Excerpts from the book, “So We Read On” by Maureen Corrigan.
A Magnificent Yearning
The Great Gatsby is one of the first modern novels to look squarely at the void, yet it stops short of taking a flying leap. Blame the lingering influences of Fitzgerald’s lapsed Catholicism and romantic bent of his sensibilities. Fitzgerald’s favorite poet, after all, was John Keats. In the end, Fitzgerald always wants to want, even if nothing out there quite measures up. It’s Fitzgerald’s thin-but-durable urge to affirm that finally makes Gatsby worthy of being our Great American Novel. Its soaring conclusion tells us that, even though Gatsby dies and the small and corrupt survive, his longing was nonetheless magnificent. The last movement of the novel also makes clear that the earthbound desire that doomed Gatsby (all that Hurculean effort for a pretty rich girl he met a lifetime ago!) is but an expression of a yearning for something greater that can never quite be grasped or even named.
I invite my audience that night to think of Gatsby’s connection to Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 hard-boiled masterpiece The Maltese Falcon, with its vision of debased knights chasing the grail of the fake falcon. While it’s not clear exactly when Hammett read Fitzgerald, we know he did, and the two men admired each other’s work.
Hammett respected and defended Fitzgerald against those who jeered at him during his long personal and professional nosedive of the 1930s. In her notoriously unreliable memoir An Unfinished Woman, Lillian Hellman tells a story that I hope is true. … As Hammett gets up to leave the table, Hemingway grabs his arm and challenges him to do the spoon trick. Hammett refuses, saying, “Why don’t you go back to bullying Fitzgerald? Too bad he doesn’t know how good he is. The best.”
Mutual admiration apart, what Fitzgerald and Hammett shared – along with so many of their Lost Generation cohorts – was a vision of the modern world where God was an empty illusion. Whether the object of worship is unmasked as a phony bird (the falcon) or whether belief itself is dismissed in a contemptuous phrase like Hemingway’s “Isn’t it pretty to think so?.” 1920s fiction in general, and the hard-boiled novel in particular, is godless and vacant.
You hear the despair in Nick’s voice all the time he’s going back over Gatsby’s story: Daisy, the meritocracy, money, celebrity – they’re all gods that have failed Gatsby. Only Gatsby himself, in Nick’s understated testament of faith, “turned out all right at the end.” Chandler, by the way, was another hard-boiled detective writer who admired Fitzgerald. In a 1950 letter to the publicity director at Houghton Mifflin, Chandler commented that Fitzgerald:
had one one of the rarest qualities in all of literature, and it’s a great shame that the word for it has been thoroughly debased by the cosmetic racketeers, so that one is almost ashamed to use it to describe a real distinction. Nevertheless, the word is charm – charm as Keats would have used it. Who has it today? It’s not a matter of pretty writing or clear style. It’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite, the sort of thing you get from good string quartettes [sic].
Water, Water, Everywhere
In the pivotal reunion scene between Gatsby and Daisy, Gatsby’s death by drowning is already foretold. Recall that it rained almost all day. When the unsuspecting Daisy arrives for tea at Nick’s cottage, Gatsby, who’s been waiting anxiously for her, flees. Then there’s a knock at the door. Nick opens it to find that “Gatsby, pale as death, with his hands plunged like weights in his coat pockets, was standing in a puddle of water glaring tragically into my eyes.”
The last time we see Gatsby, he’s literally dead in the water. Gatsby may have been killed by George Wilson’s bullets, but he’s a dead man the minute he falls for Daisy the siren. Gatsby “run[s] faster, stretch[es] out [his] arms farther,” until, propelled by all that yearning, he leans too far out toward Daisy’s dock, falls into the Sound, and drowns. Gatsby’s pool, with its “little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves,” is the Long Island Sound in miniature.
The novel’s obsession with water and drowning imagery seeps into its very punctuation. I’ve already quoted part of the penultimate paragraph of Gatsby, but here’s the entire famous passage:
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther….And one fine morning ——–”
A few have suggested that supersize dash is a visual representation of the end of Gatsby’s own dock, near where we first see him at the close of chapter 1, stretching out his arms to Daisy’s dock across the Sound. If, to invoke Fitzgerald’s own language, we “run faster, stretch out our arms farther,” then, inevitably, there will come a day, like the day Gatsby died in his pool, when we reach the end of the dock, fall off, and drown.
Whether all our frantic effort is noble or wasted – whether, in short, meritocracy really exists in America – is one of The Great Gatsby’s central questions. That’s the reason the novel so incessantly splashes about in water and drowning imagery: to consider the question of just how far a nobody in America can swim before he sinks.
… I opened my talk in Perry that night with the clip from Sunset Boulevard because one of the most crucial connections between The Great Gatsby and the hard-boiled novels and film noirs is that image of going under, drowning. Hard-boiled and noir characters are always going belly-up in pools, oceans, oil sumps, and lakes. They’re always dissolving into sweat and tears. They also all uniformly drown themselves in liquor. It makes complete noir poetic sense that when Gatsby finally takes his very first dip of the season in his pool, he promptly dies. “poor dope, he always wanted a pool.” Dreamers in the hard-boiled universe are always poor dopes.
…Since Gatsby is not the story of one man’s rise and fall but, in its prescient way, of a national “shipwreck” that’s looming on the outer edge of the 1920s, there’s a sense in which he, like almost everyone in this novel, is sunk from the very beginning.
“A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.”
Can you hear the echoes of Homer’s “wine-dark sea” in those lines?
The Hard-Boiled Ethos
As I’ve said, the modern use of the term hard-boiled came out of [World War I], and in almost every classic hard-boiled story, the most stable and intense relationship is not between the hero and the woman he loves but between two men, comrades in arms. … Hard-boiled novels and the noirs that were made from them are male buddy stories that explore what makes a man a man in a newly fallen world.
That Tom Buchanan is the guy who’s cut out from the compromised world (given that he strides off, untouched, at the end of The Great Gatsby) is a grim predictive vision of the “hollow men” – all show, no substance – who are primed to flourish in the modern age.
That Guy Who’s Read a Book
“I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him.” – Max Perkins
Like Max Perkins, we readers also know Tom. We’ve sat next to him on a plane or train. He’s our retired neighbor down the street, our office mate. He’s that fellow in our carpool or someone’s date seated at our table during a wedding reception. Or, as in Nick’s case, he’s our cousin’s husband. Tom is That Guy Who’s Read a Book. Maybe it’s Blink by Malcolm Gladwell or Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua or The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Or maybe it’s Mein Kampf. In Tom’s case, the book is The Rise of the Colored Empires “by this man Goddard.” It’s given Tom what so many people seem to want: the one theory that explains the universe. And now, whether we want to hear it or not, Tom is (like his real-life counterparts) hell-bent on explaining that theory to us.