Sunday Pages: "The Great Gatsby"
A novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
There was a time when I believed—when I insisted—that The Great Gatsby was the Great American Novel. I’ve since concluded that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece is not broad enough in scope to deserve that accolade. How can a novel about rich white people be comprehensively “American” enough to wear the crown? Even so, Gatsby manages to stuff so many peculiarly American fascinations into its economical 47,093 words—old money, sudden wealth, fame, social status, sports, snobbishness, organized crime, reinvention, deceit, gossip, violence, sex (straight and gay), infidelity, fancy automobiles, guns, swimming pools, Wall Street, racism—that it certainly makes the short list.
I’ve read it cover to cover more than half a dozen times, and with each reading, my appreciation and understanding deepen. Unlike, say, Moby Dick—another Great American Novel candidate—Gatsby is not complicated to read. An eighth grader could make it through the entire book and have at least a rudimentary understanding of the plot. But the simplicity of the prose belies its complexity. Gatsby contains multitudes. There’s always more there than meets the eye.
During my three-semester stint as an adjunct creative writing professor, I taught Gatsby. Because the novel is so short—most readers can polish off the whole thing in a single dedicated afternoon—you can really take time to go slowly through the manuscript, word by word, and get to the bottom of it all. I published the gist of my lecture in a 2013 piece I titled “GA(tsb)Y,” which Salon changed to the oh-so-subtle “Nick Carraway is gay and in love with Gatsby.” Gatsby, I argued, is all about unrequited love: Jay Gatsby’s for Daisy Buchanan—who I called “one of the biggest pieces of shit in all of literature”—and, more importantly, Nick Carraway’s for Jay Gatsby.
Carraway’s sexuality is important because he is the narrator—the thing we are reading is what Nick, back home in St. Paul, wrote about what happened in Long Island the previous summer—and he’s not being candid with us. His version of events is filtered through his delusional love for the eponymous character. As I wrote in the piece, “Nick romanticizes Gatsby in the exact same way that Gatsby romanticizes Daisy.” Or as Tom Buchanan says to Nick at the end of the book: “He threw dust in your eyes just like he did in Daisy’s.”
Lately, I find myself once again thinking about The Great Gatsby—not because of Nick or Jay or Daisy, but rather Daisy’s hulking husband, the aforesaid Tom Buchanan. Here is a fellow from 1922 who is instantly recognizable a century later. Tom is inordinately wealthy, but such a good athlete he could have played pro football if the NFL existed back then. He rides horses and keeps sidepieces and batters women and drinks like a champ and raves about eugenics; him sounding off about the “science” of white supremacy—citing a book written by a Klansman who would become a major influence on Hitler—is an early tell that he’s an asshole. Five years after the Nazi Party was founded in Munich, he is basically a proto-Nazi. He is arrogant and cruel and prone to violence and only cares about himself. He is Nick Adams’ wet dream. If Tom Buchanan were alive today, he might start up his own Blackwater-style company, like Erik Prince, to alleviate his crippling boredom. Certainly he’d be a regular guest on Steve Bannon’s podcast. Maybe he’d run for Congress—as a Republican, of course. I could see him buying Twitter, even.
Gatsby opens with four-and-a-half pages of preamble and backstory, as Nick sets the scene and explains the circumstances that brought him East in the spring of ‘22. The action proper begins on page five, when he goes to visit his cousin and her husband, Tom. We meet him and Daisy and their friend, the (gorgeous) golf pro Jordan Baker, and we develop an appreciation for Nick’s self-deprecating wit:
Across the courtesy bay the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water, and the history of the summer really begins on the evening I drove over there to have dinner with the Tom Buchanans. Daisy was my second cousin once removed, and I’d known Tom in college. And just after the war I spent two days with them in Chicago.
Her husband, among various physical accomplishments, had been one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven—a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savours of anticlimax. His family were enormously wealthy—even in college his freedom with money was a matter for reproach—but now he’d left Chicago and come East in a fashion that rather took your breath away: for instance, he’d brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest. It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that.
Why they came East I don’t know. They had spent a year in France for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together. This was a permanent move, said Daisy over the telephone, but I didn’t believe it—I had no sight into Daisy’s heart, but I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.
And so it happened that on a warm windy evening I drove over to East Egg to see two old friends whom I scarcely knew at all. Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran towards the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sundials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch.
He had changed since his New Haven years. Now he was a sturdy straw-haired man of thirty, with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body—he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.
His speaking voice, a gruff husky tenor, added to the impression of fractiousness he conveyed. There was a touch of paternal contempt in it, even toward people he liked—and there were men at New Haven who had hated his guts.
“Now, don’t think my opinion on these matters is final,” he seemed to say, “just because I’m stronger and more of a man than you are.” We were in the same senior society, and while we were never intimate I always had the impression that he approved of me and wanted me to like him with some harsh, defiant wistfulness of his own.
We talked for a few minutes on the sunny porch.
“I’ve got a nice place here,” he said, his eyes flashing about restlessly.
Turning me around by one arm, he moved a broad flat hand along the front vista, including in its sweep a sunken Italian garden, a half acre of deep, pungent roses, and a snub-nosed motorboat that bumped the tide offshore.
“It belonged to Demaine, the oil man.” He turned me around again, politely and abruptly. “We’ll go inside.”
We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-coloured space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-coloured rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.
The younger of the two was a stranger to me. She was extended full length at her end of the divan, completely motionless, and with her chin raised a little, as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall. If she saw me out of the corner of her eyes she gave no hint of it—indeed, I was almost surprised into murmuring an apology for having disturbed her by coming in.
The other girl, Daisy, made an attempt to rise—she leaned slightly forward with a conscientious expression—then she laughed, an absurd, charming little laugh, and I laughed too and came forward into the room.
“I’m p-paralysed with happiness.”
She laughed again, as if she said something very witty, and held my hand for a moment, looking up into my face, promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see. That was a way she had. She hinted in a murmur that the surname of the balancing girl was Baker. (I’ve heard it said that Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean toward her; an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming.)
At any rate, Miss Baker’s lips fluttered, she nodded at me almost imperceptibly, and then quickly tipped her head back again—the object she was balancing had obviously tottered a little and given her something of a fright. Again a sort of apology arose to my lips. Almost any exhibition of complete self-sufficiency draws a stunned tribute from me.
I looked back at my cousin, who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.
I told her how I had stopped off in Chicago for a day on my way East, and how a dozen people had sent their love through me.
“Do they miss me?” she cried ecstatically.
“The whole town is desolate. All the cars have the left rear wheel painted black as a mourning wreath, and there’s a persistent wail all night along the north shore.”
“How gorgeous! Let’s go back, Tom. Tomorrow!” Then she added irrelevantly: “You ought to see the baby.”
“I’d like to.”
“She’s asleep. She’s three years old. Haven’t you ever seen her?”
“Well, you ought to see her. She’s—”
Tom Buchanan, who had been hovering restlessly about the room, stopped and rested his hand on my shoulder.
“What you doing, Nick?”
“I’m a bond man.”
I told him.
“Never heard of them,” he remarked decisively.
This annoyed me.
“You will,” I answered shortly. “You will if you stay in the East.”
“Oh, I’ll stay in the East, don’t you worry,” he said, glancing at Daisy and then back at me, as if he were alert for something more. “I’d be a God damned fool to live anywhere else.”
At this point Miss Baker said: “Absolutely!” with such suddenness that I started—it was the first word she had uttered since I came into the room. Evidently it surprised her as much as it did me, for she yawned and with a series of rapid, deft movements stood up into the room.
“I’m stiff,” she complained, “I’ve been lying on that sofa for as long as I can remember.”
“Don’t look at me,” Daisy retorted, “I’ve been trying to get you to New York all afternoon.”
“No, thanks,” said Miss Baker to the four cocktails just in from the pantry. “I’m absolutely in training.”
Her host looked at her incredulously.
“You are!” He took down his drink as if it were a drop in the bottom of a glass. “How you ever get anything done is beyond me.”
I looked at Miss Baker, wondering what it was she “got done.” I enjoyed looking at her. She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her grey sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming, discontented face. It occurred to me now that I had seen her, or a picture of her, somewhere before.
“You live in West Egg,” she remarked contemptuously. “I know somebody there.”
“I don’t know a single—”
“You must know Gatsby.”
“Gatsby?” demanded Daisy. “What Gatsby?”
Before I could reply that he was my neighbour dinner was announced; wedging his tense arm imperatively under mine, Tom Buchanan compelled me from the room as though he were moving a checker to another square.
Slenderly, languidly, their hands set lightly on their hips, the two young women preceded us out on to a rosy-coloured porch, open toward the sunset, where four candles flickered on the table in the diminished wind.
“Why candles?” objected Daisy, frowning. She snapped them out with her fingers. “In two weeks it’ll be the longest day in the year.” She looked at us all radiantly. “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.”
“We ought to plan something,” yawned Miss Baker, sitting down at the table as if she were getting into bed.
“All right,” said Daisy. “What’ll we plan?” She turned to me helplessly: “What do people plan?”
Before I could answer her eyes fastened with an awed expression on her little finger.
“Look!” she complained; “I hurt it.”
We all looked—the knuckle was black and blue.
“You did it, Tom,” she said accusingly. “I know you didn’t mean to, but you did do it. That’s what I get for marrying a brute of a man, a great, big, hulking physical specimen of a—”
“I hate that word ‘hulking,’ ” objected Tom crossly, “even in kidding.”
“Hulking,” insisted Daisy.
Sometimes she and Miss Baker talked at once, unobtrusively and with a bantering inconsequence that was never quite chatter, that was as cool as their white dresses and their impersonal eyes in the absence of all desire. They were here, and they accepted Tom and me, making only a polite pleasant effort to entertain or to be entertained. They knew that presently dinner would be over and a little later the evening too would be over and casually put away. It was sharply different from the West, where an evening was hurried from phase to phase towards its close, in a continually disappointed anticipation or else in sheer nervous dread of the moment itself.
“You make me feel uncivilized, Daisy,” I confessed on my second glass of corky but rather impressive claret. “Can’t you talk about crops or something?”
I meant nothing in particular by this remark, but it was taken up in an unexpected way.
“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Coloured Empires by this man Goddard?”
“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.
“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
“Tom’s getting very profound,” said Daisy, with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. “He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we—”
“Well, these books are all scientific,” insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently. “This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”
“We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.
“You ought to live in California—” began Miss Baker, but Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair.
“This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and—” After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again. “—And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?”
There was something pathetic in his concentration, as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more. When, almost immediately, the telephone rang inside and the butler left the porch Daisy seized upon the momentary interruption and leaned towards me.
“I’ll tell you a family secret,” she whispered enthusiastically. “It’s about the butler’s nose. Do you want to hear about the butler’s nose?”
“That’s why I came over tonight.”
“Well, he wasn’t always a butler; he used to be the silver polisher for some people in New York that had a silver service for two hundred people. He had to polish it from morning till night, until finally it began to affect his nose—”
“Things went from bad to worse,” suggested Miss Baker.
“Yes. Things went from bad to worse, until finally he had to give up his position.”
For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened—then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.
The butler came back and murmured something close to Tom’s ear, whereupon Tom frowned, pushed back his chair, and without a word went inside. As if his absence quickened something within her, Daisy leaned forward again, her voice glowing and singing.
“I love to see you at my table, Nick. You remind me of a—of a rose, an absolute rose. Doesn’t he?” She turned to Miss Baker for confirmation: “An absolute rose?”
This was untrue. I am not even faintly like a rose. She was only extemporizing, but a stirring warmth flowed from her, as if her heart was trying to come out to you concealed in one of those breathless, thrilling words. Then suddenly she threw her napkin on the table and excused herself and went into the house.
Miss Baker and I exchanged a short glance consciously devoid of meaning. I was about to speak when she sat up alertly and said “Sh!” in a warning voice. A subdued impassioned murmur was audible in the room beyond, and Miss Baker leaned forward unashamed, trying to hear. The murmur trembled on the verge of coherence, sank down, mounted excitedly, and then ceased altogether.
“This Mr. Gatsby you spoke of is my neighbour—” I began.
“Don’t talk. I want to hear what happens.”
“Is something happening?” I inquired innocently.
“You mean to say you don’t know?” said Miss Baker, honestly surprised. “I thought everybody knew.”
“Why—” she said hesitantly. “Tom’s got some woman in New York.”
“Got some woman?” I repeated blankly.
Miss Baker nodded.
“She might have the decency not to telephone him at dinner time. Don’t you think?”
Almost before I had grasped her meaning there was the flutter of a dress and the crunch of leather boots, and Tom and Daisy were back at the table.
“It couldn’t be helped!” cried Daisy with tense gaiety.
She sat down, glanced searchingly at Miss Baker and then at me, and continued: “I looked outdoors for a minute, and it’s very romantic outdoors. There’s a bird on the lawn that I think must be a nightingale come over on the Cunard or White Star Line. He’s singing away—” Her voice sang: “It’s romantic, isn’t it, Tom?”
“Very romantic,” he said, and then miserably to me: “If it’s light enough after dinner, I want to take you down to the stables.”
The telephone rang inside, startlingly, and as Daisy shook her head decisively at Tom the subject of the stables, in fact all subjects, vanished into air. Among the broken fragments of the last five minutes at table I remember the candles being lit again, pointlessly, and I was conscious of wanting to look squarely at everyone, and yet to avoid all eyes. I couldn’t guess what Daisy and Tom were thinking, but I doubt if even Miss Baker, who seemed to have mastered a certain hardy skepticism, was able utterly to put this fifth guest’s shrill metallic urgency out of mind. To a certain temperament the situation might have seemed intriguing—my own instinct was to telephone immediately for the police.
The horses, needless to say, were not mentioned again. Tom and Miss Baker, with several feet of twilight between them, strolled back into the library, as if to a vigil beside a perfectly tangible body, while, trying to look pleasantly interested and a little deaf, I followed Daisy around a chain of connecting verandas to the porch in front. In its deep gloom we sat down side by side on a wicker settee.
Daisy took her face in her hands as if feeling its lovely shape, and her eyes moved gradually out into the velvet dusk. I saw that turbulent emotions possessed her, so I asked what I thought would be some sedative questions about her little girl.
“We don’t know each other very well, Nick,” she said suddenly. “Even if we are cousins. You didn’t come to my wedding.”
“I wasn’t back from the war.”
“That’s true.” She hesitated. “Well, I’ve had a very bad time, Nick, and I’m pretty cynical about everything.”
Evidently she had reason to be. I waited but she didn’t say any more, and after a moment I returned rather feebly to the subject of her daughter.
“I suppose she talks, and—eats, and everything.”
“Oh, yes.” She looked at me absently. “Listen, Nick; let me tell you what I said when she was born. Would you like to hear?”
“It’ll show you how I’ve gotten to feel about—things. Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling, and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’
“You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow,” she went on in a convinced way. “Everybody thinks so—the most advanced people. And I know. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.” Her eyes flashed around her in a defiant way, rather like Tom’s, and she laughed with thrilling scorn. “Sophisticated—God, I’m sophisticated!”
The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributory emotion from me. I waited, and sure enough, in a moment she looked at me with an absolute smirk on her lovely face, as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged.
There is not a wasted word in that excerpt, and so many exquisite lines that I lose count: “wherever people played polo and were rich together” and “the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game” and “a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour,” to name but three highlights.
Nick is what’s called the point-of-entry character. We see the scene through his eyes, because, like him, we are new to what’s happening inside the oilman’s old house. And what’s happening is loopy, luxurious languor, punctuated by the three insiders pretending to ignore the telephonic shriek of Tom’s girlfriend calling during dinner. This quickly becomes Real Housewives of East Egg, or maybe Season 3 of White Lotus. Would anyone be surprised if Jordan produced an iPhone and posted a photo to her Insta? As Nick enters the house for the first time, Tom literally takes all the wind out of the room. There is talk of a child who does not appear, whose parents are happy to ignore. Servants bring drinks. Jordan and Daisy are both tipsy if not hammered, the latter more obviously so (although Nick never says it). And as the party progresses from inside the house to the verandah, the sun, symbolically, sets. It’s an economical, poetical, and at times funny introduction to all of these wonderfully-named characters. (Buchanan, of course, is the name of an ex-president—at the time, the worst president in U.S. history.)
The Rise of the Coloured Empires is not real, incidentally. Fitzgerald here refers to The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World-Supremacy, published in 1920 by KKK member, conspiracy nut, and Hitler influencer Lothrop Stoddard—another figure from a hundred years ago who would be right at home in Trump’s America.
One thing Fitzgerald got exactly right: Tom Buchanan never loses. Myrtle, his mistress, is run down by Daisy. George, Myrtle’s cuckolded husband, hunts down Gatsby, believing him to be Myrtle’s killer, and shoots him. Nick, shattered, leaves New York forever. But Daisy is fine. And Tom is fine. This is why I’ve been thinking of Gatsby lately: The Tom Buchanans of this country always end up on top, no matter how badly they behave. Matt Gaetz is a current example, but there have been many Tom Buchanans during the long sweep of our shameful history. Nothing seems to harm them. Nothing seems to shame them. And God forbid they ever see the inside of a prison cell.
If we can distill Gatsby to its essence, this quote comes the closest:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
A century later, nothing has changed.
With LB away for the week, I hosted The Five 8 solo. I was joined by Brynn Tannehill, Tom LoBianco, and my man Chunk, maker of all the fantastic animations:
Photo credit: Jo Naylor. Green lights.