Paul Krugman’s column today mentions the “Great Gatsby curve,” which shows a negative historical correlation between inequality and upward mobility. Economist Miles Corak, who played the lead role in discovering it, and also wrote a useful Journal of Economic Perspectives piece discussing and explaining it, starts that article by mentioning the so-called “American dream,” of which F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has been called, by generations of literary critics, an important critique.
The name “Great Gatsby curve” was cleverly chosen but is paradoxical, perhaps deliberately so. In the novel, Gatsby exemplifies upward mobility, as he rises with remarkable swiftness, and it seems almost effortlessly, from humble circumstances to the possession of a vast fortune. But on the other hand, the book seems to show the impregnability of self-confident, hereditarily super-rich American aristocrats like Tom and Daisy Buchanan at the top. It doesn’t take much of a high school English teacher to conclude that the book somehow portrays the emptiness or elusiveness of the “American dream” of upward mobility, or perhaps more specifically of using upward mobility to reinvent and change oneself. So does The Great Gatsby suggest that one can rise, or that one can’t rise quite enough, or that the quest to rise is for the hollow, and/or leaves one feeling hollow?
And however one interprets or responds to The Great Gatsby as a text, does it offer broader takeaways for thinking about high-end inequality in its, or our, time and place? My recently completed book manuscript, Dangerous Grandiosity: Literary Perspectives On High-End Inequality Through the First Gilded Age, ends in the run-up to World War I, hence does not include The Great Gatsby, but it is premised on the idea that one can enrich one’s understanding by such literary means. But I have found myself struggling, when I try to think about how I might use The Great Gatsby in this way. I did not comparably struggle (beyond simply the perspiration of intensive thought and effort that sometimes passed through dark caves) when I was writing, in Dangerous Grandiosity, about classic nineteenth to early twentieth century works by Austen, Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens, Trollope, Forster, Twain, Wharton, and Dreiser. This struggle relates to my ambivalence and uneasiness regarding The Great Gatsby as both literary work and sociological resource.
I’ve always liked The Great Gatsby – but I don’t love it! The darkness and unhappiness appeal to me aesthetically, but I never fully bought into either Gatsby’s magical appeal or the Gatsby-Daisy romance. (Using Nick Carraway as the narrator seems deliberately to distance us from the latter, but to aim at selling us on the former.) Indeed, as an adolescent reader I was possibly more emotionally invested in the diffident romance between Nick and Jordan Baker than in the novel’s main tragedy, perhaps in part because it’s so deliberately un-filled out.
I also of course admire the writing, and the way things are left bare so you can imagine them for yourself. But the poetry about boats against the current, and the symbolic bread crumbs strewn about that so delight high school English teachers,* aren’t entirely to my taste.
But why am I relatively uneasy about how best to use The Great Gatsby sociologically, in relation to thinking about high-end inequality? This brings us back into the vicinity of the Great Gatsby curve.
If ever a character in fiction found it incredibly easy to become super-rich without breaking a sweat, it is Jay Gatsby. He does it in just a few years, apparently through bootlegging, bond fraud, and other such schemes in cahoots with gangster Meyer Wolfsheim. But he appears to be utterly unmarked by all this, leaving aside his embarrassment when Tom Buchanan throws it in his face. Gatsby came out, of course, before the gangster theme, now associated with classic movie roles played by the likes of Cagney, Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson, had flowered in American culture. (I gather that a little-remembered late 1940s movie version of Gatsby brings in all those gangster tropes, but they’re not in the book, beyond a bit of derision about Wolfsheim’s low-class Jewish ethnic schtick.)
One is left thinking – or, at least, I am – what’s the problem? Why can’t Gatsby just get over his adolescent obsessions with a rich young woman he met while he was “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere”? We even see in Gatsby the emergence of alternative social elites to the horsey WASP set of the Buchanans – for example, the show biz glitterati who enliven Gatsby’s parties. The Buchanans only have a monopoly over their particular sector.
Hemingway famously mocked Fitzgerald for having a moony fascination with the super-rich, rather than seeing that they were just “dull” and “repetitious” – as indeed the racist ranter Tom Buchanan clearly is. If fortunes like Gatsby’s can be made so readily, and given the 1920s rise of increasingly modern-looking mass popular culture, we’re already nearing a transition point that the book doesn’t seem to anticipate. True, the hereditary WASP establishment would continue to hold many of the ramparts at the top of American society (such as in government and the Ivy League) for decades to come, but the Buchanan view that inherited wealth is the only worthy kind has already faced repeated challenges in American culture, from the perhaps more culturally dominant myth of the “self-made man,” and it won’t be all that long before even the vilest and most pathetic scions of inherited wealth (no need to name odious names here) will be feverishly insisting that they were self-made.
The Great Gatsby was somewhat of a commercial and even critical bust when it first came out, and truly begun its triumphant rise only twenty-odd years later. By then, the Great Easing was well underway and the super-rich had lost the commanding heights that they had reached during the Gilded Age and perhaps were still aggressively holding, even if in defiance of emerging new economic trends, during the early-1920s “return to normalcy.” So perhaps one should think of Gatsby as being more about American Dream aspirations, than about the super-rich or class relationships as such.
Yet I’m still left thinking: if Gatsbyesque wealth could be achieved so swiftly, easily, and without leaving a mark – such that the Great Gatsby curve did not apply – then, even if a few parvenus found their newly won heights disorienting, how much would there really be to worry about, so far as our ongoing Second Gilded Age is concerned?
I personally seem to find more interest and insight, with regard to issues of high-end inequality that might peculiarly resonate today, in P.G. Wodehouse’s classic 1930s Wooster novels, which I hope to write about soon.
*Lest I sound too harsh on high school English teachers here, I should note that perhaps my favorite teacher ever, and certainly the funniest one I ever had (despite even Marvin Chirelstein), was Mr. Cammarata of the Bronx High School of Science, who in my eleventh grade English class brought The Importance of Being Earnest forever into my life.