:: Article

That Beautiful and Damned Thing

By Max Dunbar.

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, Sarah Churchwell, Virago 2013

The reporter Nellie Bly, writing about F Scott Fitzgerald in 1922, instructed her audience not to ‘praise a book like that beautiful and damned thing just because a smart and undesirable lot of young nobodies call it literature. It is a pitiful thing to see a young man like Fitzgerald, with a wonderful talent, going as he has, but it is not too late for him, and here is hoping that he will do the great thing which he can and write a book which people would not fear to read aloud to their mothers and other decent folk.’ The NYT‘s Books of the Year roundup entombed Fitzgerald beneath a sediment of filler, with the brief comment that ‘Young Mr Scott Fitzgerald… continued his flippant mood in The Beautiful and the Damned.’ H L Mencken, also, dismissed The Great Gatsby as ‘no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that.’ Critics do not always recognise the timeless.

Fitzgerald’s novel haunted American culture for decades before Luhrmann’s movie adaptation. Something in us yearns for a looser and more sophisticated time. Mad Men‘s Don Draper (‘the advertisement of the man’) is a Gatsby of his day (and Fitzgerald did work in advertising for a time). The student narrator of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a working-class man who aspires to academic eminence (and is prepared to participate in a murder to get it) rereads the novel one night and is kept awake afterwards by ‘certain tragic similarities between Gatsby and myself.’ In The Wire, an incarcerated D’Angelo Barksdale discusses Gatsby in his prison book group, theorising about the novel in pessimistic terms (‘Don’t matter that some fool say he different’) that certainly chime with his own sad fate. At the end of the Boston-based Cheers sitcom, landlord Sam Malone has to turn away a mysterious shadowy figure who approaches his bar after it has been locked up — so much like Gatsby’s ‘final guest who had been away at the ends of the earth and didn’t know the party was over.’ Although it is not mentioned in the text, I believe Stephen King’s The Shining owes a little to Gatsby. Jack Torrance is at heart a family man, but in certain inner chambers of his being he dreams of a Jazz Age fantasia, an endless party filled with glittering women, harsh merry laughter, ‘little love, not here, but a steady undercurrent of sensuousness.’ The Overlook — a semi sentient hotel once owned by the kind of cutthroats and bootleggers Gatsby associated with — gets him with alcohol and an endless Black and White Ball that reels on through the spectral eras. King epigrammed his novel with Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’: ‘But, in spite of these things, it was a gay and magnificent revel[…]’

Here’s my theory: ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is The Great Gatsby‘s literary antecedent. A rich nobleman, Prince Prospero, locks himself and his court inside ‘an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste.’ Outside, the plague known as the ‘Red Death’ is raging. This plague has ‘devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal — the redness and the horror of blood.’ But Prospero does not care: he’s locked his castle up with furnaces and massy hammers and gates of iron, and inside he’s got all the booze, entertainment and ‘hale and light-hearted friends’ he needs. His halls presage Gatsby’s love of wild colour (‘The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were purple. The third was green throughout’) and his ‘gigantic clock of ebony’ would have hung well on Gatsby’s own mansion wall. As far as Prospero is concerned, ‘The external world could take care of itself’:

In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death.’

Of course, Prospero’s fortifications are ultimately worthless. The Red Death holds sway over all.

The idea of the party seems bound up in the civilised mind with that of annihilation. Sarah Churchwell, in her chronicle of Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age, quotes a New York Times article of June 1922 that fretted over ‘a worrying new phenomenon known as the cocktail party, at which ‘inebriate’ persons of both sexes gathered; soon ‘animosities develop, quarrels arise, and not infrequently the end of the ‘party’ is some sorry form of the tragical.’ The American establishment was also rattled by the rise of the ‘flapper’ — independent-minded women, who knew books and liked a drink, who were not terribly interested in marriage and childbirth, who were promiscuous but always in control. Zelda Fitzgerald wrote a Metropolitan piece called ‘Eulogy on the Flapper’ which claimed that ‘Flapperdom… is making them intelligent and teaching them to capitalise their natural resources and get their money’s worth.’ At a time when women could still be arrested on charges of ‘incorrigibility’ this was strong stuff. (There is a fascinating recent article by Lisa Hix on the ‘working class flapper… a full-blown, grassroots feminist revolution’ which disproves the myth that bohemianism is confined to the idle rich.)

In January 1920 the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect, laying down a national ban on alcohol, with 1,520 federal agents tasked to enforce it. The experiment was such a laughable failure that we remember the 1920s as the apex of hedonism. Churchwell’s book is a wealth of anecdote on the counterproductivity of the prohibitionist dream. A joke in newspaper cartoons featured an old drunk, recovering from a twenty-hour binge, who complains that Volstead should be repealed: that way, he says, he might be able to cut down. Gangsters like Arnold Rothstein and ‘Lucky’ Luciano (and Jay Gatsby) flooded cities and towns with bootleg liquor, consumed with barely the pretence of secrecy. The rich carried on as they were in nightclubs and speakeasies; the poor drank backwoods rotgut that took their sight for days at a time. By 1922 a flotilla of boats had appeared off Long Island Sound, just into international waters and beyond the law’s reach: bootleggers could simply sail three miles out to buy their drink without fear of prosecution. One of Churchwell’s stories has a cop walking around a speakeasy, collecting bribes from every drinker in the place. When he reaches a group of patrons who confess that they have no money left for bribes, the indignant officer replies, ‘Well, I’ve a good mind to run you in!’ Enforcement could be more proactive, but did not always get better results. In one night of October 1922 police raided a joint on East Fourth Street only to find ‘a shower of cups, saucers, plates and cooking utensils thrown at them by staff. The owner’s wife knocked out one agent cold with a rolling pin.’

Pleasure seems to have a shadow side. The long boom of the Jazz Age was followed by the Great Crash of 1929. The reliance on organised crime for access to alcohol meant that revelry was intimately entwined with murder and corruption. There is the obvious physical recompense of the hangover, a neurochemical punishment for the good times of the night before. The insight that Churchwell brings is that Fitzgerald, to some extent, shared the puritan instincts of the Temperance league. He told a friend that ‘Parties are a form of suicide. I love them but the old Catholic in me secretly disapproves.’ He knew of the foul trade behind the glittering nights and wove references to contemporary crimes into his novels. He was concerned with social status, and said that ‘I have never been able to stop wondering where my friends’ money came from.’ He was sceptical of the powers behind the boom: ‘Fitzgerald recognised the Gilded Age tycoons and financiers for the glorified crooks they were’ — men like Charles Ponzi, whose name is now a byword for pyramid schemes of all types, and Jay Gould, the railroad baron and strikebreaker who once boasted that ‘I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.’ Like Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald was of the party and not of it, within and without. His own life, and Zelda’s, was cut off in dissolution and mental illness. He saw the Red Death coming. His credo was ‘Et in arcadia ego: beauty is not alone in the garden. Death is waiting there too.’

Churchwell brings the context to life without forgetting that the essence of The Great Gatsby is the nature of ideals and dreams. Gatsby was born a North Dakota farmboy, drifts into crime and leverages his way up the ladder through black business deals. His house is Prospero’s palace of dreams — ‘everything we can’t know, this divergence, this scope, this versatility, these enswirled individuals who laugh, flicker and vanish.’ Nothing is at it appears, the pages of the books remain uncut, nothing is as it seems. Indistinctness is the centre of beauty, and I only really understood Fitzgerald’s novel when some random student, in our seminar group, said that ‘Maybe dreams are only valuable if they remain dreams’ — a throwaway remark, something I’ve never forgotten.

By the time we meet Gatsby, he is in an impossible position: still scrambling for the light across the water, deeply in love with a woman who likes him, but not enough to leave her husband, and meanwhile reporters are swarming around his business empire and the Red Death is closing in. If circumstances had not got to him first, he probably would have shot himself. And towards the end of Careless People I began to feel that Fitzgerald (and Churchwell) was too hard on Gatsby, who was after all just a lonely man who wanted some friends to drink with. Churchwell draws the obvious parallels between the Jazz Age and the crash of 2008 (the Ponzi scandal was ‘a lesson that America would spend the rest of the century forgetting’) and she describes the American dream as an idea ‘that if you go to a different place, you can become a different person, that identity is just an accident.’ Clearly the 1920s model of free markets and good times had its problems. But the twentieth century would be ravaged by a very different set of ideologues — presaged in Tom Buchanan’s enthusiasm for Max Nordeau-type propaganda — that valued national and class identity all too highly. The religious-communitarian backlash in today’s Europe is almost as worrying. Sure, Gatsby, with his silver shirts and pink suits, was vulgar and pretentious. But where would we be if no one ever pretended to be something they weren’t?

It is difficult to do justice to Sarah Churchwell’s masterful book, in one a literary biography, an analysis of a fiction and a portrait of an era. It should be required reading for all students of American literature and The Great Gatsby — a novel both timeless and relevant to everyone, even your mother, and other decent folk.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 19th, 2013.