For good reason, The Great Gatsby is one of the most admired and talked-about books of the twentieth century. And that reason is, of course, that it’s really short—47,094 words, to be exact. I read it for the first time in a few hours at a swim meet (the aptness of the setting wasn’t clear to me until Chapter 8) and probably would have finished sooner had it not been for the snatches of Eminem coming from somebody’s boombox. You can count the book’s speaking roles on your fingers, and any high school sophomore can skim it the night before the big exam. Assign that to millions of teenagers for sixty-odd years, and a Great American Novel is born.
I don’t mean to belittle what Fitzgerald achieved in his most famous work: the grandeur of his themes, or the calm thrust of his narrator’s voice, or the fine shading of his descriptions (the bit about the juice machine button pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb has mocked my feeble attempts at lyricism for years). But not all beautifully written books sell half a million copies a year, and it’s no coincidence that Gatsby—rather than The Adventures of Augie March, Invisible Man or Gravity’s Rainbow, to name three American novels of equal splendor but considerably more bulk—is the rare classic that everyone remembers the gist of. There is much less of it to forget.
So much less, in fact, that readers may find themselves remembering things Fitzgerald never wrote. They may remember Gatsby as a bootlegger, hence the thousands of speakeasies and craft cocktails bearing his name. But the novel never divulges the source of his wealth, and it’s just as easy to imagine him racketeering or running Ponzi schemes, funding West Egg parties with phantom credits. Similarly, his appearance: aside from the smile of eternal reassurance, there is little physical description of Gatsby in Gatsby. “I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in,” Fitzgerald admitted in a letter to his editor. Then he wondered if he should restructure the book around Tom Buchanan—“I suppose he’s the best character I’ve ever done.”
Not even Fitzgerald, it would seem, knew what he was dealing with—the taut incompleteness that has allowed generations of Americans and non-Americans of every stripe to imagine themselves into a story set on Long Island in the 1920s. When a professor named Carlyle V. Thompson published a paper arguing that Gatsby must have been a Black man, his fervor was understandable, even if he’d missed the point. Gatsby is Black—and Jewish, and an immigrant, and JFK, and Obama, and Zuckerberg, and Trump, and Jay-Z, and Anna Delvey. American fiction is full of thinly veiled Gatsbys: Don Draper in Mad Men, Alien in Spring Breakers, Coleman Silk in The Human Stain, Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s novels and their various adaptations. These imitators, conscious and unconscious, real and fictional, give the original character a richness and a solidity that can’t be found in Fitzgerald’s text alone.
There is a limit, however, to how much these imitations can change retroactively. A Black freedman who pretends to be white and throws lavish parties is still Gatsby, but a nouveau richewho renounces worldly possessions and goes to live in the woodsis surely not. As more and more Gatsbys show up in movies and on the news, our understanding of the character gets deeper in some ways but more rigid in others. Our Gatsbys need not be white, male or even American, but they must be devoted to the accumulation of wealth and power and love and friendship. To go on retelling The Great Gatsby, in short, is to think about worldly happiness: how to get it, how to hold on to it, who controls it, whether it’s all it’s cracked up to be. And what could be more American than happiness?
I’ve read the following passage, from Greil Marcus’s new book Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of the Great Gatsby, too many times to count, and it still astonishes me:
What is it that Americans share? In what images of crime or beauty do Americans uniquely recognize themselves as no others would, recognize that in an essential way they are linked, that they can carry on certain conversations about certain things—about, say, whether in 2017 a white artist had the right to paint her own version of the body of Emmett Till, as it had been put out for public view in 1955, bloated and unrecognizable, as it was found after it was thrown into the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi, where the fourteen-year-old from Chicago was lynched for speaking to a white woman, because the story of Emmett Till is as much a part of the American grain as the story of John Wilkes Booth or the story of Harriet Tubman—that others would not or could not think to take up at all?
I’m astonished, first of all, by the cunning, dialectical turn of the argument: the suggestion that debates over racial heritage and cultural appropriation are celebrations of a common heritage, and that the “pro” and “con” positions in these debates, whatever they might be, are merely two sides of the same shiny American coin. I’m astonished, second, by the way Marcus makes his argument’s form echo its content, so that to read the passage is to glide over the colossal discord trapped between the em dashes and reach a calm resolution. As I do, I find myself thinking about a night in March of 2017 when I went to a birthday party and got into an argument with half a dozen of my friends about the Dana Schutz painting of Emmett Till at the Whitney Biennial, which I’d seen a few days earlier. Were we just affirming American heritage all along?
Under the Red White and Blue could be described as a 154-page essay on The Great Gatsby, but it’s also an essay on American patriotism—or rather, it’s an attempt to make one inseparable from the other, to show how a masterpiece of popular fiction like Fitzgerald’s can reaffirm our cultural bonds, not because of what it says about America but rather because of the questions it raises, the American values alluded to but never precisely defined. For some, a book like this won’t have come a moment too soon. When the far left increasingly defines all patriotism as xenophobia with a human face and the far right increasingly celebrates it for the same reason, a hunger grows for a form of patriotism grounded in something other than partisanship or violence. The challenge is finding (or inventing) a version of America sturdy enough to rally around but fluid enough to welcome everyone and evolve with its followers. Enter Marcus: “What if Fitzgerald’s goal was to create just such a thing, a doubled, shifting image of beauty and crime?”
A living saint of rock criticism and a visiting professor of American Studies at Berkeley, Marcus made his reputation with Mystery Train (1975), a collection of brilliant, lilting essays on, among many other things, Elvis Presley, Moby Dick, Robert Johnson, Randy Newman, Abe Lincoln, Blaxploitation and The Band. Mystery Train contains a pair of sentences that float over the rest of his career: “History without myth is surely a wasteland; but myths are compelling only when they are at odds with history. When they replace the need to make history, they too are a dead end, and merely smug.” Navigating between dryness and smugness has been Marcus’s signature method. The nuts and bolts of history are rarely his first priority, nor does he try to taxonomize The American Mythology from a distant perch; instead, he chases American myths in their living, breathing forms through music and literature and television and film. Conclusions are rarely spelled out, lest they bring the chase to a halt—it’s telling that the closest thing to a thesis in Under the Red White and Blue (quoted at the end of the previous paragraph) is also a question.
Marcus’s subject isn’t the text of Gatsby so much as the acts of reading it, listening to it, seeing it performed. He traces the novel’s influence through some amusingly unexpected places: the crime novels of Ross Macdonald, the Korean pop star who toured under the name “The Great Seungri” before he went down in the Burning Sun scandal, and so on. But on the whole, there’s less of the ingenious unmasking you find in his other books—less of the kind of “ta-da” with which he once linked Lost Highway to the “city on the hill” speech. The Gatsby interpretations on which he lingers longest are among the most literal: Andy Kaufman reading the book aloud to a furious SNL audience in 1978; Gatz, an eight-hour play that is also a word-for-word recitation of its source; Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film, which harmonizes long stretches of Fitzgerald’s prose with CGI glitz.
“Harmony” is this book’s key word and—Marcus is a music critic, after all—its central metaphor. Under the Red White and Blue is a product of the Trump era, peppered with mentions of impeachment and ethnonationalism. Harmony is not unanimity—which only an oligarch like Trump would crave—or even consensus. Marcus wants, instead, a patriotism as “essential harmony, a recognition of uniquely American things shared, which may be values, or historical events, or nothing more than a few made-up stories.” There is nothing cheesy about harmony, or there need not be; harmony welcomes disagreement and, indeed, is enriched by it. Hence Marcus’s description of American patriotism: “suspicious, wary, looking over your shoulder, and yet accepting of something like a common fate.” This common fate is also a common idea: “‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ … it’s what Americans understand by America, when the base facts of everyday American life somehow recede, and an idea of America takes their place.”
Wariness and happiness, liberty and fate—for Marcus, these aren’t opposites at all, at least not in America. His finest book, The Shape of Things to Come, took a long, hard look at the American Dream and found something unmistakably sinister. To pursue happiness is to tempt fate, to be forever looking over your shoulder, half-awaiting ruin. Under the Red White and Blue is something of a sequel to the earlier work: Jay Gatsby pursues happiness with boundless American gusto, right up to the second that fate dumps him in the swimming pool. And yet, Marcus seems to say, Gatsby’s death doesn’t disprove the American Dream, any more than the stink over Dana Schutz’s painting disproves the idea that Americans share a heritage.
Agree or disagree, you have to admire Marcus’s approach. In a time when the decline of American society sometimes seems as clear as the blueness of the sky, he tries to make music from it. The result is a more sophisticated view of American social life and history than either right or left allows: if we can’t pretend that America has always been an unalloyed good, we can’t just behead the Christopher Columbus statues and call it a day, either.
But if Under the Red White and Blue teeters between heritage-as-blessing and heritage-as-curse, it ends up closer to the former. Marcus isn’t blind to the status quo—“America is big, conformist, monolithic, faceless, and cruel, and its economic game is fixed,” he allows—but out of the wreckage of the American experiment comes (via some sleek dialectical reasoning) “the yearning to make America whole.” He finds this yearning in Dana Schutz, in Philip Roth, in W.E.B. Du Bois’s description of the doubleness of African-American life: Du Bois, he writes, “so full of a sort of determination it perhaps suggests the bridging of gaps he is saying cannot be bridged.” In the end, he finds harmonious wholeness in Gatsby’s critique of the American Dream—“now a banner, now a shroud, over the country, the land, and the idea.” To go on rereading and rewriting Fitzgerald’s novel is to see it as banner and shroud, to bridge unbridgeable gaps, to go on chasing the green light.
The first thing that should be said about this model of patriotism is that it’s vague—few pages of the book are free of hedges like “may be” or “something like”—and oddly modest, too, though its modesty must be at least a little ironic. One reason Marcus doesn’t clarify, I think, is that a patriotism vaguely defined is a patriotism that cannot be disproved. His book on Gatsby is as gorgeously underwritten as Gatsby itself, so that we can project upon it almost any ideals we find appealing. Whatever gripes with the U.S.A. you have he agrees with and then uses against you. Criticize America for failing to live up to its ideals? Congratulations—you’re a true patriot.
Marcus doesn’t make these points outright so much as suggest them. But his meaning becomes clearer when you consider which Gatsby-inflected texts he chooses to write about. They’re all basically reverent in their treatment of Fitzgerald, whether because they parrot his prose (Gatz, various film adaptations) or because they uphold the dignity of the novel, mimicking the tragic nobility of the original characters (The Human Stain, Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye). The one overtly funny Gatsby in this book, Andy Kaufman’s, is treated with a strained seriousness. The effect is to position Gatsby not as a book so much as a kind of hushed ritual, in which a beloved, larger-than-life character is sacrificed at the altar of happiness and then reborn. Gatsby is reborn as Terry Lennox, reborn as Coleman Silk, ad infinitum. For Marcus, to be American is to be trapped and ennobled by happiness, locked in a cycle of pursuit and failure. In retelling Gatsby’s story over and over, we reignite the pursuit even as we accept the failure.
It’s a compelling argument, made in Marcus’s usual acrobatic prose. Reading him, you often have the feeling of running very fast to keep up with someone who is out for a leisurely stroll. You’re panting too hard to ask where he’s leading you; sometimes all you can do is admire his energy. Eventually, though, I started to dig my heels in. Marcus’s cocky rhetorical questions, designed to keep me nodding along, made me want to stop and ask a question of my own: What if the American Dream is a kind of dissonance, not a harmony?
One of the most revealing moments in Under the Red White and Blue comes when Marcus quotes Nick’s assessment of Tom—“The transition from libertine to prig was so complete”—and adds, with uncharacteristic bluntness, “You realize how wrong George Will was when he watched the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States and called him a Gatsby for our time. Adulterer or president, Trump was always Tom.” There is, it’s true, plenty of Tom in Trump—the philandering, the race-baiting, the tantrums. But you needn’t try too hard to find plenty of Gatsby, too—the waffling about the sources of his wealth, the unquenchable thirst for approval, the weakness for toadies and ass-kissers, the transparent attempts to seem brainier than he really is, the confidence that beautiful women can be bought, the gold toilet set.
You can feel Marcus’s argument pushing him places he’d rather not go. What he really means is that Trump can’t be Gatsby—no form of patriotism broad enough to accommodate them both could be worth celebrating. But perhaps Trump is the Gatsby America deserves in 2020—a Gatsby with every noble pretext stripped away and every urge grotesquely swollen. Two more questions, then. What if the pursuit of happiness doesn’t spring eternal but instead leads to a dead end? And if Gatsby keeps repeating itself as tragedy, isn’t it long overdue for farce?
This little book about another little book wouldn’t be worth the trouble if Marcus weren’t right on the main point: the recent history of the American Dream is a history of people reading The Great Gatsby. To tell stories about wealth, passion, crime and power is to stand in Fitzgerald’s shadow, whether you know it or not. But not all Gatsby-infused art is created equal, and the recent examples, taken together, suggest some disturbing truths: that the pursuit of happiness, celebrated for its own sake and unchecked by duty to family, community or God, leads to a country of three hundred million islands; that, if we’re not at that point yet, we’re pretty damn close; that no country can go on this way for long. Marcus knows this, or at least senses it. But his response, by and large, is to do what previous generations have done: mourn the American Dream so intensely he winds up worshipping it.
His intensity has some weird outlets. Marcus may be the only person on the planet who loved Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby, and why shouldn’t he? It’s Gatsby sprinkled with Lana Del Rey—sociopathic ambition and crazed excess made sugary, palatable, poignant. A Gatsby truly updated for the 21st century would be an ugly sight, so Marcus takes whatever he can get ahold of. Going all-in on Luhrmann allows him to avoid the far more relevant Gatsby movie of 2013—one that, like Luhrmann’s, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a Long Island nouveau riche enamored with excess but which, unlike Luhrmann’s, treats this character as the world-class douchebag he could only be in real life.
I’m referring, of course, to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street—a Fitzgerald remix in which Gatsby makes millions screwing idiots out of their savings, punches Daisy in the gut, causes not one but two car crashes while on drugs and gets ratted out to the feds by a dick-flashing, Quaalude-gulping Nick. While Fitzgerald beatified Gatsby with death, giving his acquisitiveness a final sheen of dignity, Scorsese’s Gatsbyesque antihero, the boiler room scammer Jordan Belfort, ends up on top, a motivational speaker playing to packed houses across the globe. It’s become a cliché to say that Fitzgerald was wrong about there being no second acts in American lives, but few films have demonstrated this with such sour finality. Belfort goes to jail for three years, learns nothing and resumes feeding his hunger for lucre the second he gets out. “For a brief, fleeting moment,” he tells us shortly before the credits roll, “I’d forgotten I was rich and I lived in a place where everything was for sale.” Has green light ever looked so garish?
Once you start looking, it’s hard to ignore the nasty streak in most of the recent Gatsby reworkings. Where there is sentiment, it is fleeting or pathetic. Where there is humor, it is gross-out or deadpan. Where there is a point, the point is that you can’t really have Gatsby anymore—too much of the social fabric that held Fitzgerald’s novel together has been torn. Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018) is Gatsby if Nick had always hated his richer, cooler, hotter friend, and the ending is appropriately bloody. When Jong-su, the Nick figure, alludes to the book, he shows how globalized the American Dream has become: “There are so many Gatsbys in Korea.”
The first thing that has to go in these recent Gatsbys is the Gatsby/Daisy relationship. Even in the original it was pretty tenuous, and in neoliberal remixes it’s all but nonexistent (Gatsby gets Daisy in the first hour of The Wolf of Wall Street and spends the next two screaming at her; Burning’s Daisy vanishes halfway through, possibly because Gatsby killed her). The Gatsby/Nick relationship isn’t much better. Often there is no Nick at all—instead, Gatsby sells himself directly to the audience, trapping himself in a lonely little bubble of self-promotion. Don Draper, the preternaturally talented ad-man from Mad Men, may be the ultimate Nick-less Gatsby in this sense. He makes a living selling advertisements—little stories designed to make their consumers happy, but not too happy, since that would stop them from buying more products. Like these consumers, Don is perpetually unsatisfied with what he has, never more than a few episodes from trading it in for a better model—“it” being, at different times, his wife, his girlfriend, his second wife, the big-time client that keep his ad agency afloat and the ad agency that keeps him afloat. Unlike most consumers, Don is capable of doing this over and over again because he’s rich, clever, sexy, silver-tongued, white and American. And yet, in key moment after key moment, these qualities betray him by working too well. It’s always easier to start over than to risk weakness by deepening his relationship with what he already has. “You only like the beginnings of things,” one girlfriend tells him as he breaks up with her.
This is the pursuit of happiness not as a glorious right but an idle liberty, and it says (don’t let the period setting fool you) at least as much about life in the early 21st century as Gatsby did about life in the Jazz Age. The Haves pursue what they will, spurred on by the vague dissatisfaction that is their luxury and curse, while the Have-nots watch them over social media, barely bothering to hide their fury. If the defining tableau of the era used to be Gatsby in his pink suit and yellow car, striving for the green light, admired by Nick, it is no longer. Instead, I nominate the final, grayish scene of Burning, in which the would-be Nick stabs his Porsche-driving would-be Gatsby in the chest, vomits, sets the Porsche on fire, and drives off into the gloom.
Maybe this isn’t as bad as it sounds. Unlike most of Marcus’s preferred texts, the new Gatsbys take no bullshit. They refuse to valorize their main characters simply for chasing their desires, refuse to dress them in pretentious tragedy—indeed, there’s scarcely a recent Gatsby-infused work that qualifies as a tragedy. Where the old Gatsbys were cyclical, presuming a stable world that could be chased again and again, the new versions tend toward self-destructiveness, presuming nothing at all. This would explain why so many of them are cunning, even relentless, about refusing to tell their audiences what lesson to walk away with. Spring Breakers ends with the words “spriiing breeeeak” whispered ad absurdum, a cautionary tale doubling as an invitation. Depending on who you ask, the Mad Men finale (nothing more or less than the 1971 “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial) is either redemptive or terrifying. The Wolf of Wall Street closes with Jordan Belfort selling himself to a mute, stone-faced audience—whether or not they buy him we don’t rightly know.
These aren’t just endings—they’re advertisements, for happiness of a distinctly crass, materialistic, American sort. Together, they suggest one of the most striking things about the recent reworkings of Fitzgerald’s novel: the way they pull the pursuit of happiness apart, worrying it and poking at it until there’s no tragedy or transcendence left. From their point of view, the American Dream can be seductive or grotesque, funny or unintentionally funny, but there’s no reason it has to last forever. We’re allowed to say no.