First published April 10, 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” gripped the American imagination and, almost a century later, has yet to relinquish its hold. Its personal, poignant narrative, fatally flawed but perfectly drawn characters, and ability to capture a particular place and time set it apart in 20th century American literature.
The story is a cautionary tale, to be sure: the illusory power of the past, the idea of money solving any or all of one’s problems, the mixed bag of virtue and foible that make up each human being, the harsh reality of having your dreams come true. But it also presents another eternal, if less examined conflict, that of Old Money vs. New Money.
Gatsby has acquired the enormous house, the garish clothes, and the fast cars. Yet his mysterious past and bizarre behavior—he has few friends and doesn’t bother to even attend the lavish parties he hosts—cement his dubious social standing, “Wealthy, but not one of us,” in status-conscious Long Island. Gatsby could have been a cliché of the nouveau riche criminal class, but Fitzgerald reveals a vulnerability and awkwardness in him, tethered to a near-universal motivation: he’s done everything he’s done just to try to get his girl back.
Tom Buchanan, on the other hand, is Old Money, but displays the worst characteristics of it. He is arrogant, self-centered, and petty. When it comes down to brass tacks, he shirks responsibility for his actions and, after tragedy befalls others, he slips away in the night, his honor tucked under his arm like stolen goods. It’s a scenario we’ve already heard or read about before: wealth and privilege, behaving badly and walking away from the consequences, unscathed.
There’s another side of Old Money, however, that makes for a less interesting story, but a more interesting study. It’s the Old Money that has integrity; that lives far below its means; that raises it children to be productive, well-adjusted adults; that uses its position and resources not just to preserve and expand its wealth, but to quietly make the world a better place for everyone.
While much of what comprises the culture of Old Money is antithetical to modern society, it has nothing to do with being a snob. Old Money dresses and behaves so that it is not obvious how much money it has or what position it holds in society. Old Money treats others without regard for how much money they have or what position they hold in society.
The geographic epicenter of this culture is Boston, where my wife was raised and educated. Tellingly, the city is also where a Beacon Hill billionaire was recently seen scraping the ice and snow off his own car one morning, just like many other citizens of the city. Make no mistake, some Boston Brahmins (more often pretenders to that throne) can be as elitist as anyone, but their core values of thrift, discretion, hard work, and public service are well-documented. In a world of professional athletes and entertainers constantly proclaiming their own greatness while bathing in bling—and just prior to filing for bankruptcy—such attitudes are refreshing.
Almost two centuries ago, the newly-minted Old Money families of Boston sought to make their city the “Athens of America”. They realized that their quality of life depended on not just their personal wealth, but on the well-being of the general population. They rightly concluded that a well educated, productive, and ethical citizenry would serve everyone well. Consequently, they put their money to work, building universities, libraries, museums, and hospitals. Walking through the city today, it’s easy to argue that they realized their vision.
The Old Money families of Boston, and of other major cities in America, personify a code of behavior: that of an educated, articulate individual who places the interests of his or her community on par with their own personal interests. They prioritize quality of life over a standard of living, eschewing vulgar displays of wealth. They pass this philosophy on to their children, and their children to their children. They act as role models for New Money and the general public.
Old Money is a culture and a philosophy that creates great people, great cities, and great nations. It holds its adherents to a higher standard of behavior, but pays great dividends. If talent does what it can and genius what it must, then Old Money does what it should.
Gatsby, for all his faults, may have understood that. Tom Buchanan, for all his money, never would. — BYRON TULLY
Bravo Byron Tully!
“F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” gripped the American imagination and, almost a century later, has yet to relinquish its hold”
Of course apart from the very mixed reviews it received upon release, the poor sales and large periods of time in which it was out of print, right up until the 50s and 60s revival of it.
What a pleasure to read an articulate, nay, eloquent piece of writing.
Some serious Bostonian “Old Money” flag waiving here.
Great article! It really brought back my memories of reading one of the greatest novels ever written.
“Newly-minted Old Money,” who went on to enjoy some jumbo shrimp? 🙂
Well I think saying that Gatsby fits the mold, or at least understands the mold, of an Old-Money, “New England sensibility” man is contradictory to his entire character. He sought a flashy American dream for himself, spent all of his bootlegging money on lavish, lurid parties and never was too keen on saving or building his community. He didn’t have that Puritan work ethic, nor did he have the protestant reform impulse. I think why he is such a powerful figure is because of his selfishness and hopefulness for himself, qualities we can all relate to.
I think what would better fit this mold would be the midwesterners. Fitzgerald portrays the region as a virtuous place filled with hard-working, honest people, compared with the disingenuousness of the East.
CC’s review of the movie rang true for me. I went Friday night to see it and I lasted only about an hour. It’s something of a pornographic ballet of the story. Also, whenever I view 3D it appears to me as if I’m having successive children’s pop-up books placed in front of me.
As for “Old Money v. New Money,” that story, like most things, is a jumble. It is truer to say that “some” Old Money is discrete and modest and industrious, etc…. In some cases the virtues are inverted, with “some” New Money being able to teach a lot to “some” Old Money.
The poet and scholar John Berryman wrote an essay published in the early 1970’s entitled “Three American Cases”—the subjects were Dreiser, Fitzgerald and Ring Lardner. In it he explores the affect and allure of popular and commercial influences on these writers who, succumbing to such influences, might have otherwise achieved greatness or something more lasting. He acknowledges that “Gatsby,” alone among Fitzgerald’s works, is a masterpiece and discusses it at length. Fitzgerald, however, ultimately proved insufficiently strong to resist the literary limelight and the lure of money and so joined the “formula boys”—John O’Hara being also among them. In consequence, Fitzgerald never fully developed his gift. But he might have. Unlike his American popular-writing peers, Fitzgerald did not share their anti-intellectualism and disdain for high art. Indeed, if I recall correctly, he wrote his wife of the serious process of creating “Gatsby” saying, “Without this I am nothing.” Sadly, either he did not, or could not, hold on to that understanding so as to imbue his creative process with a higher purpose.
I defer to experts who say “Gatsby” is a masterpiece. But when last I watched the 1974 version I was gnawed by how ridiculous seemed the idea of a man consumed and obsessed by a romantic image of life embodied in a single woman. And, to attain it, he becomes a criminal, a liar and a fraud. Yes, this is one of the intended warnings of the book; a kind of call to substance over superficiality. Indeed, a NY Times columnist recently reminded readers that the word “Great” in the title is intended by Fitzgerald as sarcasm. She went on to posit, rightly I think, that the reason movie producers fail in presenting the book is that they never realize this very fact in the first place; they are seduced and blinded by the same desire for glamour and glitz that kills three people in the novel. It’s just my opinion, but I think it kills their movies as well.
The Francis Cugat cover is one of the all-time bests, but I quite enjoy that one too.
One line in this piece of writing – “[Old Money families] act as role models for New Money and the general public” – is uncannily redolent of Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, a damning critique of neoclassical economics. I highly doubt the author is aware of the parallels.
If Veblen’s theories weren’t so wrong, more people would have heard of him. 😉
People who haven’t heard of Veblen are an ignorant lot, indeed. He is still frequently cited by economists and sociologists, but the masses probably haven’t heard of them, either. He coined the term “conspicuous consumption”, by the way.
Highly recommended to those who want to understand more about consumer culture
Besides, he shared ancestry with Christian Chensvold, and Bass Weejuns, not to mention LL Bean’s Norwegian sweaters, so how can we ignore him?
Speaking of conspicuous consumption:
Anyone tell me what The Great Gatsby has to do with Ivy style?
The previous link seems not to have worked.
Try this one for a photo which shows what The Great Gatsby has to do with Ivy style:
Turn off the soundtrack and enjoy some of these illustrations:
You link me to a nice picture of Scott Fitzgerald in button-down shirt and knit tie. Yet in what sense does his most famous book relate to these wardrobe choices? I have read and re-read in search of natural shoulder direction but there is none.
Chris, Is correct to say that the various Tom Buchanan in 20s and 30s dressed in Saville Row style,and that after the war embraced the Ivy League?
I have see some pictures of these guys (like John Hay Whitney).
Before the war they wore double breasted and a lot of others darted coats,often draped, in latest London ( or Esquire magazine) styles.
After the war,especially from mid 60s,beautifull sack suit probably from custom department of Chipp,J Press,Brooks Brothers.
Are Tom’s clothes described in the book, or only Gatsby’s? I don’t remember.
Gatsby Style Postage stamp (1998)
1988 Calvin Klein Obsession commercial with quote from The Great Gatsby, Chapter 6:
Oh, my God, this piece is idiotic. “There are bad people with money who are gross because they’re Jewish or black or whatever (ew!), but there are good people with money because they’re WASPs–like my wife!–but not always because some rich WASPs suck, too, but really generally they’re better than everyone because they like talk good and don’t wear pinky rings and like own sailboats instead of motorboats. . . Also Boston totally rocks because there are all these really old buildings there that rich people built hundreds of years ago yayyyy! #thekennedys? #greatgatsbyconnectionitsthereipromise”
Uh, notfromboston, are you sure you’re commenting in the right thread? You don’t seem to have read the same article as the rest of us.
We Bostonians prefer to wave the flag, rather than waive it.
Your final sentence, I feel, redeems the whole essay, and gives us a glimpse into the many faces of this great book. “Old money” is a myth in the sense of a worthy truth not often ( perhaps never) realised. F Scott Fitzgerald uncovers the real life sham of it but still leaves intact the beacon of the myth.
Thanks for straiting me out….
I think I read “The Great Gatsby” in high school…and that’s where it’s stayed.
As for the rest of Mr. Tully’s posting, his comments on old Boston families reminded me of a co-worker of long-ago with whom I had some work-related telephonic contacts. She had married a scion of a well-known Boston political family, though she herself was born in California. We met once at a training session, and chatted. I mentioned I’d attended college there, and I asked what she had thought of Boston. Smiling, she replied that I must be interested in history. We laughed together.
It is rarely wise to impute generational excellence merely on the strength of one’s last name, much less the location of one’s hometown- nature and nurture are notoriously fickle. Building institutions for one’s class, as opposed to doing so for the common good, is a matter of amour-propre (q.v., Rousseau). There were many unhappy old Brahmins- J.P. Marquand’s “The Late George Apley” and “H. Pulham, Esq.” cover that waterfront. An insular parochialism defines Bostonians of all classes- whether the Irish boy in his parents’ package store who pointed to the headline about school busing on the copy of “The Globe” I was buying while in college and pronounced it “a sin” or, many years later, the State Street Bank executive who mused during my mid-August interview in his book-lined, arch-windowed, and oak-columned office that California was exceedingly humid and had many Mexicans and Japanese. It is probably karmic justice that Boston pays for its historically beautiful buildings and institutions with the today’s coin of various social and legislative changes.
Thank God for our “insular parochialism”. It helps protect us from the vulgar, tasteless ethos which permeates virtually everywhere else in this country.
From “New York” Magazine:
“We are also told that Gatsby owned “two hulking patent cabinets which held his massed suits and dressing-gowns and ties, and his shirts, piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high.” Clothing like Gatsby’s, which was shipped from England, would have been considerably more expensive than domestic fibers. In the 1922 book How to Sell at Retail, the author writes that a man of the era who wanted a good suit might have offered to pay about $50 for it. This 1921 J.C. Penney ad shows discount men’s dress shirts selling for 98 cents apiece, but Gatsby’s imported English shirts would surely have cost much more — say, $5 each. With “stacks a dozen high” of these shirts, as well as a cabinet full of suits and other menswear, it’s not unreasonable to estimate than in each of 1920 and 1921, Gatsby might have spent roughly $1,000 on clothing, for a total of $2,000.”
QED, old bean.
Rollo May on Gatsby and the American Dream:
“This eternal Green Light is a revealing myth of America, for it means new potentialities, new frontiers, new life around the corner. There is no destiny, or if there is we construct it ourselves. Everything is ahead; we make anything we choose of life. The Green Light beckons us onward and upward with a promise of biger and better things in higher and highr skyscrapers, interminably rising to infinity. The Green Light turns into our greatest illusion, covering our difficulties, permitting us to take evil steps with no guilt, hiding our daimonic capcities and our problems by its profligate promises, and destroying our values en route. The Green Light is the Promised Land myth siring Horatio Alger…
Gatsby’s tragic flaw was that he took his dream — the American Dream — for reality…
Gatsby’s final lonliness at his funeral is summed up in two words: nobody came.”
From The Cry For Myth by Rollo May.
Is there such a dictum for folks like myself, the HTTHPs of the world? (Hungry, Thirsty, Tired, Horney, and Poor)
“New Englanders are inclined to differentiate between good and bad by determining whether it’s old or new. Frugality, reluctance to change, reliance on the “tried and true”, abhorrence of things showy or gaudy, pride in the past, a strong need for tradition and continuity – all these natural inclinations in our personalities result, not surprisingly, in our wearing slightly threadbare old clothes, joining old, comfortable not-posh social clubs, owning old boats, attending old schools and colleges, living in old houses, marrying into old families, and so forth.”
This is a pile of stereotypes supporting a blob of cliches holding up a ghastly old statue of a discredited hero covered in pigeon crap.
Don’t know why, but when I think of Gatsby’s pile of shirts I think they might be Turnbull & Asser.
I don’t remember when or how I stumbled across this piece from the BBC, but I’ll pass it along. Maybe readers of Ivy-Stye have already seen it here:
And So We Read On:
Fitzgerald created one of the most penetrating, scathing indictments of the particularly American version greed/ambition/hubris— ever. He took a deep dive into the American soul and revealed the vapidness of American individualism (and, directly related, the zeal for privatization) will, more than a few students of this book have argued, lead inevitably and tragically to decline and fall.
At a much more basic level, Fitzgerald rebuked the oft-proclaimed (admittedly optimistic) notion that Old Money progeny are high-minded and noble, consumed by a generous noblesse oblige. Nothing, we now know, could be further from the truth. Simply put: the very rich do not care about people who are not (also) very rich, unless they serve as an opportunity for the occasional charitable act. This is why they’re ‘tolerant’ the needy poor, yet contemptuous of the middle classes.
Fitzgerald reveals his Calvinist worldview: the rot at the core of any culture that exalts either the pursuit (or, vis a vis Old Money, protection/preservation) of property/wealth.
“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.“
I think there is another angle to this. A lot of guys born in the Lucky Sperm Club actually feel inferior to working class men they perceive as tougher, stronger, more skilled, and more worldly. In these cases, self-loathing can turn into contempt for their social lessers, who, of course, disdain the rich for not having to earn their easy lives. It’s a vicious little circle that can only be broken by those with enough self-awareness and humility to work past it and into relationships built on mutual respect.
I admit liking a Novel is a subjective opinion. In saying that I think The Great Gatsby is over rated. Maybe I expected too much after all the hype it got. I have read it twice.
I loved the Redford movie except for the ending. Lot of color and visuals and scenery.Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern and Karen Black were interesting to me.