Gatsby, My Lost City, and The Crack-Up: The American Dream, An Illusion Part IV

My friend Don Jenner off and on would suggest I read The Great Gatsby, or at least see the movie. The novel is set in a part of Long Island where he grew up and I attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. While attending the academy, I had heard people mention the area was the setting for The Great Gatsby, but even then I had no desire to read it. In my mind, The Great Gatsby was an overrated literary romance novel they shove down your throat in a high school English class which I somehow happily managed to escape. But this year, I finally caved and read it along with some other writings of Fitzgerald’s. I visited the academy in the fall for a reunion along with New York City and my friend Don. NYC and the location of the academy is intimately familiar to me and close to my heart and Don had mentioned the book again, so I thought what the heck, why not read a novel set in the area and learn more about Fitzgerald?

Exterior of Wiley Hall facing Long Island Sound in Kings Point, NY
Wiley Hall

“East Egg” and “West Egg”, along with Manhattan, figure prominently in the novel. East Egg is a fictional name given to the northern promontory of Long Island comprising of Sands Point and Port Washington (where Don grew up for part of his childhood. He later lived in Manhattan for over forty years.) Across a bay to the west is West Egg comprising of the village of Kings Point (location of USMMA) a short distance outside of NYC, with the skyline of Manhattan visible across the sound. F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in Great Neck, adjacent to Kings Point, for part of his career and was very familiar with this north shore section of Long Island known as the Gold Coast and went to Gatsby-type parties in the area. East Egg is the more established of the two, home to estates of New York “old” money such as the Vanderbilts and Guggenheims, and West Egg the enclave of newer money. A number of the buildings that comprise the academy were once private homes of wealthy West Egg residents. Wiley Hall, the main administrative building of the academy, was once the summer estate of Walter P. Chrysler. The academy grounds is not far from where Gatsby stood to look at the green light across the bay on East Egg.

The Great Gatsby was not what I expected, definitely not a romance novel but a haunting, melancholy rumination on the American Dream and one of the most depressing books I’ve read in a long time even though the story concerns a successful millionaire. For my last post, I read about the Auschwitz concentration camp which was depressing but the predominant emotions I felt were more along the lines of horror, shock, and indignant anger. The Great Gatsby is a very short book, a novella more than a novel, but I found it very hard to get through. A minor reason—Fitzgerald’s writing style is not my cup of tea. The main reason—the book is very dense. Not much seems to be happening as far as plot, but the book feels very heavy and thick with the melancholy I mentioned. The main character Jay Gatsby epitomized romantic ideas of American success in the post World War I era, but also cut a pathetic figure who wistfully stared at a green light on a dock across the bay on East Egg where Daisy lived. Daisy was of course the unattainable object of his love and everything elusive she represented. Gatsby had countless superficial “friends” that clamored to attend his parties at his West Egg estate, but none of them showed up at his funeral. Written in 1925, The Great Gatsby gives a faithful depiction of the roaring twenties, which Fitzgerald memorably termed the Jazz Age, with its undercurrent of anxiety and foreboding. The book also, in a way, portends Fitzgerald’s own doomed life. (I know many have read the book so don’t want to repeat too many details of the story or spoil it for the people who want to read it. I can’t recommend the movie adaptations—I felt they didn’t quite capture the poignancy of the book.)

Fitzgerald grew up in Buffalo, New York and St. Paul, Minnesota. His family was not wealthy, just reasonably well-off but, in St. Paul, lived in the wealthiest neighborhood in the city. Being in proximity to wealth but not part of it, he highly romanticized wealth and felt becoming wealthy to be the answer to many things, most especially alleviating his sense of not belonging. This was compounded by his falling in love with Zelda Sayre, a spoiled southern belle from a respectable Alabama family. After moving to NYC, Fitzgerald had a fairly successful career in advertising and also as a writer of stories for magazines, but Zelda didn’t believe he made enough money so broke off their engagement. Undeterred, he poured all of his efforts into his first novel, This Side of Paradise, which was picked up by a respected New York publisher and soon became a bestseller. Huge success came quickly for him (which in a way was his greatest misfortune and undoing) and solved the objective of getting Zelda. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his now wife Zelda became the glitterati of New York and were the precursors to the modern celebrity who live large and are continually chronicled—they were the most photographed celebrities of that era—their partying and exploits, such as drunken car rides on NYC streets and expulsions from Manhattan hotels, covered ad nauseum in newspaper and magazine gossip columns. Their lifestyle mirrored the reckless abandon and self-indulgence of the 1920s. And just as the unrestrained decade eventually crashed with the stock market in 1929, the Fitzgeralds’ lives hit rock bottom along with it. Fitzgerald wrote of the times in his essay “My Lost City”: “…many of our friends had grown wealthy. But the restlessness of New York in 1927 approached hysteria. The parties were bigger…the buildings were higher, the morals were looser and the liquor was cheaper but all these benefits did not really minister to much delight. Young people wore out early—they were hard and languid at twenty-one…Many people who were not naturally alcoholics were lit up four days out of seven, and frayed nerves were strewn everywhere; groups were held together by a generic nervousness and the hangover became a part of the day… Most of my friends drank too much—the more they were in tune with the times the more they drank. And as effort per se had no dignity against the mere bounty of those days in New York, a depreciatory word was found for it: a successful program became a “racket”—I was in the “literary racket.””

Works he completed after This Side of Paradise never matched the bestseller’s sales, and due to the Fitzgeralds’ extravagant lifestyle, they always had financial difficulty. This increased pressure to produce another hit on the scale of his first book which he was never able to do in spite of working very hard and as he described his efforts, “a burning of the candle at both ends; a call upon physical resources that I did not command, like a man overdrawing at his bank.” The Great Gatsby was not a commercial success, its sales a huge disappointment to Fitzgerald. As the twenties came to a close and the country sank into the Great Depression, Fitzgerald slid into his own personal combination of burn-out and depression. His wife suffered a nervous breakdown. Fitzgerald, like many of his friends, drank heavily. Observations of him during this time described him as given to alcoholic binges, sometimes drunk 24/7 for stretches and his friends described his behavior as increasingly erratic. And his writing in "The Crack-Up"—a series of essays he wrote for Esquire sometime during this period—reflects this. The essays were coolly received and criticized, and understandably so—the writing is muddled, barely coherent in stretches—but maybe readers also resented Fitzgerald exposing a darker, more honest side especially since much of what he wrote for magazines in the past were light, romantic stories about New York society. "The Crack-Up" is a frank revelation of failure, disappointment, and hitting bottom. He also writes eloquently on the flip side of the American Dream and the thin line he walked between the pursuit of happiness and self-delusion. “My own happiness in the past often approached such an ecstasy that I could not share it even with the person dearest to me but had to walk it away in quiet streets and lanes with only fragments of it to distill into little lines in books—and I think that my happiness, or talent for self-delusion or what you will, was an exception. It was not the natural thing but the unnatural—unnatural as the Boom; and my recent experience parallels the wave of despair that swept the nation when the Boom was over.”

Fitzgerald’s essays, as well as the melancholy that permeates The Great Gatsby, made me think of a psychiatrist’s observation I read somewhere on the epidemic of depression in modern times. He practiced in the New York area and while he didn’t dispute there can be biological causes of depression, in his practice he didn’t immediately jump to prescribing medications like some doctors do, but took some time getting to know the patients and the circumstances surrounding the depression. In his many years of practice, he noted that quite a number of his patients each had their own version of: “I will work very hard and jump through this hoop and that hoop and then this ____ (fill in the blank) will come true.”  This “fill in the blank” was some dream, and the dreams varied, but all the dreams had one underlying thing in common—a belief, either conscious or unconscious, that once the dream was achieved, they would get the approval and/or security that they longed for or felt entitled to. When this “fill in the blank” never arrived, didn’t come true or didn’t bring the expected results, especially after many years of this pursuit, instead of experiencing disappointment (which can be recovered from with time), these patients sank into a deep depression. What was so crushing to them was the realization that all these years they had been living under an illusion. And they also found themselves completely depleted. They had believed, in one way or the other, as Fitzgerald described in "The Crack-Up", “Life was something you dominated if you were any good. Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort, or to what proportion could be mustered of both.” and as Fitzgerald noted in his own efforts just before his “crack-up” and depression, “my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt.” The doctor asked one patient why he had wasted so much time and energy on his particular pursuit since it seemed obvious to him that it wasn’t going to bear fruit like he imagined, to which the patient replied that he didn’t have any choice—life was essentially meaningless and meaning only came through how hard one worked. And much to his shock as a secular, medically-trained doctor of no religious background, he found himself spontaneously saying to his patient, “You need to have more faith.” This shocked me as much as it did him. Even as a Christian, I found it kind of harsh and inappropriate for a doctor to say that to his patient. As a Christian, if another Christian had said that to me while I was feeling depressed, it would have felt like an insulting slap in the face. But at the same time, something about this doctor’s observations rang of something true and stuck with me and I recalled it as I read Fitzgerald’s writings.

To the doctor’s depressed patients, the “fill in the blank” was each patient’s own version of the green light and Daisy on the other shore. To Gatsby, Daisy represented everything that seemed promised by wealth—social approval, a reaching of some place of security, a protection from the harsh realities and difficulties of life. But these materialistic hopes and assumptions, as Gatsby and the depressed patients learned, so often don’t bring the expected results but instead turn to “ashes in one’s mouth” a common expression of biblical origin. “He feeds on ashes; a deceived heart has turned him aside. And he cannot deliver himself, nor say, "Is there not a lie in my right hand?”” (Isaiah 44:20) When I think of “a lie in my right hand,” I think of a “Sodom apple” or “Dead Sea fruit” which at one time were popular idioms meaning, “Fair to the eye, but nauseous to the taste; full of promise, but without reality.” According to medieval legend, Sodom apples turned to smoke and ash when picked. For Fitzgerald, his “fill in the blank” or Sodom apple was “fantastic success and eternal youth” which he believed he could achieve through sheer force of will in the Big Apple, but in Fitzgerald’s words, “One by one my great dreams of New York became tainted.” And ironically, the quest for fantastic success and eternal youth merely resulted in premature death—the combination of overwork, stress, and abuse of his body with alcohol killed him. Fitzgerald was dead at the age of 44 from a heart-attack. So in the end, it was about limits—from seemingly limitless dreams to the humility and humiliation of limits. As Fitzgerald wrote in "My Lost City" in the midst of the Great Depression five years before his untimely death:

View of Manhattan from top of Empire State Building looking toward Freedom tower.
Looking downtown from Empire State Building

“From the ruins rose the Empire State Building, lonely and inexplicable as the Sphinx, and, just as it had been a tradition of mind to climb to the Plaza Roof to take leave of the beautiful city, extending as far as the eyes could reach, so now I went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then I understood—everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora’s box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed her and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons he had supposed but that it had limits—from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground… Thus I take leave of my lost city. Seen from the ferry boat in the early morning it no longer whispers of fantastic success and eternal youth… For the moment I can only cry out that I have lost my splendid mirage…”

My experience of NYC was completely different than Fitzgerald’s. It was definitely mundane and even-keeled compared to Fitzgerald’s dramatic highs and lows (fortunately.) I never had “great dreams of New York” or put any hope in it. NYC just felt like home to me. Because of the kindness and hospitality of my New Yorker friends Don and Sue Jenner and Scott Rodolitz, NYC felt homey and cozy in a way the academy didn’t. Tragically, Fitzgerald had no real friends in NYC so it was a lonely place. But while our experience of the city was completely different, our disenchantment with displays of wealth on Long Island was definitely similar.

Lavish room with chandelier, fireplace, polished wood floors in Barstow House
Barstow House interior

My senior year at the academy I worked at the American Merchant Marine Museum which is on the northeastern end of the academy grounds just a couple miles from where Gatsby stared across the bay to the green light on East Egg. The museum is in a mansion once owned by William Slocum Barstow, a peer and friend of Thomas Edison and a major player in electric utilities (the Barstow House was the first private residence in the U.S. to have an electric elevator and also has a movie theater in the basement which is now used for storage.) When first working there, I relished the grandeur and spectacle of the house, then over time I became used to it and indifferent to it, then progressively the mansion started to feel more and more cavernous, lonely, and depressing. Especially on cold, overcast winter days I would walk around the many large rooms that could never be heated fully or comfortably, look at the gray sound with a forlorn-looking Throgs Neck Bridge and Manhattan skyline beyond it, and wonder how rich people could stand to live in such enormous, mostly empty houses. According to the old gentleman who ran the museum at the time there was a ghost living there. Whether this was true or not I have no idea. All I know is that once in a while I would have to go down to the basement to the movie theater to get something from storage and I would bolt in and bolt out completely creeped out, the tragedy and comedy masks on the proscenium arch staring down at me. Before working there, I would have never guessed such a lavish setting could come to feel so hopelessly eerie and sad (and maybe this reversal of feeling is what everyone experiences with anything worldly.) And Fitzgerald certainly was tuned into this downward progression of mood and sentiment since he captures it so keenly in The Great Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby was a commercial failure in Fitzgerald’s time but is now considered by many to be the greatest American novel of the modern era. It sells more copies each year than sold in Fitzgerald’s entire lifetime, even though it has a completely unAmerican, unHollywood, unhappy ending. Why this appeal? Many would attribute it to its faithful depiction of the roaring twenties which is probably true. Others would note the appeal of the character Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is mythical yet true-to-life, he’s a self-made man in the most American sense of the expression—he rose from abject poverty to riches, although his fortune is made of easy money. This overnight millionaire has mysterious, shadowy New York connections lurking in the background—he’s mixed up in organized crime of some kind. Even though his wealth obviously smacks of something dishonest—a racket—you can’t help but like him. Maybe Gatsby, for his time, was a sneak preview of the American enthrallment with New York gangsters—even though they’re technically scumbags, people have an affectionate fascination with them and find them oddly endearing. So Gatsby as a main character intrigues. But there’s something bigger—something about the novel’s truthful depiction of the American Dream resonates.

The American Dream is never mentioned by name in the novel but its expansive optimism is lovingly expressed by the novel’s narrator Nick Carraway, "I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

Unlike other American colonies started by Protestants fleeing religious persecution and looking to express God’s Kingdom on earth, New York began as New Amsterdam, a Dutch colony started by traders who had no such motives. Eventually taken over by the equally enterprising British bent on the creation of their Empire, New York was all business from day one, lit up not by spiritual fervor but more the striving gleam-in-the eye of the likes of merchants, bankers, and the criminal element that inevitably came alongside it. New York became a glittering and hypnotic city, a source of massive wealth, but with an inevitable flip and shadow side for many, as expressed in the lives of Gatsby and Fitzgerald, their highs and lows an eerie reflection of the boom-bust highs and lows of the American and world economy which has its heartbeat in NYC.

Gatsby seems to have gotten his big piece of the American Dream, seems so close to getting Daisy, but in a strange and unfortunate set of circumstances loses his life. Getting everything you dream of or trying to get everything you dream of can become your own undoing and even death. As Americans, we love the positive aspect of the American Dream and don’t like to admit this truth, but deep down we know it’s the truth. The American Dream—simultaneously so full of hope and optimism (of the worldly kind) and so full of disappointment and disillusionment—both contradictory aspects are achingly expressed in The Great Gatsby like no other American novel.

Gatsby is a pathetic figure, but every American can identify with him in some way. Every American can understand and relate to him, can admire his dreaming and hopefulness. Just about every American probably has their own version of the green light or Daisy, always on the other shore, just out of reach, so close and yet so far away—if only this or if only that, then I will have “arrived” and it will all be ok. Even Christians, who like to believe they are above idolatry, are often deceived by this siren song and mirage, this elusive, capricious, empty god that promises and withholds so much, and like the depressed patients who “need to have more faith” can painfully discover one day that for all these years they had been living under an illusion.

(Posted 12/31/2016)