The author of “The Great Gatsby” once said, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”
He was referring to a certain kind of rich, the kind who ooze entitlement. He loathed, and portrayed in his novel’s characters, both the clueless extravagance of new money and the clueless self-importance of those for whom life’s persistent question was, “What if I lost it all?”
Gatsby, of course, would steal it all back. To-the-manor-born Tom Buchanan would hit up his wife’s paramour for a loan. Money does not build character, in other words. Money corrupts regardless of how old it is.
There is a similarly frantic feel to today’s excessive spending by the very rich. The barrage of bling feels like a marketing campaign to me, one intended to persuade average Americans that money is a measure of quality, and that therefore the rich deserve every bit of their material advantage, lopsided as it is.
As St. Paul-born F. Scott Fitzgerald also said, “the rich believe, deep in their hearts, they are better than we are.” The carelessness of the Roaring Twenties’ rich caused the Great Depression, which caused the spread of fascism. We seem to be headed in a similar direction today.
Fitzgerald and his fellow native son Sinclair Lewis of Sauk Centre, Minn., each published his first novel almost a century ago, in 1920. “Scott” wrote “This Side of Paradise” at age 23. Lewis was 25 when “Main Street” made him world-famous and a hometown pariah.
Similarly, Scott was labeled a wannabe by those he fictionalized. Lewis was better-educated (on paper at least) than Scott. Still, some questioned whether Lewis deserved his Yale degree, just as there were those who kept Scott’s secret that he never did actually graduate from Princeton.
I hope I don’t confuse you by referring to Scott by his first name and Lewis by his last. The reasoning behind this is pure Scott. He loved to play with any tortured notion — Ernest Hemingway would have written “… loved to torture any notion” — and mine is that for a writer whose ear is his instrument, sound matters as much as sense. “Fitzgerald” suggests a kind of sobriety and maturity that Scott himself never acquired — and never really wanted so much as he wanted respect as a writer and a man of principle, and to be thought of as warm, funny and fun.
He was boyish and irreverent (also brutally frank), a merry prankster, the king of the counterintuitive. He loved irony but winced at mention of the word. If an irony needed pointing out, why bother?
“Lewis,” on the other hand, sounds as formal and distant as Sinclair Lewis actually was. And this way Lewis will not be mistaken for the other Sinclair, Upton, whose novel “The Jungle,” published in 1906, exposed Chicago’s corrupt meatpacking industry. All three were lifelong socialists and serious alcoholics — they died in the order of how debilitating their addiction was, with Scott the first to go and Upton the last.
Like most intellectuals born in the progressive era, they were avid for communism until Joe Stalin soured most everyone on Marx’s utopia. Better the simple checks and balances of a democratic republic than an everyone-owns-everything society with a single “party” calling the shots.
Upton Sinclair went so far as to run for office (governor of California, no less) as a democratic socialist in 1934. “We can’t have that Constitution stuff,” railed one right-wing opponent, confirming the message of Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here.”
Published in 1935, the satire warned that in fact America could turn fascist. Indeed, many of wealthiest men in America, including not only Henry Ford but newspaper barons William Randolph Hearst and Bernard Ridder (whose family owned the St. Paul Pioneer Press), supported Hitler and resisted FDR’s efforts to engage the U.S. in saving Europe.
Scott enjoyed debating these issues, but by the 1930s he spent more of his time hiding gin bottles, several of which he drained every day, and making ends meet. His bills were staggering. Even as his work went out of print, he believed he was entitled to an expensive lifestyle. He was, after all, the author of critically acclaimed novels that, had people only understood them, would not have gone out of print at about the same time (1929) Lewis’s savage attack on wealthy elites, “Dodsworth,” soared to the top of the bestseller list.
The Wall Street crash that year had cemented Scott’s reputation as a lightweight who cut careless rich people way too much slack. He made them, for all their faults, likable, forgivable, vulnerable, human. Lewis, by contrast, took no prisoners whether his characters were stupendously rich or solidly middle class.
Lewis, like Scott, saw himself as a victim of small thinking, but unlike Scott he distanced himself not only from small towns but from people generally. Never at ease in social situations, perpetually put off by shallow chitchat and the trappings of success that Scott loved, he nonetheless yearned for social acceptance. He was just not very good at it. His personal stiffness shows up in his prose. He was painfully shy.
Partying came as naturally to Scott as chasing squirrels comes to my Schnoodle. In the heady years of his zero-to-60 celebrity, the phrase “maze of contradictions” applies more to Scott than to Lewis, no slouch in the category himself. Raised on the periphery of high society, the son of a plumber with a scholarship to an all-male private school, Scott was never really on the periphery of anything, in his mind.
He is still remembered in St. Paul for pressing his nose against the windows of the University Club as the rich inside behaved, well, richly. This sort of ogling was interpreted as admiration spiked with envy. And that (Scott was not clueless) provoked him to write satirical pieces for his school newspaper and a romp called “The Daily Dirge,” a fake newspaper society front page whose banner deadline read: “Cotillion Is Sad Failure.” It featured among other leading lights, my own grandfather, whom Scott cast in the role of hapless co-chair paired with a notorious bigot who was so hopelessly drunk at the event he was spared the knowledge of how abysmally bad the grand ball was.
Liquor was almost always the cause of the mayhem Scott invented in his novels, including the episode in “Gatsby” when Daisy runs over and kills a car mechanic’s wife. It was the cause, also, of Scott’s own demise as a writer and a person of the sort of Anglo-Saxon propriety he pretended to be and was, in a way, at heart, even though he was raised Catholic. Prudish and appalled by others’ bad behavior, his “values” came from his WASP friends, the sons and daughters of robber barons, whose hypocrisy he loved to expose. He was exposing his own inner hypocrite, he knew.
That didn’t stop him from illuminating in fine detail the “we’re in this together” understanding between old and new money that allowed girls like Daisy to run over poor people and never be held accountable. (When Gatsby himself claimed responsibility, the mechanic wrongly murdered him.) Without the ruthless robber barons and up-from-nothing entrepreneurs, where would the coupon-clippers be, after all? This is how capitalism works. Those with money place bets on those with imagination and ambition. In a society with no checks and balances, the winners take all.
Scott adored women for the elaborate “feminine wiles” they would often resort to if they were to achieve a semblance of equality with men. And yet, he resented the safety that women of a certain type (the Daisy type) seemed born to, the freedom from not just work but from the consequences of play. His wife, Zelda, may have ended up in an insane asylum but this, too, struck him as a kind of free pass. To pay her bills, he toiled under the yoke of Hollywood censorship (he scraped by writing screenplays in the 1930s). He understood perfectly why he was out of place in this milieu. Hollywood’s job was to keep Main Street on the straight and narrow, small-minded and smug, even as its moguls and stars lived private lives of wanton debauchery.
Small-town parochialism never dies, while the reckless behavior of the rich in the Roaring Twenties with its liberated women and crazy parties was fueled in part by an anomaly, Prohibition, just as the 1960s excesses were fueled by illegal drugs. In the Lost Generation’s youthful rebellion, Calvin Coolidge wasn’t the enemy but the enabler. Beyond that he was simply ignored, his personal prudery being at odds with the behavior his laissez-faire policies encouraged.
The dissolute and disillusioned post-World War I “Lost Generation” came like a meteor out of a progressive era — bookended by Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The meteor crashed in 1929. The rich went into hiding, and the Babbitts of the world held on for dear life, much to Lewis’ good fortune.
In the stark and scary Depression years, Scott’s novels were regarded as out-of-touch. Even those he fictionalized (all remained his intimate friends, and Scott himself was the real Dick Diver in “Tender Is the Night”) failed to fully absorb the message of Scott’s work or take him terribly seriously. He was seldom serious himself. Hemingway was no help either. Jealous of his friend’s extravagant literary gifts (like Mozart, Scott made it look too easy, almost effeminate) the manly master of “less-is-more” did his best to sabotage Scott through incessant patronizing scolding.
The resurgence in popularity and critical acclaim of Scott’s work in our own era is anything but coincidental. Once again, his accounts of reckless spending by the wealthiest in our midst ring ominously true. Where are the limits, we ask ourselves in a time of impending climate chaos? Will the rich escape unscathed? Who will live and who will die?
“The Great Gatsby” resonates today not because of Daisy Buchanan so much as Jay Gatsby himself, the self-made tycoon whose fortune carried a whiff of crimes far worse than ignoring the poor. He robbed from the poor and had Mafia ties. The 1974 film version signaled the return to hands-off capitalism. Anything goes was coming back. The genius of the book (and of casting the boyishly handsome Robert Redford in the title role) is that such a man as Gatsby could arouse pity. Scott knew a fair bit about the intoxication of wealth. He, too, had been helplessly in love with a girl like Daisy. Many girls like Daisy.
Nowadays, it’s new money that gets a pass, and old money that, as it did in the 1930s, goes quiet. Those who remember when America had a moral compass, when checks and balances worked, are at a loss for words to explain what went wrong. Scott would have found the words to remind us that money corrupts good people. Like Dickens, one of his literary heroes, Scott believed in redemption. He was obsessed with Ebenezer Scrooge.
Now that he is back in vogue, my guess is that he will never again go out of vogue. And it is high time we read him in the way he intended. With our minds and our hearts as wide-open as his were.
Bonnie Blodgett, of St. Paul, specializes in environmental topics. She’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.