“One hundred years after Fitzgerald’s great novels, we are living in the same world as Nick Carraway, Amory Blaine, and Jay Gatsby.”
he lower classes are narrower, less pleasant and personally more selfish—certainly more stupid.’” F. Scott Fitzgerald, that great sage and cynic of American life, left to the country (and the world) a great treasure of Midwestern literary characters who are beaten down and defeated by the illusive allure of the “American Dream.” Now a century later, his writings seem prophetic of the very epoch we are restlessly struggling through.
As Nick Carraway laments near the end of the Great Gatsby, “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.” His lament is the realization of the broken and defeated spirit of infinity that had drawn these Middle-West souls to the East Coast only to end in alienation, death, and defeat. Nick’s lament is symptomatic of another problem: waking up from the American Dream to realize it was only an illusion. The veneer of parties, cars, grotesque materialism, and café society—once peeled back—reveal a horror, a horror of decadence, lust, and murder.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a Midwesterner himself. Born in Minnesota, he was educated at Princeton, ventured to Paris and met Ernest Hemmingway, returned to America and pursued his literary career, then died a pauper. His own life, sometimes vicariously reimagined in his literary characters, was emblematic of the blues now overwhelming the United States—especially the heartland of his birth which Fitzgerald continuously returned to, romantically and nostalgically, throughout his life and work.
Two of Fitzgerald’s enduring books deal with Midwestern transplants living the dream on the East Coast, only to be beaten, broken, and shattered through the twists and turns of urban life and the pursuit of the American Dream. The Great Gatsby is, perhaps, Fitzgerald’s most famous work though Tender is the Night is arguably his best. But This Side of Paradise, a semi-autobiographical novel centered on the ambitious Amory Blaine, is equally as profound and prescient as the Great Gatsby. Beyond centering on Midwesterners living in the East, raptured under the spell of the high life and boundless opportunity and social gain, both works also deal with the corrosive and corrupting effects that greed, materialism, and social climbing have on the most intimate reality of human life: love.
When Nick Carraway first makes his way into West Egg, having returned from the First World War, he is immediately captured by the ambience and material splendor of his neighbor—Jay Gatsby. Carraway describes the scene, seductive and alluring—if not somewhat obnoxious the more one thinks about it: “There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue garden men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two-motor boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam.” Life is, for Gatsby, one big perpetual party and flaunting of his wealth. Not just to show off, of course—we later learn Gatsby has the intention of seducing Daisy Buchanan, his old childhood flame who married Yale football star Tom Buchanan after Gatsby shipped off to France to fight in the war. The veneer of parties has something another, far deeper, goal in mind.
The description of Gatsby’s mansion and his parties is the ultimate goal that Amory Blaine set out to achieve for himself in This Side of Paradise. Ego and vanity reign supreme. Only egoistic and vain individuals—and Gatsby is certainly that as we begin to dissect his heart and soul over the course of his romance with Daisy—indulge in the luxurious pleasures of such a material life of parties, parties, and more parties. As Amory Blaine mused, in a moment of honesty which captures the very destructive mindset of the American Dream, “Amory wondered how people could fail to notice that he was a boy marked for glory, and when faces of the throng turned toward him and ambiguous eyes stared into his, he assumed the most romantic expressions and walked on the air cushions that lie on the asphalts of fourteen.”
Fitzgerald’s description of Gatsby’s mansion and parties, as well as Amory’s “marked for glory” mentality, perfectly embody the mentality and material manifestation of the American nightmare of self-conceited individualism and materialism that still clouds our own public imagination and perception of Silicon Valley and the East Coast establishment; while it is true West Egg is a stand-in for the ritzy parts of the Upper East Side and the New York elite, it is now as much a critique of the East as it is the California Coast. In fact, it is probably more akin to the West than the East today; for young men and women still enraptured by the dreams of fame and fortune—“glory” as Amory called it—strike out to Los Angeles or San Francisco or Silicon Valley to attain that glory they feel they are entitled to rather than New York and the East Coast.
In the dislocation East and West to win the American Dream, inland Americans shed their origins and take on new skin. It is undoubtedly true, psychologically, that Southerners and Midwesterners now suffer a sense of being scorned and hated by their coastal peers. This, too, is something that seeps through the pages of Fitzgerald. Amory is a relatively wealthy boy but abandons his home for the East to win that “glory” he is “marked for.” If one is “marked for glory” one cannot achieve it in the Midwest. One has to be on the coasts. When Nick Carraway returns from the war and decides to strike it rich, he heads to West Egg and remarks on his origins, “Instead of being the warm center of the world, the Middle West now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe—so I decided to go East and learn the bond business.”
Amory Blaine and Nick Carraway honestly state the reality of the coastal snobbery that drives “Flyover Country” mad. The Midwest is, as Nick Carraway opines, “the ragged edge of the universe.” The Midwest is a place that is uncouth and a place, as Amory Blaine implies, that cannot satisfy the hunger for glory, wealth, and fame. Let the hicks and hillbillies have the middle of the country; thank God we don’t live there! Many elites and wannabe elites share that mentality.
We can go further on this account. Amory, while at Princeton, openly embraces the hectic hustle and bustle of the East. He desperately wants to become something he is not: a wealthy Anglo-Saxon Protestant. While he has a romantic friendship with a Catholic priest, Monsignor Darcy, who tries to shepherd Amory’s literary talents by also revealing to him the richness of the Catholic literary tradition, Amory nevertheless keeps everything not WASP at a distance. He does not want to be associated with that which is not “upper-class” and “breathlessly aristocratic.” “[Amory] missed the place he had won at St. Regis’s, the being known and admired, yet Princeton stimulated him, and there were many things ahead calculated to arouse the Machiavelli latent in him, could he but insert a wedge. The upper-class clubs, concerning which he had pumped a reluctant graduate during the previous summer, excited his curiosity: Ivy, detached and breathlessly aristocratic.”
This life of the upper-class aristocratic parties and Jazz ambience is what enslaves Nick Carraway and subsequently drowns him in a nauseating storm of shadows instead of faces with names. “There was dancing now on the canvas in the garden; old men pushing young girls backward in eternal graceless circles, superior couples holding each other tortuously, fashionably, and keeping in the corners—and a great number of single girls dancing individualistically or relieving the orchestra for a moment of the burden of the banjo or the traps. By midnight the hilarity had increased.”
In this brave new world, human relations are not as important as material possessions to flaunt to the world to see. When Gatsby gives a tour to Nick, he shows him his prized car. As the two seemingly grow closer as friends, Nick is frustrated at Gatsby’s superficiality. “[H]e had little to say,” Nick laments. Gatsby chats and chatters about unimportant things. Cars. Books he never read (to make him appear smarter and better read than he is). And the banal and mundane things of the world. Nick, it seems, though having moved to West Egg to have the life Gatsby is living, still desires something of human relations, deep souls rather than superficial robots.
Amory Blaine, likewise, drifts from friend to friend and girl to girl. The world that Fitzgerald describes our Midwest expatriates finding themselves in is a world where forgetfulness and utilitarian ends dominate every part and parcel of existence. “They had forgotten me,” Nick Carraway also says, “but Daisy glanced up and held out her hand; Gatsby didn’t know me now at all.” Nick leaves the two together. Three’s a crowd. And all Gatsby really wants is to steal Daisy’s heart back. No matter how many parties and “friends” he betrays and forgets in the process.
Augustine of Hippo, that great saint from North Africa, famously said that we are restless until our heart finds peace in the love of God, principally through the love of other persons who incarnate the very love that is the essence of God. So too does Fitzgerald reveal to us the restless hearts of Jay Gatsby and Amory Blaine, lost in the hissing and swirling cauldrons of the East—America’s Carthage—in their desire for something beyond the material and jazzy lights but, nevertheless, slaves to banal materialism and the unsubstantial life it confers to its disciples. Speaking of Gatsby: “his heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night. A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the washstand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor.” Amory, of course, moves from woman to woman, only to lose them all: Isabelle, Rosalind, and Eleanor. Love eludes Amory. Love eludes Gatsby. Love eludes Nick Carraway (and we might add, here, love eludes all of Fitzgerald’s protagonists).
Unlike with Augustine, there is no moment of loving rest for Gatsby and Amory. Nick, meanwhile, becomes wrapped up in Gatsby’s destructive drama and witnesses the fall of the Great Gatsby. After Gatsby is murdered, virtually no one attends his funeral. All those “friends,” “dancing girls,” and rich men and their spouses, ignore Gatsby. David Brooks would say that Gatsby lacked the “eulogy virtues” we look to in order to see the real character of men and women instead of “resume virtues” which are as superficial as the lives being lived in West Egg, Princeton, and the broader East Coast world that has defeated Nick Carraway, Amory Blaine, and killed Jay Gatsby.
In this defeat and unveiling of the American Dream as an illusion, Amory Blaine reaches his final apotheosis. Having lost it all, having become disillusioned, and having found himself being driven by a wealthy man back to Princeton, Amory speaks on the virtues of socialism. How prescient!
But what causes Amory to “argue Socialism” for the “first time in [his] life”? It is his restless heart. It is his having been defeated by the East: his inability to win the glory that he previously thought himself destined for. It is, lastly, in his having failed to find love. As we witness, the love of friends and the love of a spouse elude him. In the car Amory says what we all sense today, “My whole generation is restless. I’m sick of a system where the richest man gets the most beautiful girl if he wants her, where the artist without an income has to sell his talents to a button manufacturer. Even if I had talents, I’d not be content to work ten years, condemned either to celibacy or a furtive indulgence, to give some man’s son an automobile.”
Amory’s outburst comes, of course, without the hope of theological reconciliation. Monsieur Darcy has died and with him the opportunity to find love in God and peace in theology. With God out of the picture and with the American Dream proving an illusion, all that he has left is socialism. The socialism that Amory argues for at the end of This Side of Paradise is the same kind of socialism that attracted Whittaker Chambers; it offered something to “live or die for” amid the ruins of doubt and illusion. It is the same kind of socialism that attracts defeated souls today, providing them with the interior substance they seek but cannot find in the empty shell of politics.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s enduring relevance is found not in his conservatism and romanticism for the Midwestern idyll—though as Leo Marx said, Fitzgerald does give a “salute” to that idyll—it is in his recognition and realization of what laid ahead for America: Midwestern alienation and the ironic appeal of socialism from those who live in the moneyed regions of the United States. One hundred years after Fitzgerald’s great novels, we are living in the same world as Nick Carraway, Amory Blaine, and Jay Gatsby. We have crashed into the world of the flyover blues, the world of “arguing Socialism” for the “first time in [our] lives” while still trying to pick up the pieces of our restless heart and stitch it back together through the illusion of the American Dream, socialism, and the false promise of the coastal paradise writ large. Fitzgerald may not have given us the answer to our malaise, but a century ago he saw where we were going. Or, perhaps, we have always been there without knowing it until now.
Paul Krause is incoming editor at VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory.