I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all-Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Ch. 9
I gave a reading at the University Club a few weeks back, and thoughts of F. Scott Fitzgerald have been turning over in my mind ever since. I'd heard years ago that the author of The Great Gatsby had carved his name into the bar, though I haven't met anyone who has seen it. Nevertheless, the University Club was a preferred watering hole of the author's whenever he returned to St. Paul.
My mother spoke of Fitzgerald on occasion. She said her father had been a classmate of the writer at St. Paul Academy. She often told me that Fitzgerald was a "great writer," an artist I shouldn't miss. But had no interest in a story about rich people.
The reason I spurned the book came from my own experience with matters of class. My mother grew up along the River Road section of St. Paul, in a Tudor style home attended by maids. She married my father, a salesman who went bust, Willie Loman style. Our family's descent from upper to lower-middle class devastated my mother. We weren't poor in the strict sense of poverty, but bills and mortgage payments, kept us teetering near the abyss.
During these troubled days, my mother would get some drinks in her and reminisce about her bygone days -- of trips to Arizona in Pullman cars, lunching at the Lexington, highballs at the St. Paul Hotel, summers at the family's palatial lake home. She even spoke of her former boyfriend, some gilded dandy named "Duke" whose proposal she'd spurned. My mother was, of course, speaking of her personal pain. But those vodka fueled deliberations made me feel like a sea anchor, or a street urchin from the Valley of Ashes.
Like Fitzgerald, my mother was in thrall to that world of ease and complacency in the part of St. Paul, "where dwellings are still called through the decades by a family's name," as Scott put it. What my mother didn't want mentioned during those indulgent reveries was the emotional and physical brutality of my grandfather, the silent snobbery that left her uninvited to bridge parties, golf outings and luncheons. Her former friends were always demonstrative and professed love of my mother whenever their paths crossed. But afterward, her telephone never rang.
Given that history, I spent the first 30 years of my life avoiding The Great Gatsby. When I finally did read the novel I realized I wasn't the only Irishman in St. Paul with a chip on his shoulder. I shared with the writer a distaste at the rapacity of some of our wealthier brethren, and yet -- the base American irony -- we both craved to be included among them. This condition was perhaps what Scott was referring to when he spoke of "Negative Capability," the ability of a writer a writer to "hold two opposing thoughts at the same time."
That the U.S. is a society without a class system is one of our most ludicrous fallacies. The social mobility that characterized America is fading fast. With the widening gap between the rich and poor the American Dream becomes just that: A dream you have to be asleep in to believe, as George Carlin once put it.
Alan Krueger of the Council of Economic Advisors, plotted on graph paper a curve that addressed "intergenerational income elasticity," a measure to determine whether children will grow up to inherit their parents level of income, across various nations. The curve reveals that Denmark, Sweden and Finland had the lowest levels of inequality-owing to a strong safety net -- along with the highest upward mobility. Chile and Brazil recorded the lowest level. The U.S.A. came in 15th. Journalist Timothy Noah explained what Krueger's the plotted curve revealed:
"You can't experience ever-growing income and inequality without experiencing a decline in Horatio Alger-style upward mobility, because it's harder to climb a ladder when the rungs are farther apart." By the way, Krueger named his prosperity graph "The Great Gatsby Curve."
The themes that drive the characters in the Great Gatsby remain ever with us. It's the reason the book remains a classic and perhaps lays claim to-along with Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn -- to the title of the Great American Novel. Fitzgerald's prose is, of course, sublime; and though writing teachers continue to teach students to avoid adjectives, Fitzgerald shoots the rule full of holes with adjectives so accurate and poetic that the book's language would be dead without them.
The latest iteration of the book's movie version came and went quickly, to mixed reviews. The response, as to the other films make it evident that great writing achieves an effect that no movie can: It's a world built of language and the reader's imagination, where it remains as real as the money you either have, or don't.