ColumnRead a book. Occupy your mind.
What is the endgame of the American Dream? If our cherished national narrative is indeed one of rags to riches, aspirations to the realization of prosperity, then what lies at the end of the rainbow if not a pot of pure gold? There are other performance metrics, to be sure, but it’s no secret that in the land of the free, we by and large define victory in terms of fame and fortune. Yet as winners’ dreams are realized, and the rich continue to get richer, there is clearly trouble in paradise.
As having vs. having less (and less) has once again fallen into extremely high relief, a small percentage of 99 percent have ”occupied” Wall Street, demanding the wealth be spread, the crimes be prosecuted and “the system” changed. Many in thought and some in deed have put what few eggs they have left in the movement’s basket, or at least in the enough! concept it represents. But American culture on the ground remains what it is. Turn on the television, surf the “news,” even read a bestseller, and ask yourself this: How do the rich occupy us? Why do we stare at them so? What part of our dreams have they already bought and paid for (along with an endless supply of our bows and curtseys and get-out-of-jail-free cards)?
Sociological and psychological data points notwithstanding, you would be hard-pressed to find a source that could offer more insight into the codependence between the 1 percent and the rest of us than the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gaze (or, for some of you, look again) through Fitzgerald’s lens and you’ll see deeply into the twisted folie that remains our collective dream. So much of his work explores how and why we deify and then, stunningly left out of the equation (we protest!), publicly eviscerate our champions and by proxy the system that keeps us (apologies to one in ten of you) on the not-quite-long end of the stick.
As for the how, try this on—it’s not from an OWS pamphlet. It’s from Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, published nearly a century ago. He was 23 and it was 1920, the dawn of the Jazz Age:
We want to believe. Young students try to believe in older authors, constituents try to believe in their Congressmen, countries try to believe in their statesmen, but they can’t. Too many voices, too much scattered, illogical, ill-considered criticism. It’s worse in the case of newspapers. Any rich, unprogressive old party with that particularly grasping, acquisitive form of mentality known as financial genius can own a paper that is the intellectual meat and drink of thousands of tired, hurried men, men too involved in the business of modern living to swallow anything but predigested food.
Yes. You can say that again.
As for the why, Fitzgerald’s greatest work explores the relationship between the dreamer, the dream and those who occupy the choice seats. His main characters demonstrate what it means to desire and glorify wealth, and, like the poor dog that pursues the speeding car, what one can and cannot do with it on the rare occasion that it’s chased down. Moreover, he explores our illusions about money and prestige from the inside out, exposing how, free from day-to-day struggles, the wealthy can often exemplify the worst of our human selves, as they are set free to enjoy the hubris and vagary that come from not having to earn a living. Our desire as individuals to climb to such sickening “heights” provides the brilliant foil and tragedy in his fiction.
In his masterpiece, the compact and near-perfect The Great Gatsby, we witness a man who takes a stab at the heart of the beast, subjugating and even erasing his “common” reality to obtain the dream. So personally overwhelming is his quest, that its goal arguably becomes interchangeable with the idea of love itself. Of his great desire, Daisy, Jay Gatsby’s declaration followed by narrator Nick Carraway’s observation:
‘Her voice is full of money,’ he said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it. … High in a white place the king’s daughter, the golden girl…
Fitzgerald’s Nick Diver, tragic hero of the later, some say greater, and definitely more intricate Tender is the Night, is another 99 percenter who dares to stake a claim, this time through the form and family of the damaged and complex Nicole Warren. Sadly, as Nicole’s sister, Baby, notes, “When people are taken out of their depth they lose their heads, no matter how charming a bluff they put up.” Does Nick really stand a chance?
What makes these characters—Gatsby, Diver, and Paradise’s Amory Blaine—so powerful is not simply their juxtaposition to wealth. That would be maudlin, at best, or simply trite (see pulp, then and now). Rather, the way in which they embody what we might now finally call the American Tragedy is by their extreme love-hate relationship with it all. Like we do with our “winners” today (be they Trumps, Hiltons or the vilest insider traders), these timeless icons elevate the dream masters, lifting them high to ogle and adore, allowing them their dalliances and their misdeeds. Why? Because they think that they can play, too – that the thrill can somehow be more than vicarious. But of course the game is rigged, and they find themselves left out, their noses pressed against the glass, the dream merely an illusion.
Today, as we rage against the 1 percent, it’s perhaps wise to ask ourselves, how did we get here? Why are there class crimes in progress with the violators and predators getting away Scott free, as it were? What is it about our dreams and heroes that has us insanely circling back here again and again, in a cultural and class dialectic that seems to lack any final synthesis? Perhaps it’s an expatriate like Fitzgerald who in the end can see it best. After all, by spending time outside the church, it’s easier to see how gods are created – and served.
Whether you’re considering a Fitzgerald refresher (no, not a martini) or wanting to pick him up for the first time, here are some quick takes on what are arguably his three finest novels:
This Side of Paradise, 1920
An immediate and mammoth success when it was published, Fitzgerald’s first novel is seen by many as the opening bell of the Jazz Age. The story is of Midwest-born, egotistical and aggressively social Amory Blaine, who travels east to boarding school and then Princeton to assume his rightful place in the world. Upended by superficiality and then the Great War (the storyline of his experience overseas is loudly absent), he struggles to find love and personal authenticity in the face of a warped and overbearing culture. An anthem for the youth of the day, the two-book, three-part story, was ahead of its time in experimental form (part of it is presented as a script) and reads as a highly charged, postmodern pastiche.
The Great Gatsby, 1925
Many have made the case that The Great Gatsby is the finest American novel. Perhaps rightly so. Returning war veteran Nick Carraway tells the story of his time in Long Island’s ritzy West Egg, where he moves in next door to a great mansion and its beautiful, enigmatic and larger-than-life owner – the fabulous Jay Gatsby. A taught and seamless narrative, Nick’s unfolding relationship with the mysterious Gatsby and the latter’s obsession with across-the-bay flapper Daisy Buchanan is pure American legend. Read this short, yet glorious novel in a single sitting. It is fundamental to who we are and quite possibly were destined to be from our first landing on this side of the Atlantic.
Tender is the Night, 1934
Fitzgerald’s last finished novel, Tender is the Night, wades deep into the heart of ethics and compromise as it follows the lives and marriage of Dick and Nicole Diver. Written in part during his wife Zelda’s hospitalization for schizophrenia, many events of this at times intricate and always-nuanced novel are clearly autobiographical. Tormented during its writing for many reasons, not the least of which his alcoholism, Fitzgerald sets up and then examines without mercy what appears to be the perfect couple of the late-1920s – French Riviera-bronzed, party friendly and easily loved by all who surround them. A rollercoaster of pleasure of pain and twisted and changing love roles, the novel is a flourish of language and storytelling, soaked in the psychology of love, wealth and “place.”
Editor’s note: News & Culture contributor Scott Adelson’s biweekly feature, InPRINT, reviews and discusses books new and old, as well as examines issues in publishing.
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Top image: Bastián Despreciable Cifuentes♡