibition and also the parts of that period which connected with the last glow of the Gilded Age. Perhaps an argument can be made that the Gilded Age which created the Newport Mansions transplanted to the best sites in Long Island where the fictional Gatsby lived, the Prohibition era in which he lived and the period in which Fitzgerald wrote form three acts of a continuous Jazz Age in America. So the story has some kind of real historical resonance. It is also about wealth in America. I want to spend a little time in this blog post discussing these aspects of the work and what it means to me…

I am looking at the book and the movie from a particular point of view. It is not an entirely original thing to view The Great Gatsby as standing for “Wealth as an Exploration of the Deeper Qualities of Life”. Fitzgerald was unusually interested in money and wealth compared to most writers. Jay Gatsby and Daisy are more than merely moneyed people but they are not less nor other than moneyed people. Class concerns are not reducible to money concerns but are not separate from them either. While F. Scott and Zelda dealt with money issues elsewhere in successful works this novel stands above the others. The Great Gatsby is probably F. Scott Fitzgerald’s finest and is greater in scope than any other of his writings that might be as fine a novel. This book offers what many find a damning and almost all readers find an insightful view of the American moneyed sets in the 1920s. A great deal of the very complex historical truth is woven into this wonderfully evocative American classic.

Hemingway was very interested in writers with whom he himself was contemporary. He was more interested in Fitzgerald in this regard than in most other writers such as Baroja y Nessi and Gertrude Stein who also came in for serious review by Hemingway in print and conversation. Hemingway said of Fitgerald as a writer that, “His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings”.

Whatever Fitzgerald is saying it is how he says it which matters most. Typical of Fitzgerald’s prose Gatsby is able to use well-crafted language to convey details of setting, character and plot without getting lost in a great deal of excessive language, the books and stories which are sometimes about elegance are also often elegant. But elegance is never the primary manifestation of wealth in Fitzgerald’s works. He really did enjoy the society of the wealthy and enjoyed spending money. But he found the compulsions of excess in his own life and his wife’s life. Fitzgerald’s books are not usually called cinematic but he had a cinematic vision and worked much of his career as a Hollywood screenwriter. He claimed in an autobiographical piece to have made a good bit off of movies as early as 1920 and he saw it as part of his publishing income on which he depended. He and Zelda were notorious for not saving money and living in as high a style as their income would allow. Famously they went suddenly from making 20,000 dollars a year to making 36,000 dollars a year and with an enormous desire to set money aside found that they still saved nothing for the future and simply indulged a more expensive lifestyle when money came in and so it is not surprising he was not financially secure.

This personal way of life joined with the national economic situation in such a way that by the summer of 1937 was broke had a lifestyle that consumed lots of money and had made him very dependent on lots of alcohol. Facing these problems while in debt and discovering he could not readily dry out or control his own partying lifestyle he was ready to try something new. So he was going where money had come from before when F. Scott Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood. He worked in the huge army of people little esteemed by the Hollywood elite who were the screenwriters. Fitzgerald was not alone in this trip to the California coasts and the work of writing for movies. Others who did their time in Hollywood were William Faulkner, Donald Ogden Stewart, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Nathanael West and the British novelists Anthony Powell and Aldous Huxley. The move helped most of these writers but none found it the supply of long-term easy money they were hoping for. Di Caprio and Mulligan have probably not seen many of the movies on which Fitzgerald labored during his two and a half years as a screenwriter. These movies included titles such as ”A Yank at Oxford” and ”Madame Curie.” In the early part of the last decade the University of South Carolina acquired a great deal of what remains of what Fitzgerald produced. There collection reveals something about the productivity of this man who never achieved real capital security in 2,000 pages of material — sketches, treatments, drafts, polishes, rewrites — much of it in soft-penciled longhand. This is called the Warner Brothers Collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald Screenplays, is part of the Matthew J. and Arlyn Bruccoli Collection at the University of South Carolina’s Thomas Cooper Library in Columbia. Jay Gatsby with his war record, time at Oxford, chains of drug stores and fabulous home is not just a thug with money and is not quite part of the class with money in America which Daisy is born to even though American class systems are more porous than those in Europe. Fitzgerald could relate to Jay Gatsby in analogous ways although his novel’s protagonist does not seem to have troubles with fiscal solvency or alcoholism.

Jay Gatsby is like Fitzgerald to in that he is not conventional in many ways but is deeply in love with a woman he finds hard to have and hold as he moves forward in the life of a man. The fictional man and the author see other men keeping their women more easily and comfortably than they are able to and yet Zelda is not so much like Daisy and neither is the love of a sometimes desperate marriage really much like a long affair which for decades amounts to little more than a man desperate for a love remembered.

Tobey Maguire of the Spiderman franchise will have a significant role played in the Redford version by an actor America has since come to know in Law and Order. The new movie will have to respect that the novel’s events are interpreted but an actor outside the love story and not playing the protagonist because the novel’s essence is the Gatsby filtered through the consciousness of the narrator of the story’s events. This young Wall Streeter Tobey Maguire will play is Nick Carroway The worldly and yet oddly naïve Gatsby is one we see in the view of a young Yale graduate, who is both more a part of Daisy’s world than Gatsby and reminds us of all that is middle class about a world Gatsby sees somehow from below and above but does not enter. But Carraway is also completely new to Gatsby’s connections in the world of bootleggers, gamblers and gritty clubs as well as separate from the world he describes as the home of his cousin Daisy and her set. It will be the Spiderman sense of alienation that we will have as an introduction as Nick, upon moving to New York rents a house beside the extravagant mansion of and the party-throwing millionaire Jay Gatsby. It may be that the relationship between Gatsby and Carroway is not so vastly far from the one that actually exists between Tobey and Leo offset – I really don’t know. The differences are not so great but there are apparent differences in income and glamour and they must know each other.

In this fictional world Saturday, Gatsby throws a party at his mansion and I think this movie will do a better job of capturing the extravagance Fitzgerald intended than any previous version has. While they are unlike the near perfect success of the early Gatsby in his world, the Mexican cartels may not be quite as able to throw the best parties in L.A. Di Caprio has probably been to a few with large drug lord ties. But on the lawns and floors of the West Egg mansion all the great, the good, the beautifully young and the very fashionable of that part of the world come to marvel at Gatsby’s extravagance. One is also reminded of American innocence in the relatively mild suspicions put forward by guests about their host when they speculate on his murky past.
This is not a gangster movie because the love story with a woman outside the underworld is at the heart and is the fabric of the whole literary experience. As we see what happened when the Tsarnaev family failed to mesh well with our society we must be aware of all the ways people are trying and not trying to fit in around the country. Fitzgerald does not lie to us about how strong American class is and yet suggests confidently that money alone will not buy security in the elite. That may not have changed much. Higher income taxes and more government programs for the poor have changed some of the conditions surrounding the central plot. In addition, America has changed in many ways that make it a place the Jazz Age would not recognize. But still we can see in this story much of ourselves. For those who do not know it I will not disclose much of the plot itself. It ends in something near tragedy and there is real badly flawed love and not just unrequited desire involved but beyond that read the book or see the movie.
One thing I would have us think about is Gatsby firing his servants. In the book they are replaced by secretive underworld servants and in the Redford movie he leaves them blankly out and gets by with caterers and guests mostly. What about the struggle for jobs such as the servants had? As Americans watch Downton Abbey as well as contemplating migration and work laws do we have a plan for making class relations work in our confusingly complex and blurry social order?
I had originally planned to write this essay at least partly about my own view of wealth. I would have discussed my reasons and excuses for personal poverty and the ways I have used money. I would have discussed wealth in the time of Obama. However, as it turns out I am willing to leave this mostly in the category of an essay wondering about a movie and what it might have to say to us all…

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