Sometimes a short book casts a long shadow. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s slim 1925 novel The Great Gatsby looms large in American culture: It has sold well over 25 million copies and spawned film adaptations ranging from a lost silent movie to A-list productions with Redford and DiCaprio. There’s a Gatsby opera, a forthcoming graphic novel, and even a retro computer game in the style of the original Nintendo. It wasn’t always canonical literature — like many classics, the book was widely considered a flop until after the author’s death — but now this gem of the Jazz Age is a contender for our Great American Novel, its lush prose and bittersweet melancholy perfectly balancing the tabloid ending to its tragic plot.
The book tells the story of the blue-collar James Gatz, who reinvents himself as Jay Gatsby and loves the beautiful Louisville aristocrat Daisy. When she marries the brutish Tom Buchanan, Gatsby works for years to win her back, amassing a fortune through organized crime and throwing lavish parties in a mansion just out of reach from where Daisy has settled on a fictionalized Long Island. Gatsby briefly attains his romantic dream, but his façade soon crumbles, and American aristocracy shuts him out forever. When Daisy runs over Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson, in Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce, the victim’s husband tracks down the owner of the car. And before we know it, the glamorous Jay Gatsby is dead, murdered in his swimming pool by a cuckolded husband mad with grief, in a case of terribly mistaken identity.
Greil Marcus tackles the meaning and the cultural influence of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece in his new book, Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of the Great Gatsby. Marcus is a noted music critic, scholar, and writer on American culture, as we saw in his editorial work for the fascinating revisionist New Literary History of America. In this book, he sets out to see what The Great Gatsby has to say about America, and how it has informed countless other responses to the failures and successes of the American project.
Fitzgerald once floated “Under the Red White and Blue” as a possible title for Gatsby, and we can be thankful it didn’t stick; but readers have often seen in The Great Gatsby an allegory that critiques the American experiment. (English teachers everywhere are nodding their heads). Marcus starts there, and proposes that Gatsby himself represents the conflicted nature of America: big, transcendent dreams yoked to sordid violence and greed. “What if Fitzgerald’s goal,” he asks, “was to create just such a thing, a doubled, shifting image of beauty and crime?” It’s a poignant question, because Jay Gatsby always attracts and repels us. He stands grasping at a beautiful ideal of romantic fulfillment, but his business associate Meyer Wolfsheim wears cuff links made from human molars. It’s a fair — if not entirely original — assessment of the American riddle: How do we understand a nation whose ideals of liberty and equality have too often been violated by its people, its leaders, and even its laws?
Marcus sees Fitzgerald’s project in The Great Gatsby as fundamentally “patriotic,” because it maintains this twin vision, this chiaroscuro consciousness of darkness and light. He sees artists like Fitzgerald, musicians, legislators, and everyday people living out American patriotism when they serve as what Alexander Hamilton called “inquisitors” in Federalist No. 65: by which Marcus means interrogating our national culture’s failures and holding it to its own high ideals.
Marcus continues this patriotic task of inquisition in his book, but readers of Under the Red White and Blue will struggle to follow the train of thought across its eight loosely connected sections. One ill-fitting chapter is an adapted essay on Moby-Dick. Another offers a long summary and analysis of Gatz, a six-hour theatrical dramatic reading of The Great Gatsby. A chapter titled “The Ferment” situates Fitzgerald in his cultural milieu, especially music and popular culture, and “At the Movies” follows some of the film adaptations of the book. Along the way we learn of numerous quirky spinoffs of Gatsby: an SNL skit by Andy Kaufman, a replica in St. Paul, Minn., (Fitzgerald’s hometown) of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’s bespectacled billboard, and a Korean pop star modeling his public persona on Jay Gatsby.
Those who manage to follow the scattershot content of this cultural study will likely founder in its tangled prose. In one long sentence, Marcus delays his main verb to the 215th word, leaving poor old Strunk and White rolling in their graves. Rather than a clear, sustained analysis of Gatsby and its cultural afterlives, Under the Red White and Blue offers a freewheeling brain dump about America, until the book closes with an implication that conservatives are — you guessed it — racists like Fitzgerald’s Tom Buchanan. Sigh.
Under the Red White and Blue skates gleefully across the surface of American culture, rarely risking a dive into profundity. But what does Fitzgerald’s heartbreaking novel have to say to us today? It’s a portrait of a tremendous crash — some have read it as a prophecy of the crash that sparked the Great Depression — but it deals with a deeper crisis than any stock-market plunge. The people of Gatsby’s America have built a fragile world of distraction to numb their existential emptiness. They’re trying to live without the permanent things: without real love, without family, without sacrifice, without transcendent meaning. Even Gatsby’s lofty dream is just an egoistic project of self-fulfillment, an attempt to relive his own emotions from the past. It’s a world in which “there are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.” That is, it’s a world built on the false premise that too many of us — if we’re honest — have accepted: that our life consists of busily avoiding pain and seeking pleasure.
Then it all comes crashing down. It ends when almost no one but the narrator, Nick Carraway, attends Gatsby’s funeral, and the great mansion — an extension of Gatsby’s own “vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” — stands dark and empty. Nick watches a lone car drive up one night, someone hoping for another of Gatsby’s epic galas: “Probably it was some final guest who had been away at the ends of the earth and didn’t know that the party was over.”
The party was over. As I sit rereading The Great Gatsby amid the COVID-19 lockdowns, that phrase sticks with me. A lot of modern life has ground to a halt. The death toll rises; the shelter-in-place orders drag on. The economy shudders. The party is over, and we’ve all got a chance to do some soul-searching about what really matters, a chance to reflect on just exactly what the “party” was and whether we want to resume it when life returns to normal. Popularity, pleasure, success start to feel pretty empty when I can’t have a beer with my best friend or hug my mom. The self-righteous bitterness of our partisan politics and culture wars seems mighty petty when we’re all facing death by plague together. And Fitzgerald’s century-old tale of Gatsby’s Jazz Era catastrophe offers a timely reminder of which things do — and which things don’t — constitute the good life for human beings.
He painted the glittering escapism of an age, but Fitzgerald was too true an artist to accept shallow substitutes for the deepest things. As he once wrote in an autobiographical essay about the Roaring Twenties, “I was pretty sure that living wasn’t the reckless, careless business these people thought.” Fitzgerald’s book may speak to the American condition, as Marcus rightly sees; but it speaks louder to the human condition. Gatsby and the Buchanans and the Wilsons reap death or existential emptiness not because they have been bad Americans or because of the failure of American ideology, but because they have been bad humans — because to the last pages of the story they lived selfishly.
And so for almost a hundred years, The Great Gatsby has remained fresh, because it utters something that still matters, something that touches bedrock: It dramatizes the failure of passing things to satisfy our colossal human yearnings, reveals the starved souls of people who live entirely for themselves. Well, thanks to the lockdowns we’re all getting some quality time with ourselves in 2020. Unlike the fictional characters of Fitzgerald’s marvelous book, we have a chance to make some serious changes; now that the party is over, maybe we can begin the business of living.
This article appears as “Before the Crash” in the June 1, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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