“The 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 another, far deeper, goal in mind…
Read the rest of the essay here: Flyover Blues – The Enduring Relevance of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Merion West)
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