“The Stubborn Myth of the Great Gatsby”

Great GatsbyOver at The Baffler, Matt Hanson reviews Greil Marcus’s Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of The Great Gatsby.

Here is a taste:

We’re seeing now, from the ghoulish first family on down, exactly what that kind of confidence is like when mixed with political power. This counts double when money is something the well-born have never had to work for, or have ever been without. It’s pretty unlikely that the current president has read The Great Gatsby, but it’s very easy to connect the novel to the Trump administration’s blatant venality and xenophobia. Maybe one of the most unintentionally prescient examples of misreading that connection came from George Will, who called Trump “a Gatsby for our time” during his inauguration, probably thinking he was being snarky.

Marcus rebuts this by accurately pointing out that Trump was really just Tom Buchanan all along. When we first meet Tom Buchanan, the polo-playing child of privilege, he’s spouting some supremacist, pseudo-intellectual bullshit about how “if we don’t look out the white race will be . . . utterly submerged . . . we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art, and all that.” Marcus notes the scene where Gatsby naively remarks that his wealth has now made him one of the in crowd. Tom immediately sneers that he’s still “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere,” which sounds like it could be a Trump tweet. In an effort to shut Gatsby up for good, Tom says, “we were born different. It’s in our blood. There’s nothing you can do, say, steal, or dream up—” which is a very thinly veiled way of grabbing a tiki torch and marching around, shouting that new money will not replace him. What we now call Trumpism has been with us for a long time. Fitzgerald spotted it almost a century ago.

And with the antidemocratic exclusion that Fitzgerald saw, a heavy door is slammed on the American experiment and the “greatness” Americans love to claim. Marcus reminds us what a collective slap in the face Tom’s assertion of hereditary dominance really is to the way America likes to think of itself. The cruelty is felt by those who want to become Americans, many of whom suffer unimaginably in the process, and by those who already are Americans by birth but either can’t or won’t fit this narrow mold. In Tom’s world, as in ours now, you’re either in or you’re out. The very American Dream we’re all told so much about, with its promises of pursuits of happiness, recedes ever farther, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Read the entire review here.