Thursday, October 03, 2013

The unshakable confidence

“He most honors my style,” Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, “who learns under it to destroy the teacher.” The best thing about teaching is not merely the company of young minds, but the opportunity to be instructed by them. In my class at the Ohio State University on The Great Gatsby and the art of criticism, I have repeatedly (and, I’m afraid, rather tiresomely) denounced the the commonplace interpretation, advanced by nearly every English teacher across the dark fields of this republic, that the novel dramatizes the conflict between old money versus new money. The phrases themselves, I like to point out, do not appear—nothing like the phrases themselves appear—anywhere in Fitzgerald’s text. When one of my impertinent students repeated my claim in another class in which Gatsby is assigned, the professor (my colleague) sputtered, “We don’t believe in the fallacy of authorial intent.” (He clearly meant that he does believe in the intentional fallacy, even if the variant in which he believes is a vulgar misrepresentation of Wimsatt and Beardsley’s actual views.)

Yesterday in class another two of my students demonstrated that they have already outgrown my tutelage and are ready to take on my colleagues without any assistance from me. We are now studying Trimalchio together, that “early version” of Gatsby edited by James L. W. West III. We are having great fun comparing Fitzgerald’s changes from draft to published copy. Reading Trimalchio under the privacy of my lamp, I realized that I was making the unexamined assumption that Gatsby is obviously superior—that every change from draft to published copy was for the better. But there is no warrant for such an assumption. The two versions are different, with different aims and effects. Fitzgerald did not revise the draft for the sake of a generalized and unfocused improvement, but for specific results. Our working hypothesis, I told the class after we examined several of his revisions, is that Fitzgerald changed Trimalchio into The Great Gatsby for the sake of a consistent artistic effect. To be explicit: a tragic effect.

(Trimalchio, by contrast, is a good old-fashioned “marriage plot” in which two men are involved in a power struggle over a woman, who—as in Austen, Eliot, and James—consults her own mind in making her choice between men. Daisy announces to Nick that she is leaving Tom, and a few days later she shows up at Gatsby’s mansion with her suitcases packed. For an entire page, Gatsby rehearses the practical reasons why she cannot leave her husband quite yet. “In other words you’ve got her,” Nick comments—“and now you don’t want her.”)

I asked the class for examples of textual changes so that we might test our working hypothesis. A young woman pointed out that, in the roll call of partygoers that Nick writes in the “empty spaces of a time-table” at the beginning of Chapter IV, every time a character in Trimalchio is said to come “from West Egg” he comes instead from East Egg in the published version of Gatsby (and vice versa). The flip-flops are predictable and uniform: every mention of an Egg goes over from one to the other. The student looked at me expectantly, hoping for a learnèd explanation. I looked back at her blankly. Although I had noticed the flip-flops too, I was stumped by them. Not another young woman in class. “They demolish the claim that the novel is about old money versus new money,” she said, “because what they show is that it’s completely arbitrary where the money in the book comes from.” So much for the commonplace interpretation, which ought never again be repeated with a straight face.

Fitzgerald’s revisions also show, as I have written before in this space, that the concept of a fixed and unified text is the unspoken presupposition behind all literary criticism, despite the clear evidence that, for writers themselves, texts are forever in a state of becoming. Most critics in our day are estranged from religion, and yet their mental habits derive from the traditional study of the Bible, and the perfect faith that “nothing can be added to [a literary text], nor anything taken from it” (Eccl 3.14).


Michael Connors said...

One should not be surprised that Fitzgerald did not use the term “new money”. In the 1920’s “new money’ was a financial term and not a designation used for persons of who have a particular kind of wealth. The earliest the OED has for “new money” being a class of wealthy individuals is a 1967 quotation.
The term writers used in the 1920’s was “new rich”:
Between the strips of the lattice door I saw Mr. Toda, sitting very straight with samurai dignity, teaching go, a sort of chess, to a number of new—rich tradesmen. Sugimoto—Daughter of the Samurai
But these New Rich will in their turn be forced to buy one another out just as the Old Rich, now called the New Poor. George Bernard Shaw—A Woman’s Guide
There is a flatness of life among the new-rich folk in the oil country that is at first hard to explain.—W. G. Shepherd. Harper’s Magazine 1921

The earliest the quotation in the OED for “new rich” is is 1886, but “new rich” is older than that:
The Southern Snob delights in these luxuries too, but not to the same extent as the “new rich” of our Free States--Social Relations in Our Southern States
By Daniel Robinson Hundley--1860

George said...

"the concept of a fixed and unified text is the presupposition behind all literary criticism"

You have a far better claim to know than I do. But I just had a glance at the first book of Oxford's Iliad: one page had two lines of notes at the bottom, three or four was the common case, some ran to five. Is it "oionosi te pasi" or "oionosi te daita"? Yet many scholars have seemed to find something to say about it.

I have heard no English teacher speak about The Great Gatsby since 12th grade, forty years ago, and by now I remember mostly that she thought it the greatest American novel. If there were some way in which old money, as represented in The Great Gatsby could be made to look honorable, I could understand the old v. new interpretation.

Michael Connors said...

I admit I am fascinated by Myers’ assertion “I have repeatedly (and, I’m afraid, rather tiresomely) denounced the [sic] the commonplace interpretation, advanced by nearly every English teacher across the dark fields of this republic, that the novel dramatizes the conflict between old money versus new money. The phrases themselves, I like to point out, do not appear—nothing like the phrases themselves appear—anywhere in Fitzgerald’s text.”

When I looked at the OED I found that “old money” and “new money” were applied to classes of wealthy people only from the 1960’s onward. These terms were not applied to different classes of wealthy people in the 1920’s. No wonder Fitzgerald did not use them. One could say with equal certitude that Fitzgerald did not write about mini skirts, missile gaps and other noun phrases we associate with the 1960’s and this will have the same relevance to Fitzgerald’s novel.

Among the noun phases current in the American English of the 1920’s which differentiate different classes of wealth were the “idle class” or the “idle rich” and “the new rich.” But Fitzgerald does not use these. Instead of labels Fitzgerald uses details to compare and contrast Buchanan’s wealth with Gatsby’s.

In chapter one of The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan’s family is described as “enormously wealthy” and Tom is described as “even in college his freedom with money was a matter for reproach — but now he’d left Chicago and come East in a fashion that rather took your breath away: for instance, he’d brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest. It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that....”
“They had spent a year in France for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together.”

Gatsby in chapter 4 lays claim to the same kind of background that Tom has, but this does not go over too well, “I am the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West — all dead now. I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford, because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years. It is a family tradition....”
“What part of the Middle West?” I inquired casually.
“San Francisco.”
“I see.”
“My family all died and I came into a good deal of money.”

In chapter six we read part of Gatzby’s success story. “His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people — his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God — a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that — and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.”

In the Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald does contrast the type of wealth Tom and Jay have by detail, and not by labeling. Except once. I wrote that Fitzgerald did not use “the new rich” but he did use the variant “the newly rich.” Again in chapter 6, Tom Buchanan says “Who is this Gatsby anyhow?...Some big bootlegger?....I didn’t hear it. I imagined it. A lot of these newly rich people are just big bootleggers, you know.”
The OED has “newly rich” as a class of wealthy people since 1858.

In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald does compare and contrast the riches, wealths or fortunes of Buchanan and Gatsby, but he does this usually by detail and not by labeling. When he resorts to labeling it is when Tom Buchanan wants to cast aspersions and blacken the reputation of Gatsby.

I agree with Myers that The Great Gatsby does not dramatize the conflict between the idle rich and the new rich. Rather the differences in wealth is just one of the ways Buchanan and Gatsby contrast with each other.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Reading your last few posts made me curious enough to re-read 'The Great Gatsby'. Like you, I don't have any problem with Carraway as an accidental author - somebody not normally drawn to writing, but compelled to give an account of what was a formative period in his life. Nor do I think the book is about new money versus old - I wouldn't classify the Buchanans as 'old money', anymore than I would Nick Carraway. My chief impression is that it is about the deceptive nature of appearances.* The Buchanan's idyllic marriage is a lie, while Gatsby, a man who seems initially to be a total phoney turns out to have lived a life defined by a certain integrity. Even some of the stories he tells Nick Carraway turn out to be true.

This might explain why the two houses face one another across the bay - one is the logical inverse of the other, like a man's reflection in the mirror. If you really wanted to gild the lily, you might interpret the West Egg versus East Egg as being about the good egg versus the bad (in the specific context of Gatsby versus the Buchanans, rather than in broader societal terms) and by extension, learning to distinguish which is which.

* admittedly a pet bugbear of mine.

Anonymous said...


The first supper--there would be another one after midnight--was now
being served, and Jordan invited me to join her own party who were
spread around a table on the other side of the garden. There were
three married couples and Jordan's escort, a persistent undergraduate
given to violent innuendo and obviously under the impression
that sooner or later Jordan was going to yield him up her person
to a greater or lesser degree. Instead of rambling this party
had preserved a dignified homogeneity, and assumed to itself the
function of representing the staid nobility of the countryside--East
Egg condescending to West Egg, and carefully on guard against its
spectroscopic gayety.

Aonghus Fallon said...

I interpreted 'The staid nobility of the country' as slyly ironic: the Buchanans and their social milieu are not the Cabots and the Lowells. They are a solid merchant class concerned primarily with respectability. Gatsby doesn't fit in, but crucially he doesn't try to - he isn't interested in being accepted by the East Eggers, who in any event largely ignore him, or he would have bought a house in East Egg rather than West. He only wants Daisy. So how is the book about new money versus old? Sure, Tom may be a snob, but to what extent does he typify a whole milieu? We never get to find out. His racism suggests a certain, natural bigotry.

Money is certainly an issue in the story (and how you make your money) but I think it's just one of the various obstacles standing between Gatsby and what he wants.