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Gatsbys of Our Time

On Fitzgerald’s novel and eternal American myths

Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of The Great Gatsby by Greil Marcus. Yale University Press, 176 pages.

In a telegram sent from the South of France in March of 1925 to the Scribner office in New York, F. Scott Fitzgerald shouted the new inspiration for his third novel from across the Atlantic: “CRAZY ABOUT TITLE UNDER THE RED WHITE AND BLUE STOP WHART WOULD DELAY BE.” Luckily, his publisher was either too busy printing The Great Gatsby to make any changes or was too tactful to tell the excitable author he had a dumb idea. The phrase works better as the title for a new study of the novel’s legacy by renowned cultural critic Greil Marcus. The Great Gatsby lives on almost a century after its anticlimactic publication, Marcus argues, because it works as both a symbol of and a critique of different aspects of the American Dream—patriotism, wealth, disenchantment, the pursuit of happiness.

In Under the Red White and Blue, Marcus dusts off a collection of cultural products and finds Gatsby’s fingerprints all over them. He finds traces of Gatsby (sometimes more convincingly than others) in songs by Lana Del Rey and Jelly Roll Morton; in novels by Chandler, Roth, and Ross Macdonald; in an epic stage play that features a live reading of the entire text; in one of Andy Kaufman’s standup routines; and, of course, in the book’s various film adaptations. Marcus gets more out of director Baz Luhrmann’s flashy 2013 version than it probably deserves—that one was the fourth attempt, not counting the 1926 silent movie version, and like the others it fell short of its potential. Gatsby is also invoked in the nicknames of Korean pop stars and in advertisements for swanky New York luxury hotels that offer “the full Gatsby experience,” blood-stained swimming pools not included.

Getting what you think you want won’t save or redeem you.

Unlike those who write dry, hyper-specialized academic criticism, Marcus isn’t afraid, as one reader of his once put it, to let “everything remind him of everything else.” While discussing, say, a Bob Dylan B-side, he can suddenly juxtapose a line from one of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches with a particularly biting piece of dialogue from an obscure noir. This intuitive collage of different voices can offer the reader insights that aren’t available otherwise. At his best, Marcus guides the reader through the secret cultural histories that wind under the shiny billboard of American life, where so much of the country’s real thinking about itself really happens. Other times, the reader is left wandering aimlessly through Marcus’s extended digressions about movies or records that they might not know or care about much. Under the Red White and Blue contains a little bit of both tendencies, fitting enough in a meditation about a book that is cited and celebrated for both the right and wrong reasons.

Marcus begins by stretching backwards, with an extended meditation on Moby-Dick. The implied comparison with Gatsby isn’t made as clearly as it should be, but it does make a certain kind of intuitive sense. Ahab and Gatsby are two of American fiction’s greatest strivers. These doomed, charismatic leading men are defined by their monomaniacal pursuits, even if they ultimately end in self-destruction. The price for their hubris is paid by those around them. The comparison has its limitations, however: their motivations are very different. Ahab is intent on catching the white whale, but it couldn’t really be said that he loves it. Gatsby’s romantic attempt to transform himself into someone finally worthy to win Daisy’s hand might or might not be admirable, but it isn’t revenge that he’s really after.

Yet both novels offer bitter but necessary lessons that we tend to forget amid the American fetish for accumulation and awe at dynamic individuality: getting what you think you want won’t save or redeem you, and ruthlessness about getting it, no matter how seductive it may seem, is not to be trusted. As Marcus puts it, Gatsby “works as both a grounding and a locus point for anyone’s consideration of the American subject—the deadly dance between America’s promises and their betrayal.” He might have added that Gatsby also manifests America’s constant alternation between wanting to emulate the elite and to resent them. As Fitzgerald himself said, “The man with the jingle of money in his pocket who married the girl a year later would always cherish an abiding distrust, an animosity, toward the leisure class—not the conviction of a revolutionist but the smouldering hatred of a peasant.”

Marcus suggests that the founding phrase “the pursuit of happiness” must be constantly redefined because it is self-evidently difficult, if not impossible, to actually live by, given the massive contradictions of American life. What resonates today, with the perpetual tectonic shifts of the economy, is how the lofty egalitarian ideal gets trampled over by the necessary hustle of trying to survive in a market economy. The average person is too busy scrambling to put food on the table to pursue much of anything, let alone happiness. Maybe that’s why so many products advertise themselves as being not only useful but spiritually enlightening. We are all basic bitches now; this is what the twenty-first century free-market logic hath wrought. Ironically, the pursuit of happiness is often defined, in ways that are both insidious and glaringly obvious, by the ability to meet Gatsby-like levels of consumption and accumulation that are impossible for most people to attain.

In the popular imagination, Gatsby’s shimmering facade often outshines the novel’s subtle critique of the world it depicts. This isn’t Fitzgerald’s fault. The culture reveals its true colors through misreading its own myths, some of which Fitzgerald created. It’s true that he was often star-struck by the lifestyles of the rich and famous, especially in his early years. But in his best writing he knew the real score. Gatsby does all that he can to be worthy of Daisy, but his true entry into high society is ultimately thwarted by the entrenched interest of the elite circle he assumes he’s bought his way into. As Fitzgerald’s biographer Matthew Bruccoli once described it, Gatsby’s beloved Daisy “is for sale, but he doesn’t have the right currency.”

Naively but commonly enough, Gatsby assumes that money is the true means of getting what he wants. And this is what gets overlooked by the consumption-mad culture that thinks Gatsby’s wealth is to be emulated and admired. Remember that Gatsby not only fails in his quest and is actually more than a little bit nuts, a fact that Leonardo DiCaprio, the star of the 2013 film, pointed out. Consider the scene when he completely breaks down, stuttering and stammering, when he finally gets Daisy alone for afternoon tea. Chalk another one up to the intentional fallacy. Chasing an American dream that all too often reveals itself to be more of a mirage than an oasis, it’s all so easy to mistake a warning sign for a green light. And it’s not just Gatsby either, Try Wall Street, Patton, and “Born To Run just for starters.

In this light, Marcus considers the lyrics in New Orleans jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton’s song “Mamie’s Blues”: “If you can’t give me a dollar, give me a lousy dime/ I wanna feed that hungry man of mine.” Contrast that bone-deep knowledge of the “casual rebukes and humiliations of ordinary commercial transactions” with Gatsby referring to Daisy’s voice as being “full of money.” Which is more relatable? In Robert Redford’s 1974 film version, this line is said loftily, with eyes cast to the heavens, but in DiCaprio’s version it’s almost spat out. When Fitzgerald received a fan letter many years later about the then-largely forgotten masterpiece, he admitted that “I don’t know whether ‘a voice full of money’ would charm me now, but I suppose I meant that it had a certain deep confidence that money gave in those days.”  

In Tom’s world, as in ours now, you’re either in or you’re out.

We’re seeing now, from the ghoulish first family on down, exactly what that kind of confidence is like when mixed with political power. This counts double when money is something the well-born have never had to work for, or have ever been without. It’s pretty unlikely that the current president has read The Great Gatsby, but it’s very easy to connect the novel to the Trump administration’s blatant venality and xenophobia. Maybe one of the most unintentionally prescient examples of misreading that connection came from George Will, who called Trump “a Gatsby for our time” during his inauguration, probably thinking he was being snarky.

Marcus rebuts this by accurately pointing out that Trump was really just Tom Buchanan all along. When we first meet Tom Buchanan, the polo-playing child of privilege, he’s spouting some supremacist, pseudo-intellectual bullshit about how “if we don’t look out the white race will be . . . utterly submerged . . . we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art, and all that.” Marcus notes the scene where Gatsby naively remarks that his wealth has now made him one of the in crowd. Tom immediately sneers that he’s still “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere,” which sounds like it could be a Trump tweet. In an effort to shut Gatsby up for good, Tom says, “we were born different. It’s in our blood. There’s nothing you can do, say, steal, or dream up—” which is a very thinly veiled way of grabbing a tiki torch and marching around, shouting that new money will not replace him. What we now call Trumpism has been with us for a long time. Fitzgerald spotted it almost a century ago.

And with the antidemocratic exclusion that Fitzgerald saw, a heavy door is slammed on the American experiment and the “greatness” Americans love to claim. Marcus reminds us what a collective slap in the face Tom’s assertion of hereditary dominance really is to the way America likes to think of itself. The cruelty is felt by those who want to become Americans, many of whom suffer unimaginably in the process, and by those who already are Americans by birth but either can’t or won’t fit this narrow mold. In Tom’s world, as in ours now, you’re either in or you’re out. The very American Dream we’re all told so much about, with its promises of pursuits of happiness, recedes ever farther, borne back ceaselessly into the past.