AUGUST 29, 2020
[H]e began to talk excitedly to Daisy, denying everything, defending his name against accusations that had not been made. But with every word she was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up, and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, toward that lost voice across the room.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
THREE WEEKS INTO lockdown and I was wondering if the United States of America was a “dead dream,” as dead as Gatsby’s dream up in the Plaza suite, Nick Carraway’s by the end of Fitzgerald’s novel, and Fitzgerald’s by the end of his life. In the afternoons I read my art school students’ faces through Zoom panels. They’d already scattered across the state and country to Modesto, Orlando, Cleveland, Granville, New Rochelle (“just outside the containment zone,” that student assured me). At night, I reread The Great Gatsby to prepare for this review. One week passed into the next. Forty thousand Americans were dead from COVID-19. I assured my students that it was okay that we were muddling through. We asked why we should write stories during a pandemic. We asked if art matters. (Fifty thousand dead.) No doubt was taboo, except one. I never asked them if the United States still exists as anything more than a name. I didn’t have the courage. Sixty thousand were dead at the hands of an administration that had entered the White House determined to hollow out the federal government. Predictably, when faced with a crisis, it had crumbled. So, it was a shock but not a surprise to see the colorful maps of the nation showing the ad-hoc regional confederacies formed by states in the West, the Northeast, and the Midwest in order to secure PPE — states united in lieu of a United States.
“What is it that Americans share?” Greil Marcus asks in his new book, Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of the Great Gatsby, and in April I could only answer, “Death.” Excuse me, but how do you read The Great Gatsby during a global pandemic? As a retelling of the Titanic? As the Book of Jeremiah? Fear, injustice, and exhaustion informed my reading, as I believe you should know; I can’t write a typical review at the moment, especially not of a book like this. It seems to me that what Americans whose eyes and hearts are open share most is tragedy, or as Fitzgerald put it in an undated letter to his daughter Frances, “the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not ‘happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of the struggle.” Today, however, the jury remains out on redemption.
The Great Gatsby has figured into Greil Marcus’s career from the start — specifically, the beginning of chapter two of Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, the first book he wrote, which was published in 1975 and is now a foundational text in popular music history. The Folio Society has just published a stunning new edition of Mystery Train, integrating evocative, perfectly placed photographs that converse with Marcus’s text and bring the book to fruition. There, in the chapter entitled “Robert Johnson 1938” (prefaced by a portrait of an unmoved Johnson staring at the camera, his bony fingers shaping what may or may not be a chord), you can read the “fresh, green breast” passage from near the end of The Great Gatsby. “To be an American,” Marcus wrote then, “is to feel the promise [of the nation] as a birthright, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails.” Yoking Puritan jeremiads to the blues, Marcus was describing how Johnson’s territory, the territory of so many Black Americans, was an abandoned corner of that failure, “an America of desolation, desolate because it is felt to be out of place.” Fast forward 34 years to the penultimate entry of A New Literary History of America, “New Orleans Is Lost in the Flood,” written by that massive anthology’s editors, Marcus and Werner Sollors. Describing the federal government’s abandonment of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, they — probably Marcus — write: “If, for that moment, New Orleans was the nation, did the nation still exist? If it did, did it deserve to?” These are the same propositions at the end of Gatsby, really, when the pursuit of the American ideal has left Jimmy Gatz floating in a swimming pool and has dumped Nick Carraway out into a wet lightless ruin where the nation used to be.
Written well before the coronavirus pandemic, Under the Red White and Blue hears both of those painful questions in Fitzgerald’s slim 1925 novel, but it looks for answers primarily in the successful and unsuccessful efforts of those who have tried to artistically unfinish the novel. More ambitious or drastic than a mere remake, unfinishing endeavors to show that the original work of art isn’t over, that it has always been incomplete, and even as new artists add their own truths, the work may never be complete. Not all works of art lend themselves to this process; Marcus shows why The Great Gatsby does. Published to at best mixed reviews, only to be retrieved, rediscovered, and reborn after World War II into the omnipresent ur-text of contemporary American culture, The Great Gatsby is nearly an epic in the sense that word used to mean: the story a people tell about themselves, their origins, their character. (What is it that Americans share? The Great Gatsby.) So, here’s Andy Kaufman trying to read it on Saturday Night Live. Here are the film adaptations, including Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 orgy of color and sound, showered with praise by Marcus against all critical consensus. Here’s Raymond Chandler’s consciously aborted struggle with the novel and Philip Roth’s wrangling with its echoes in his American Trilogy. Here’s Gatz, a six-hour-long theatrical production by Elevator Repair Service first staged in 2006. Mad Men’s Don Draper. A scene from The Sopranos. Endless comparisons between pick-a-name and Jay Gatsby. (Marcus shoots down George Will’s comparison of Trump to Gatsby, stating the obvious: Trump is Tom Buchanan.) In a long digression on another epic American novel that vanished for a while, Marcus writes, “In every way, to read Moby-Dick is to reread it” — meaning that The Great Gatsby is no different: it’s so culturally pervasive that you’re rereading it the first time you read it.
For Marcus, history doesn’t repeat and only sometimes rhymes. Mostly it echoes, and as he wrote in his 1989 book, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, you’ll be surprised by how widely those echoes spread, by how much is distorted, inflamed, or hiding under cover of the commonplace, and how the disappeared comes roaring back. As a cultural critic and historian, Marcus’s task is critical unfinishing: How is the old made new again? How does a lost thing resurface? His writing in Under the Red White and Blue is less assertion than dialogue, a probing and questioning of the expected story. This method relies on the juxtaposition of allusions, quotations, and close readings drawn from history, art in all its forms, and (occasionally) scholarly writing. When this method goes awry, it’s because the dialogic, digressive impulse is focused on less interesting or underdeveloped subjects — such as Jennifer Love Hewitt quoting Gatsby’s famous last line in The Suburbans (1999), or a Gatsby-themed episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent — and as a result amounts to a loose patchwork of observations. When Marcus is homed in on a subject, though, hunting the white whale, his method is not only effective, it is often breathtaking. The juxtapositions function as a kind of cultural-historical pointillism: you step back, and a recognizable yet new image of The Great Gatsby appears and, with it, a new history that breaks free of the dusty sociological interpretations of the novel and the Jazz Age itself.
The new image and history of The Great Gatsby revealed in Marcus’s book can be summed up in one sentence he quotes from Gilbert Seldes’s book The 7 Lively Arts, published in 1924: “We require, for nourishment, something fresh and transient.” That sentence speaks to what Marcus calls the “ferment” of the 1920s, of modernism, of traditions abandoned like clothes on a beach, and of a dawning American spectacle — persistent, bewildering, high-speed, high-definition, a rush in which everything claims to be new and sometimes feels like it is. The Great Gatsby catches this ethos and its underside: the destructiveness of novelty, the loneliness of transience. The novel embraces and mourns even as it tries to grasp what’s happening, and because of that ambivalence, it becomes a nexus, just as other stories, other epics have — a kind of language through which others can try to understand their own historical moments.
All of that, in lockdown, was comforting and weird. The democratic spirit of these voices, the chaos and yearning, and the “doubled, shifting image of beauty and crime” Marcus sees in The Great Gatsby and its descendants seemed in the same breath intoxicating and naïve, inventive and sadly outdated, even spectral. It is not Marcus’s fault that my pessimism took over, or that a dead sneer spread across my face as I read the passage he includes from the essay “Night Thoughts in Paris: A Rhapsody,” written in 1922 by Edmund Wilson (a.k.a. Bunny). “Things are always beginning in America; we are always on the verge of great adventures,” Wilson wrote. “History seems to lie before us instead of behind.” What a modernist thing to say, and how ridiculous and necessary it must have seemed four years removed from the Great War and two from the tail end of an influenza pandemic that killed up to 50 million people around the world. I wonder what Robert Johnson would have thought of it. That’s the thing: Wilson’s America was not Robert Johnson’s America, which leaves the fundamental question of what the United States of America is. At times in Under the Red White and Blue, I got so caught up in the energy of Gatsby remixes, in the quite different audacities of Gatz and Luhrmann, in Seldes’s manifesto, and not least in Fitzgerald’s own feline prose and punchy dialogue and finger-on-the-pulse sensibility that I thought, yes, of course we can begin again.
But, to remix Marcus’s infamous salvo against Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait, what is this shit about patriotism? It’s right there in the subtitle: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of the Great Gatsby. Disenchantment I understood. Who doesn’t, unless you worship in Trump’s cult? In April 2020, though, when the only self-identified “patriots” were the camouflaged militiamen storming the Michigan statehouse bearing AR-15s (taking a break from parading through Walmarts and past elementary schools), “patriotism” was a blank at best and at worst another corrupted word in a nation built on them. The patriotism of America First. The patriotism of bombing brown people. The patriotism of Stand Your Ground. The patriotism of The Wall. The patriotism of not wearing a mask. Seventy thousand Americans were dead. Trump suggested we inject bleach. Guzzling a Black Box Merlot “go-pack” to numb the existential dread, I stared at the word, this frustrating, alien, alienating word, “patriotism,” which like The Great Gatsby will not die, and I worked for clarity.
Patriotism is the cold water running through Under the Red White and Blue. Marcus wagers that The Great Gatsby’s longevity and ability to inspire depend on Fitzgerald tapping not just a patriotic vein but a whole system of veins and arteries, a combination of the high-minded promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” with the more sober, Lincolnian declarations about the debts one owes to one’s fellow Americans and woe unto those who fail. It is this juxtaposition between the panegyric and the jeremiad that allows the novel to evolve while still fixing enough of a range of meaning to remain coherent over time. Fitzgerald did a patriot’s work, says Marcus, by “yearning to make America whole by seeing it clearly,” not just by taking an accurate snapshot of the early 1920s but by dramatizing something that would allow the novel to “move […] through time, rewriting the history not only of 1922, or 1925, but of all the time that it [would] cross […] over.” This hypothesis hinges, to some extent, on the telegram Fitzgerald sent to Scribner, his publisher, asking only a month before the novel’s publication if he could change its title: “CRAZY ABOUT TITLE ‘UNDER THE RED WHITE AND BLUE’ STOP WHART WOULD DELAY BE.” Too long, apparently, and maybe too expensive. But this was for the better. Given the novel’s sly prose, its energy and its gaps, its elegiac ambivalence, Under the Red White and Blue would have been a bit too on the nose.
As he did when addressing the concept of prophecy in his 2006 book, The Shape of Things to Come, Marcus sets the stage for a consideration of patriotism by juxtaposing three perspectives on the subject. The first is Wilson’s nocturnal (and presumably well-lubricated) affirmation of American potential, which includes a search “for what drama our setting is the setting,” a phrase and question Marcus returns to often. Despite Wilson’s mixed feelings about his nation, you can read plainly the modernist heave with which American culture finally wriggled free from the enveloping influence of European models, which for Wilson and plenty of others were antiquated. (Wilson talking smack about the Futurists’ “discovery” of trains is hilarious.) However (and maybe it was all the wine), Wilson’s evocation of an America that’s bound for the new, free from the old, and filled with so much ugliness and cheapness that things could only get better — well, it was perfect, but it also seemed, from the vantage point of 2020, like a hallucination. The class- and race-based condescension is, on the other hand, quite tangible. Why are things always beginning in America? Because, Bunny, the past is full of murder and the guilty don’t want to be held accountable.
Marcus recognizes that Wilson’s words are “bizarre” and “a manifesto of American mysticism,” but they are also a “leap of faith.” Indeed, they are. Enter two counterpoints: W. E. B. Du Bois’s concept of “double consciousness,” from his 1897 essay “Strivings of the Negro People” (republished in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903), and John H. Schaar’s article “The Case for Patriotism,” published in 1973 in The American Review and included in his 1981 book of essays, Legitimacy in the Modern State. Du Bois and Schaar, each struggling with his own disenchantment, walk Wilson safely back home and tuck him in. But Marcus reads each as a leap of faith, too. With its “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings,” double consciousness as Du Bois meant it was the result of the physical, social, and psychological oppression experienced by Black Americans under Jim Crow and the reverberating legacy of their (and their ancestors’) enslavement. Marcus does not quote nearly enough of this passage, including the paragraph that emphasizes that the “merg[ing] [of a Black person’s] double self into a better and truer self” does not mean the eradication of either one’s Black identity or of one’s American identity. Even if that part had been included, it still would have made for a jarring transition to Schaar’s Vietnam War–era declaration:
The patriot is one who is grateful for a legacy and recognizes that the legacy makes him a debtor. There is a whole way of being in the world, captured best by the word reverence, which defines life by its debts: one is what one owes, what one acknowledges as a rightful debt or obligation. The patriot moves within that mentality. The gift of land, people, language, gods, memories, and customs, which is the patrimony of the patriot, defines who he or she is. […] But such primary experiences are nearly inaccessible to us. We are taught to define our lives not by our debts and obligations, but by our rights and opportunities.
What? To be patriotic, Americans of color, whose ancestors were enslaved and murdered, to say nothing of the working poor subjected on the regular to wage theft, or my queer and trans students who grew up threatened by their classmates, neighbors, and their own parents — these folks must recognize their debt to the nation? Really? To this nation? The proposition sounds bitterly absurd.
And yet, Schaar’s essay defines most accurately the patriotism Under the Red White and Blue is seeking. Like Schaar, who was his teacher at UC Berkeley, Marcus is well aware of the absurdity, well aware of patriotism’s failures and disenfranchisements. Returning to another of his foundational texts, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, Marcus writes that “the betrayal of [America’s] promises preceded the promises themselves.” Thus (as he writes a bit later), “[w]hen one speaks of patriotism in America, one must recognize an inevitable division of self in the very act of speaking — and in that sense Du Bois’s statement can serve for anyone. America is big, conformist, monolithic, faceless, and cruel, and its economic game is fixed.” Marcus is searching for common ground here. For all their differences, Wilson, Du Bois, and Schaar share a belief, he writes, “that whatever the American reality, or even the American fate, the possibilities of such a harmony” — democracy in action, unresolved, messy, but revolving around some shared bond — “can’t be decently abandoned; that harmony is a necessity if Americans are to even come close to keeping the promises on which America was founded.” And then he expresses what he’s been listening for his entire career as a critic and historian: “The American patriot is the person who, embodying the debts and possibilities of American life, dramatizes them in view of others. That is both an instinct — the yearning for and affirmation of harmony — and a role — the acting out of harmony.”
For reasons that should be obvious to anyone in 2020, Marcus and Schaar are also well aware of what patriotism can become. I wish Marcus had developed more of the argument in “The Case for Patriotism” because Schaar puts it plainly there: patriotism’s “bloody brother” is nationalism. Writing that “liberalism and capitalism corrupted the covenant, while racism denied it to large groups of the population,” Schaar describes nationalism as an emotional perversion of the originary promises embedded in patriotism. He writes, “Nationalism takes sentiments basic to the nurture of human life” — the need for belonging to a people and to the land, which drives patriotism — and “welds them to a certain political structure, and warps them in an almost entirely bellicose direction.” Indeed, one of the most affecting aspects of this influential essay, which spoke to me as the death tolls climbed, is that Schaar was trying to recover a word and concept abandoned by the New Left and colonized by the likes of Richard Nixon and George Wallace, who, like other nationalists, knew enough to wear the flag when their malice needed a kinder, gentler public image.
As then, so today. Trump, a vacuous icon, loves to stand in his centaur-like posture in front of flags. The nearly unspoken subject throughout Under the Red White and Blue is a nation under the boot heel of this presidency’s acute cruelties, its amplified hatred of difference. Marcus zeroes in on this only at the book’s somber conclusion. It’s 2019, and at the first National Conservative Conference, Rich Lowry, editor of The National Review, presents a talk entitled “Why America Is Not an Idea” in which he denounces “one of our most honored clichés” — that being, in Marcus’s words, “the notion that what America is is nothing more than the promise the country made to itself at its founding, the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Lowry argues that this “overintellectualized understanding of America […] slights the absolutely indispensable influence of culture,” and for an example of that culture, he points, where else, to the original “city on a hill,” East Anglia, from which the Puritan settlers hailed. Oh, and he was also hawking his then-forthcoming book The Case for Nationalism. Maybe that title sounds familiar. When published, it included the claim that “we fly our flag more than any other country.” At least we’re number one in that and not something useless like health care.
For Schaar, one earns the right to self-invention by paying it forward; the debt is owed not to the flag but to one’s fellow citizens. Lowry, equating whiteness with birthright, forecloses the possibility that anyone can invent themselves into an authentic American. The nation he imagines cannot evolve into one that fulfills its promise. It can’t evolve at all. It can only be true to its original essence or die. And so, in the final sentences of Under the Red White and Blue, Marcus drapes the American flag, “now a banner, now a shroud,” over the casket of the nation, “the land and the idea.”
Here in Columbus, Ohio, there’s a bar called Standard Hall, a tumor of gentrification that attracts young professionals from around the city to what was once an eclectic arts district called the Short North. On the first night Ohio reopened, Standard Hall was packed. No masks. No social distancing. Cash changing hands. The images went viral, city health department officials showed up three, four, five times, and then referred a complaint to the city prosecutor. The Columbus Dispatch gave the bar’s owner, Chris Corso, his 75 words in the court of public opinion and he ran with it: “Corso said that while he disagrees with Gov. Mike DeWine’s approach to mitigating the pandemic, he wants to cooperate. ‘I think their ideas may be useful for a traditional restaurant. But we’re more about the social experience.’” In other words, we’re different and thus exempt, and what we do to you doesn’t matter because you don’t matter.
Corso is one of today’s Tom and Daisy Buchanans, who are revealed to Nick Carraway at the end of The Great Gatsby as the conceited “careless people” that they are. If the novel reveals anything about patriotism, it does so in the way sunlight defines a shadow or gives way to night. At first, every character in the novel radiates an alliance of self-interest, pursuit of happiness (or something like it), and community, in a kind of patriotic dream. The edge of optimism at the beginning of the story has less to do with Nick’s ascent into wealthy society than his entrance, as a loner, into any kind of society at all — his reunion with Daisy, his acceptance by white supremacist Tom, his new relationships with Jordan Baker and Jay Gatsby. In many ways, The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s greatest short story: with its acute plot, nothing is wasted, all the details and scenes seem larger than they are, and the bonds formed at the start are already beginning their evaporation. Patriotism dissipates in front of you, as the costs of each character pursuing his or her desire pile up and overwhelm any illusion of common ground or commitment, until by the end of the novel the entire cast has disappeared, either escaped or dead.
Except for Nick Carraway. Thanks to an innate detachment, a fate that ensures he’ll never belong, Nick survives, only to be haunted by the story for the rest of his life. Gilbert Seldes, in his review of The Great Gatsby in 1925, mistook this alienation for Fitzgerald not knowing what to do with the character. But Fitzgerald knew plenty, consciously or subconsciously. On the one hand, Nick is the dispassionate but implicated lens of the camera, a technological update of Moby-Dick’s Ishmael (though far more complicit). On the other hand, you might hear echoes of Nick when Schaar writes that “[t]he moral thrust of patriotism […] is inherently ambivalent. It simultaneously unites and divides, encourages both concord and discord” — which is precisely the impact Nick has on the unfolding drama.
If The Great Gatsby and its spawn can live up to the patriotism Marcus sees in them, that will depend on Nick Carraway, and Marcus wisely homes in on him. Like Ishmael, Nick is the only person left to tell the tale, and that means he alone will carry its freight. That sense of isolation and burden comes across most clearly in Marcus’s reading of Gatz. In the Elevator Repair Service’s production, a bored office worker (played by Scott Shepherd) begins reading The Great Gatsby aloud when his computer breaks down; his co-workers join in, picking up roles and dialogue, in what comes across first as an ironic juxtaposition of ambition and boredom. But as the play winds down, an insurmountable pressure descends on Shepherd’s Nick, the pressure of being left alone — “so alone,” writes Marcus, “that any sense of history or time evaporates.” Being the last man standing also means that Nick delivers the crucial warning, and so the play’s final minutes (and, by implication, the novel’s final paragraphs) become “a sermon, another errand into the wilderness.” This allusion to Samuel Danforth’s election-day sermon, delivered to third-generation Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in May 1670, is a complex yoking of three different works across history, converging to suggest that Elevator Repair Service has fulfilled — or at the least exposed — the very American jeremiad at the heart of Fitzgerald’s novel: a reminder of the community’s original purpose and a warning that the community is failing to live up to it.
I was swayed by this reading more than by the chapter devoted to Luhrmann’s adaptation, which erases patriotism as Marcus means it in every sense but one: the hokey conceit that, years after the events of the novel, a destitute Nick writes himself into sobriety and mental health by telling the Gatsby story from inside a sanitarium. Tobey Maguire’s eternally astonished Nick Carraway evokes more of the novel’s creepy watcher, that brew of longing and inability to belong, but his range isn’t up to the task of serving as a washed-out, washed-up Fitzgerald stand-in. The sanitarium bookend also relies on clichés about the writer as a tortured soul and the writing process as a purging of demons. The bigger problem, though, is the absence of absence. At the end of the novel, you’re left to imagine Nick’s remaining life, a blank vista wider than the Manhasset Bay that separates Gatsby from Daisy. But the film can’t let that stand. If it’s true, as Marcus writes of Fitzgerald’s novel, that “the country’s most poetic stories incline toward the end of America,” and that “[t]hese endings are always political, whatever their costuming in private dramas,” neither of these truths is captured in Luhrmann’s movie. As I watched the film under lockdown in March 2020, it seemed designed to reassure blossoming alcoholic incels that, once their “disruptive” startups have collapsed, they’ve at least got a roman à clef in them.
Despite the attention he pays to Nick Carraway, Marcus doesn’t pursue far enough one of the key literary reverberations of Gatsby’s patriotism that he himself establishes: Philip Roth’s novels American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000) — a.k.a. the American Trilogy. Having devoted a strong chapter to the trilogy in The Shape of Things to Come, Marcus returns to it here but too briefly, which is unfortunate because comparing Roth and Fitzgerald is worth an extended study. On the one hand, this comparison unveils intersections of race, ethnicity, and class that are subtle but important in The Great Gatsby. On the other hand, the protagonists of Roth’s novels — Swede Levov, Ira Ringold, and Coleman Silk, respectively — and the narrator of each, Nathan Zuckerman, are all examples of the “heartbroken patriot,” a phrase Philip Roth apparently used (according to Benjamin Taylor’s new book, Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth) to describe himself. When I read that phrase, I realized that it was what I had been searching for when reading Under the Red White and Blue.
Marcus briefly alludes to American Pastoral’s heroic blonde-haired Jewish businessman Swede Levov — whose naïveté, akin to but more innocent than Jay Gatsby’s, gets his patriotic heart split in two — and then settles into a discussion of the parallels between Gatsby and Human Stain’s Coleman Silk as self-made men. But in these two novels, reinvention can’t be complete without the concept of racial and class-based passing, and the severity with which Gatsby and Silk cut all ties with their former lives. Each leaves behind a working-class homeland; each pines for a woman “outside of” his class, though in different directions: Silk, a professor, engages in an affair with Faunia Farley, a white janitor, while Gatsby, a drifter turned soldier, falls in love with upper-crust Daisy. For Silk, though, the gambit has higher stakes. As a lightly complexioned young Black man from working-class Newark, who begins passing as white when he takes up amateur boxing and lies to the Navy when he enlists during World War II, Silk learns how high the cost might be one horrific night when his racial identity is discovered in a Norfolk brothel and he’s thrown out, bloodied, his wrist broken, terrified that he’ll be court martialed. And yet, the motives driving both men are similar. “The objective was for his fate to be determined not by the ignorant, hate-filled intentions of a hostile world but […] by his own resolve,” Roth writes of Silk. “Why accept a life on any other terms?”
A small body of scholarship, sparked by a chapter in Carlyle Van Thompson’s book The Tragic Black Buck: Racial Masquerading in the American Literary Imagination (2004), actually reads Jay Gatsby as a light-skinned Black man passing as white. The case is slim on textual evidence, relying on minute descriptors, symbolism, and the subtext of the scene in the Plaza Hotel when Tom Buchanan, white supremacist that he is, says that turning a blind eye to Gatsby sleeping with Daisy would be as bad as “throw[ing] everything overboard and hav[ing] intermarriage between black and white” — to which Jordan Baker coolly responds, “We’re all white here.” The argument, as a literal interpretation of the novel, doesn’t really hold water. Marcus alludes to it, though, when discussing the Plaza scene in Luhrmann’s film, a scene in which “the feeling that Gatsby may not, in a deeper sense of the idea, or just below the skin, be white at all, deserving of the rights those endowed by their creator with whiteness are guaranteed, is hovering in the air.” If Tom doesn’t think Gatsby is a passing Black man, at the very least he considers him to be white trash who has finagled its way into the upper crust. At this moment in the film, Luhrmann invents a speech for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby in which he claims that the wealth he’s achieved, even if it’s been by bootlegging, makes him Tom Buchanan’s equal. It’s an exceedingly bad idea. “We’re all different from you,” sneers Tom, played by Joel Edgerton. “You see, we were born different. It’s in our blood.” Leaning again on white-supremacist logic, as he famously does early in the novel when he holds forth as a fictional stand-in for Lothrop Stoddard’s 1920 book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, Tom fuses the exclusions of race and class — to be white trash is, in Tom’s mind, barely a step above being Black — and, as Marcus observes, more or less kills Gatsby right then and there.
There’s an entire critique of The Great Gatsby and its adaptations, including echoes like The Human Stain, lurking here, and I wish Marcus had brought it to the surface. If the nation’s “economic game is fixed” — and it is — then racial capitalism is one reason why. As scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore has argued when explaining this term (which she coined), “Capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it.” In this framework, there must be a surplus of racially defined human beings who work low-wage jobs, own nothing that they make, and adapt to the constantly changing marketplace or otherwise become obsolete and exiled. The racialized elements of capitalism are meant to ensure that this adaptation is at least difficult if not impossible for the surplus population, while securing the economic power of those who already own capital, which is another way of saying, We’re different and thus exempt, and what we do to you doesn’t matter because you don’t matter. But that’s the fine print, not the pitch. The pitch is the ladder of success, the American Dream, class aspiration and mobility, equally available to everyone. Jimmy Gatz and Coleman Silk are two Americans who have learned that the game is fixed and that they’re considered surplus, and so they have adapted through deception and the severing of ties to family, place, and most of their pasts.
Their tragic mistake isn’t to think that this can work; it does work, briefly for Gatsby, but for Coleman Silk for most of his adult life. Their mistake, as their authors see it, is to think that they’ve escaped the cost of pursuing their freedom and desires, and the social forces that will guarantee the cost is paid. Despite having played by the nation’s rulebook for self-invention, each man is trailed in the telling of their stories by a sense of dread, as if the nation will not let them be who they wish to be. Someone else, maybe. But Silk can never truly escape being a Black kid from Newark and Gatsby can never truly become more than the working-class kid from North Dakota. (You will notice that all of the working-class characters in The Great Gatsby end up dead.) A reading of both novels through Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness might argue that Gatsby and Silk ultimately succumb to their “two-ness.” As Du Bois writes in a later essay in The Souls of Black Folk entitled “Of the Faith of the Fathers,” “such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties, and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretence or to revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism.” But racial capitalism both encourages the formation of this dualism — the “you” who you are and the “you” who you could be, each defined and commodified by whiteness — and punishes its consequences with accusations of impurity based on white-supremacist ideology, alienation of one’s self from one’s labor, erosion of communal and family cohesion, and the blocking of political solidarity across class groups.
That is how the patriotic dream evaporates, and so the story is left to the last person standing. Roth’s own Ishmael is Nathan Zuckerman, the author’s closest alter ego, the subject of several previous novels, and the guiding consciousness of the American Trilogy. Marcus begins to draw out the affinity between Zuckerman and Nick Carraway when discussing the gorgeous metaphysical ending of I Married a Communist, in which Murray Ringold, having related the story of his brother Ira, another good man destroyed by history and nation, leaves Zuckerman staring at the sky and thinking to himself: “Neither the ideas of their era nor the expectations of our species were determining destiny: hydrogen alone was determining destiny. […] There is no betrayal. There is no idealism.” The list rolls on, but as Marcus notes, “Roth doesn’t say ‘There is no America.’” Zuckerman is left to carry the nation or not, the same decision Nick has to make when everything else evaporates at the end of The Great Gatsby.
That ought to be just the beginning of a comparison between the two narrators, but Marcus doesn’t take it further. The more you read Under the Red White and Blue, though, the more evident it becomes that Zuckerman is one of Nick’s literary descendants. He may be, in the American Trilogy, 30 years older than Nick and far less interested in meeting the world, but his characterization seems just as blank and observant, his own life is largely defined by the men he speculates about, and he writes from the self-imposed exile that Nick is heading toward by the end of Gatsby. In fact, Zuckerman is the man you might imagine Nick Carraway will become. Fuse them and you’d have a New York Times obit for “Nick Zuckerman”: A Minnesotan novelist who broke into notorious fame with an obscene novel skewering white Midwestern Protestant moralism and repression, divorced often, and retreated from public life to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where he wrote acclaimed novels about good men struck down by history; curiously, the protagonists were named Jimmy, James, and Jay. It’s a nice idea, but to carry it through you’d have to believe Nick is capable of Zuckerman’s rich historical, cultural, and existential empathy, his courage, his knack for poking into other people’s business, and you’d have to believe that his privileged upbringing could provide the same insight into social pressure as Zuckerman’s lived experience as a working-class American Jew and his struggles against the tangled ethnic traits this nation attempts to enforce. Even if it did, the poignancy of Nick’s character is that, unlike Nathan Zuckerman, he doesn’t choose to be alone. Zuckerman grew up with Swede Levov and Ira Ringold; Coleman Silk is his neighbor. By contrast, Nick truly is neighbor to no one, though with Gatsby he comes close. But he seems predisposed to solitude. That’s one of the things Luhrmann’s film gets right.
Still, Nick Carraway is no less a heartbroken patriot than Nathan Zuckerman; they simply exist on two ends of the same experience: Zuckerman has learned what it means, Nick is learning. Yet each chooses fidelity to the nation by accepting as patrimony the stories of men who changed their lives and by adhering to the responsibility of seeing the nation that changed and destroyed those men with clear eyes and without sentiment. If Schaar is right that “the moral thrust of patriotism” is, by definition, “ambivalent” — if it is a kind of intelligence able, as Fitzgerald famously wrote in his 1936 essay “The Crack-Up,” “to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function” — maybe that can only happen when the patriot, as an artist or storyteller, takes on a story that is so big, so filled with Silks and Ringolds and Swedes and Gatsbys, so filled with modest beginnings and cruel endings, with history and potential, with everyday obligations and alluring lights across the bay, that the patriot’s own identity recedes. His, her, or their story becomes the nation’s story. This isn’t passive characterization at all. What Seldes missed about Nick Carraway in his Dial review, and what Luhrmann was faced with translating to the screen, is also what can easily be missed about Nathan Zuckerman in the American Trilogy: he isn’t actually blank; he is every word, every character, every secondhand story, every paragraph, every time jump. That’s the magic trick. That’s the setup and the punch line.
There’s an undeniably elegiac quality to these novels, a sense that patriotism is fading, a sense that the effort to balance individual freedom and social responsibility has amounted to the eradication of each. No one is really free, and no one belongs. But patriotism is not a condition, it’s not something you are; as Schaar and Marcus argue, patriotism names a choice, an action. Telling a story can be such an action. Fitzgerald through Nick Carraway, like Roth through Nathan Zuckerman, attempted to voice what the nation would rather not hear: that the question of patrimony still matters. He did this while the question was dissolving in his hands. The Great Gatsby reads like a letter written from a sinking ship. I’m not convinced Fitzgerald knew it would survive history, but I believe he knew that, if it did survive, if it could outlive the authorities who declare the past, its artifacts and its meanings, forever foreclosed, then his novel might resurface to show, through the death of a dream, how the nation must write for itself a new future made by upholding its promises, or else die altogether, if it wasn’t already too late.
On some nights, reading the news while the sky brightens, I hate this nation, my nation, where I was born and where I live, because despite its every failure and regression I’ve been dumb enough for decades to believe in it and to call it mine and to think it can change for the better. But as I finish this review, nearly 120,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, new cases are skyrocketing in some states, and Trump is saying mission accomplished. Tens of millions remain out of work. A Minneapolis police officer has casually killed George Floyd under his knee. Breonna Taylor has been murdered by the police. Ahmaud Arbery. Tony McDade. Rayshard Brooks. A week ago, Trump was on the verge of turning every American city into Kent State/Jackson State circa May 1970. Does the nation still exist, and if it does, does it deserve to?
Disenchantment isn’t a deep enough word for this feeling; disenchantment comes after that first blow, the blow Nick Carraway, 30 years old and still naïve, takes at the end of The Great Gatsby. What is the word for repeated disenchantment? What is the word for a cycle of cautious optimism, wincing reassessment, and sinking despair? Is that what breeds ambivalence? What is the difference between ambivalence and hopelessness? Whatever it is that fills my 45-year-old brain, I suspect I’ve become morally thin, or a fraud, fat and tired, or a stone. Or I suspect that I’ve always been those things. But maybe I’ve just always been stupid. Maybe I’ve continually underestimated the grip of white supremacy, the alliance of conservatism and toxic individualism, and neoliberalism’s passive complicity. Where can patriotism find even a foothold amid all that?
It is like seeing our national future slip away — and if that’s true, then it’s also true that, as I watch the uprisings, the fires, the highway marches, the die-ins, the standoffs with riot police, I am watching people of all tribes, most of them young, some of them my students, catch that future by the tail and say, “No.” “No” to nothing can be done. “No” to there is no alternative. “No” to the USA as a dead dream.
Who are the protestors in Minneapolis, Portland, Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis, Seattle, and here in Columbus, in all 50 states, if not patriots? Pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed, maced, flash-banged, beaten with batons, run over by police horses and SUVs, their skin welted, their eyes blown out, the protestors on the front lines, in their peaceful rage and even in their destructiveness, are calling this nation to account. The American patriot is the person who, embodying the debts and possibilities of American life, dramatizes them in view of others. Not so they can exercise their right to get a haircut or chug a lite beer at Applebee’s, but so they, their neighbors, their fellow citizens, and strangers who they may never meet might live in a more just and equitable nation. They’re saying that whatever the American reality, or even the American fate, the possibilities of […] harmony can’t be decently abandoned; that harmony is a necessity if Americans are to even come close to keeping the promises on which America was founded. Harmony is impossible without equity, just as peace is impossible without justice.
In the brief final chapter of Under the Red White and Blue, entitled “A Fable,” Marcus argues that The Great Gatsby is not just a “social document,” a portrait of the Jazz Age, which is how we tend to read (and teach) it. It’s also a meditation on the echoes of the originary impulses of this nation and the conflicts inherent in them, inherent in the “twinned images” of Gatsby’s dead dream and the Dutch sailors’ apprehension of the “fresh green breast” of America — which is to say, the contradiction of “all men” being “created equal” while Black men and women were enslaved, the valuing of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” while indigenous Americans were slaughtered. For some of us, the language written in 1776 on that single piece of parchment is corrupt because the promises it made were already broken. But one reason the Declaration of Independence is so powerful is the same reason Fitzgerald’s novel has remained so engrained yet oddly flexible within American culture: its language. The language carries the idea, and the historicity of each text cannot withhold or erase it. The language, writes Marcus, is the “siren song that call[s]” us to engage with the historical idea and believe that we might remix it, revise it, or add to it. Without the language of the idea written on that single piece of parchment in 1776, there would only be the monoculture Rich Lowry defends, a culture without possibility. Whether the signers of the Declaration or F. Scott Fitzgerald entirely knew what they were doing is beside the point. They put the words down and we’re running with them.
This glossy rotten nation, which has never come close to keeping its promises, never come close to living up to its creed and its potential, needs to be remade. Not reformed. Revolutionized. The value of Under the Red White and Blue at this moment, or at least the value that I, with my buckets of pessimism, emerged with, is that it demonstrates how one cultural text might become so commonplace that no one will notice that you’ve seized it and rewritten it until it’s too late. If it can be done with The Great Gatsby, why not with that other misunderstood classic, patriotism itself? There’s a lot of work to do, though. The absurdity of asking Black Americans, or any other dispossessed Americans, to honor a debt to the nation is that the obligation has never been reciprocated to them to the full extent of its promise. But the language of the contract is right there for everyone to read and we must ask if it still matters. The hypocrisy of this nation may mean that the clearest patriotism is the one in which disenchantment, courage, and stubbornness can’t be separated. (After that more famous sentence from “The Crack-Up,” Fitzgerald goes on to write, “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”) Even if it’s just the patriotism of the honest appraisal, the willingness to hold the nation to account, to take its promises seriously — if that alone is the patriotism that can be recovered from white-nationalist cant and camouflage, then it has the potential to be radical because it calls for a national, civic unfinishing.
A few days ago, I drove through downtown up High Street past the statehouse and the boarded-up windows of banks and hotels and travel agencies and restaurants. In the Short North, from the overpass to the empty patio of Standard Hall, the real ugliness was the concrete barriers and pipe scaffolding of the ongoing construction projects, the high-rise condos, the mixed-use brownstones, and the bespoke boutiques that have been driving out Black and brown artists for years now. But there was also graffiti and street art on the plywood sheets and brick walls, shouting in colorful dissent, shouting for Black lives, shouting the words of slain Black leaders, shouting justice for George Floyd, shouting justice for Ty’re King, Henry Green, and Jaron Thomas — art of the heartbroken, art that is fundamentally, adamantly patriotic. I have no idea if this outpouring of protest will last. This city’s government, its business leaders, and its police, like most, are so entrenched in the normalcy of oppression. But if there can be a new patriotism, a rightful patrimony in which the nation is all of its people, to whom we each owe a debt, then I saw it in the art on High Street, and it was beautiful.
Robert Loss is an associate professor in the Department of Writing, Literature, and Philosophy at Columbus College of Art and Design. He is the author of Nothing Has Been Done Before: Seeking the New in 21st-Century American Popular Music (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).