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Sarah Churchwell on The Great Gatsby

Sarah Churchwell is Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of East Anglia. She received her BA from Vassar College and her MA and PhD from Princeton University. She has taught at East Anglia since 1999. She is the author of widely discussed books including The Many Lives of […]

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This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
And we're coming to you from the Stanford campus.
[ Music ]
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It doesn't hurt to recall the full name of this radio show from time to time.
Entitled opinions about life and literature.
We don't use the full title much anymore because during the nine years we've been on air.
Entitled opinions has dealt with a great many topics that exceed that rubric.
We've talked a lot about science, philosophy, medicine, animal rights, birds, geography,
constitutional law, religion, linguistics, biotechnology, hermaphrodites, photography,
and so much more.
Should I go on? I will go on.
Inflationary cosmology, the brain, transhumanism, psychoanalysis,
and don't forget the doors.
Don't forget Jimi Hendrix.
Don't forget Pink Floyd.
But it's always good to go back to our founding article,
which is the intersection of life and literature.
I have a special guest with me in the studio today,
and we're going to be talking about how these two realms of life and literature come together.
In the work of America's most beloved author, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
And his book, The Great Gatsby in particular.
So stay tuned. You're not going to want to miss this one.
F. Scott Fitzgerald. Coming up.
So let's start over. My name is Robert Harrison,
and the show is called "Intitled Opinions About Life and Literature."
"Intitled Opinions for Short."
I've said it before, and I'll say it again.
"The phrase, "Life and Literature" is for me,
and I believe for my guest, "Plionastic."
Why is that? It's because life seeps into and saturates the kind of literature
that we want to read, and that bears rereading.
Now that's not what most of my professors of literature believed
back at Cornell University when I went to graduate school.
It seemed like the first order of business back then
was to disabuse students of the naive notion that literature is about life,
that books refer to reality, and that they have something to do with experience.
No, the text refers first and foremost to itself, to its own textuality.
I remember Jay Hillis Miller a few years back giving a lecture here at Stanford about how
the world of fiction is a world unto itself, that its characters belong to the world of
fiction alone, and that we should not imagine that Lord Jim, for instance,
is about anything like honor, disgrace, fate.
No, Jim is a character in a book, and his story belongs only
to the self-referential world of the book.
I couldn't resist asking him from the audience what Joseph Conrad
possibly could have meant then when in his preface to Lord Jim,
he declared, I quote, "My Jim is not a type of wide commonness,
but I can safely assure my readers that he is not the product of coldly
perverted thinking.
He's not a figure of northern mists, either.
One sunny morning in the commonplace surroundings of an eastern roadstead,
I saw his form pass by, appealing, significant, under a cloud, perfectly silence,
which is, as it should be, it was for me with all the sympathy of which I was capable
to seek fit words for his meaning.
He was one of us."
Now, I'd like Jay Hillis Miller.
He's an excellent literary critic, especially before his deconstructive turn,
and it was a little sad for me to see him try to spin his way out of that one.
The guest who joins me today is Sarah Churchwell,
Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities,
great title, Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities,
at the University of East Anglia in England.
She has just recently published a widely reviewed and much acclaimed book on the Great Gaspy.
It's called, "Carolus People, Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby."
We'll be talking about that book shortly, but first, let me welcome her to the program,
Sarah, thank you for joining us today on entitled "Pinions."
Thanks very much for having me.
We didn't talk that much before our on-air moment about this life and literature deal.
I don't know if there are things in my introduction that you agree with,
or some that you might want to take issue with, but maybe we could start by
you telling us how you see the relations between life and literature,
given that you've written a book on the Great Gatsby, which is transitive in the sense that it incorporates
elements of the historical world that he fits through, or belong to.
Well, yeah, let me say I was really interested to hear your remarks,
because I had a very similar experience.
When I was in grad school, I was also taught that life had nothing to do with this,
and that we needed. And of course, for anybody who's sufficiently into literature to go to grad school to study it,
that's something that we're sympathetic to, that's something we're primed and ready to hear that literature is all encompassing,
and it's all that matters.
But yeah, the more I read it and the more I read around it,
and the more I learn about other things, the more I become convinced that not only does itself evidently have to do with the world around it,
it's itself a fiction to pretend that it doesn't, and I'm not sure it's particularly useful fiction.
In fact, I think it's a counterproductive fiction. I think it's a fiction that helps foment the idea that literature is irrelevant,
that literature is for dilla-tons, that literature has nothing to teach us.
And I think a lot of us are becoming apostates to that belief system that we were, you know, that was inculcated in us.
And I find myself wondering why I would want a literature that was disconnected from the world.
What would that even mean? How would it have any resonance for us?
One of the things that I said in the preface to my book about thinking about the relationship between the great Gatsby and the world around it is that there seems to be this fear that if you talk too much about the relationship of art to life,
you will somehow diminish the art, and that the art will just be reduced to the lead in facts that may or may not have inspired it,
what you want to do is to look at the gold that the artist wrought out of those, you know, that initial lump, you know, whatever your metaphor is for, you know, the diamond that got polished, whatever it is, you don't want to return to that carbon lump of carbon.
But the more I thought about it, the more it seems to me that art, and this is what I say in the book, is that art doesn't shrink when it comes in contact with reality at expanse.
And what happens is we actually learn more about the art and we learn more, we are responsive to more of what it has to say, and we're better readers and we're better listeners and we stop having this kind of artificial schism, this false dichotomy that says there's art on the one side and life on the other.
And I don't think that any of the writers that you mentioned Conrad Fitzgerald, we could talk about Melville, we could talk about, you know, Hemingway, we could talk about any of Faulkner.
I don't think any of them would welcome their art being treated as if it were, you know, a ship in a glass bottle.
No, I agree. On the other hand, let me play a kind of devil's advocate, which I'm not natural, I usually I'm echoing what you've just said.
On the other hand, it is true that Aristotle, for example, in his poetics distinguishes between poetry and history and says that poetry is universal.
History is particular.
And therefore, there's a truth to tragedy, for example, Greek tragedy or let's say fiction, that is of us different order than the order of empirical reality.
And that we turn to literature to also immerse ourselves in a truth that can take place only, I believe, within literary medium as opposed to a journalistic account no matter how embellished of an event.
So you say that it makes us better readers to know the historical reality out of which a work of fiction is emerging, I agree with that.
What does the author have to do to make sure that his novel or her novel transcends that particularity of history and attains the universality that Aristotle was speaking about?
Yeah, I mean, in one sense, if I could answer that question, I could go do it myself. I go right a universal novel for the ages.
But absolutely, that is what clearly, that is what makes literature as they say, you know, stam the test of time in the cliche.
And I think it's instructive to talk about this question in relationship to a novel like Gatsby, because of course one of the messages of the great Gatsby if we want to reduce it to messages or one of its truths is that the imagination is superior to writing.
It is a book that comes squarely down on the side of preferring our imagination. And in fact, arguing that reality is inevitably disappointing and it's a disillusioning and it's a novel that says we like the illusions.
And you could certainly see that as a kind of analogy for the question of the relationship between life and literature. It's a book that chooses the literary imagination.
It's a book that chooses figuration and symbolism over.
It's a book that's rejecting literalistic notions. And it's doing that not just in terms of its conception of history or of America or of its characters, but also in its very language where Fitzgerald is working very hard to make that language figurative in ways that make it explode off the page.
So it's not so much that I think that my own feeling, as I said a moment ago, is that we've created a false dichotomy and it's too simplistic.
It's not that I want to reject any of that. That is absolutely constitutive to me of what literature is and does and is for.
But I think there are added pleasures to be found and we're denying ourselves those pleasures. So the context is always key.
We know that. That's how language works. If we don't have sufficient context, we actually don't know what anybody is talking about.
And it turns out that most of our great literature is work that can be read in various contexts. That's part of the way that it works.
But I am somebody who believes that the original context and the questions of what the author was actually, I mean, we were talking earlier about all the truths of graduate school, you know, in literary criticism.
And of course one of them is the intentional fallacy. What the author intends doesn't matter has nothing to do with it.
Well again, I feel slightly resistant to that idea now after many years. I think maybe the author's intention does have something to do with it.
They're trying to create certain kinds of patterns, trying to create certain kinds of meanings, but they're also in many cases trying to replicate, or that's not the right word. They're trying to reflect upon the world around them.
And yeah, I don't know how it is in East Anglia where you teach. I found that in the last decade or two, there is, I find very few people who are insisting as they used to do in this autonomy of the literary work.
If anything, there's a danger in my view of the opposite reaction, which is that literature is just one more form, one more document to be looked at historically.
And there's a kind of historicism that is aggressively pro-historical reality.
But I want to come back to something you were saying about the great Gatsby giving a certain priority to the imagination over reality, or preferring it, or championing it.
And here I'd like to ask you whether -- let me see how I can put this.
For me, Fitzgerald is a quintessentially American novelist, modern American novelist, where it seems almost a law of necessity that to be a great American novelist, your novel has to end in some form of disappointment.
And a strangement from the social order and a sense of disillusionment.
What you were saying about the imagination is it something that one can extend beyond Fitzgerald himself and say that there is something in the American psyche that he's describing, which is so wedded to impossible illusions or dreams or fantasies, that,
the encounter between the imagination and reality is bound to be something of a collision, and that reality will always win out in that collision.
I mean, if we think about America as a great social experiment, as one of the nations in history that has tried to create, that has tried to manufacture its own country out of something that didn't organically develop through language or shared religion or cultural ties.
I mean, even the other national experiments say Israel or, say, the Soviet Union were countries that had -- although they were manufactured politically, they had certain kinds of continuities within them, right?
So with Israel, obviously, you've got a religious coherence.
With the Soviet Union, you've got shared cultural or geographical coherences.
With America, I think uniquely, although I'm ready to be corrected if I'm wrong, you don't have any of those kinds of coherences, all you have as an idea or a series of ideas to try to hold this country together.
What that means is that for all the people who come to it, from wherever they come to it, America starts to symbolize this particular aspect of human experience, the hope that there might be a better place, that we might be able to create a place that was meritocratic, that we might be able to create a place where people could.
Make their aspirations come true, etc., etc., all of the things that we now call the American dream.
As somebody who's lived abroad for 15 years, it has interested me the way that my experience has been that some people think that America is uniquely trying to kind of appropriate that notion of hope and optimism and aspiration.
And that's probably true of some Americans, but what I try to say is it seems to me that America is just unique in trying to create a place where that could happen.
But it's supposed to be, by definition, it's supposed to be a place for anybody in the world to come to.
So that sense that we all hope for something better.
And then the human condition being what it is, human nature being what it is, greed being something of a problem that we don't seem to be able to get under control.
The question of what the individual's relationship is to the social, all of those sorts of things that America and obviously many, many countries in the world right now are dealing with is something that I think you can't get away from.
But what makes America's encounter with it a little bit different is that, especially for somebody like Fitzgerald, it starts out as a place of so much hope.
It's such high hopes for it that disappointment is all the stronger, all the deeper.
Well, let me be a little more radical than in my formulation.
If there's such a thing as an American soul, which you may not want to concede because you said America is a strong person.
America is only held together by an idea of a kind of hope of a maluhration of making your life better.
But when I look at American literature, I see such a recurrence of not just hope for a better life or more wealth.
But a wettedness to impossibility desires that are impossible to realize that there is an almost otherworldly nostalgia that sets up this necessary train wreck that you get, whether it's Ahab and the white whale or whether it's Fitzgerald's heroes who either disappear in a Bolivian like Tinder is a knight or Gatsby.
I'm wondering if there is, in addition to the idea that America is the place where you can make your life better, there is also some underlying impossibility within the psyche.
And the great American novel are the ones who probate the best.
Well, the great American critic Alfred Kazon said some years ago now that any country is preoccupied by success as America is always also going to be preoccupied by failure and that we're never going to be able to get away from it.
And I absolutely think that that's true.
And the sense that failure is persistent, inescapable as hard a truth as hope.
Yes, absolutely. And I think that the tension between the two is something that drives much of our, not just our literature, but our most of our great popular art film, music, you name it.
So Sarah, your recent book is called "Careless People, Murder Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby." If we can go through just the title of the, not word by word, but how are we?
Let's talk about that.
Let's talk about careless people because it's, care is a loaded word, especially in this year when Fitzgerald is writing this novel in, I guess, 22 to 24.
Well, he writes it in 24. Yeah.
At the same time, Martin Heidegger on the other side is writing, being in time where he's trying to get to what is the essence of our human existence. And he defines it as care.
That to be, the design means to be thrown into care and that we care, not only about our lives, but it's, anyway.
It's, it's an interesting word choice for you because careless does it mean that these are carefree people because it's the 1920s and the roaring 20s is the jazz age, the gilded age. Is it careless in that, in that sense of carefreeness or is it that they're lacking somehow in this core essence of care?
Well, of course, the phrase comes from the great God's be Fitzgerald uses it. In fact, he uses it twice in the novel once for Jordan to describe careless drivers. And she says, I hate careless people. That's why I like you. She says to Nick Caraway.
But the more famous instance of the phrase is at the end of the novel when Nick uses it to indict Tom and Daisy Buchanan together, which I think is really significant, that it's actually both of them.
He says they were careless people, Tom and Daisy. They smashed up people and things and then retreated back into their vast wealth or their carelessness or whatever it was that held them together.
So he's seen carelessness by that point of the story and of his conception of the America that he is depicting here. He is definitely talking about carelessness as recklessness and heedlessness and waste.
I think is something that we are accustomed to thinking about in terms of contemporary literature with pension and delilo. But Fitzgerald is very much thinking about waste as he's writing both this and tenders the night which you've already mentioned.
But certainly in some of his other works and therefore in his imagination, in his literary sensibility, the word careless can also and does also denote carefree and in exactly the ways that you were saying.
So for me, it's a word, and we were talking earlier about the importance of figurative understandings of literature and not having a kind of deadening historicism that doesn't alert to the ways in which language is not just transparent.
And of course that's one of the main ways for most of us that literature is distinguished from historiography as it's interest in figuration.
Fitzgerald is certainly a preeminent figurative writer. So he likes words that have lots and lots of meanings.
For my point of view, the reason why I chose the title "Careless People" is because my book actually has three strands. One describes Scott and Zelda and the world of prohibition New York in the years that Gatsby is set and that Fitzgerald was writing it between 1922 and 1924.
It also describes, I'm jumping ahead a little bit here, but the next word which is murder, there was a murder case that I discovered that comes at the end of 1922 that I think has lots of resonances with the great Gatsby.
And the story of that murder investigation is nothing if not a story of careless people.
Is it similar to the murder of Gatsby?
Let me just finish the thought on careless people and then we can come back to that because for me what happened is I wrote this book that it became, I described it as a biography of a book and that's what I was trying to do and what it became eventually though was in my mind a kind of nonfiction echo of Gatsby.
And therefore I wanted to try to pick up on the themes of Gatsby as much as I could and one of the UK reviewers of the book took issue with me for not talking more about the European influences on Gatsby in this book.
And I was slightly bemused by that criticism because to me it's a book about America and therefore my book has to be a book about America.
And I started writing my book in 2009 and I find myself writing about a young man who goes to New York to make his fortune and discovers the forces of corruption and power and I'm reading about Ponzi schemes in 1922 as I'm reading about Bernie Madoff in the New York Times as I'm writing this book.
And so for me one of the subtext of careless people is that it also has to describe Americans in the American 20th century in the so called American century that that's part of Fitzgerald prescience,
is his ability to see that carelessness is an indictment of the whole country. And so for me that's something that starts to resonate across the different strands of my story, but yes one of them is definitely this murder case.
So you find a lot of parallels between his the age that he's describing and the America we live in but also is it even more the case in perhaps certain places in Europe that where you have a gilded age unbelievable at present.
Yeah, I mean I can only speak anecdotally on this on this point not from personal experience but I have I have long thought when people ask me who would J. Gatsby be if he lived today I say I think he'd be a Russian mobster.
He'd be a Russian mobster art collector who has bought his big mansion and is a thug but actually has the soul of an artist and wants to want aspires to greater things but has made his way through the world in brutal and devious ways.
And so I think that was recently in India for the Jaipur literary festival and I didn't know whether Gatsby was even popular in India whether it was taught in India and many of the people there was and it's a huge festival there are lots of people there and they said it's very popular it's taught in many schools and they definitely felt that there were strong parallels with their own country with the explosion of the middle class with the sense of this new affluence and again people talk about this in terms of China obviously as well these new billionaires.
And the disdain of old money the perpetual disdain of old money for the tastelessness of new all of these sorts of themes are you know that it and it makes sense that those those are cultures that are going through similar seismic changes to the ones that America went through a century ago.
Can we go back to the notion of the careless is there in Fitzgerald's novel the great Gatsby or any other of this works a antidote to carelessness does he have a vision of what it would take to heal the nation or the of a certain elite capitalist class from its carelessness if it's so endemic to an entire class.
If not the entire nation or does he despair of it having any corrective.
That's a really good question and as I think through his work certainly increasingly he
the despair of it having any any corrective by the time he's writing tenders the night in the last tycoon he's not holding out a lot of hope.
But in Gatsby does he does he I think your I mean I think the implication of your question is exactly right which is that care wouldn't be sufficient to take care of it as it were that's maybe badly put but the.
This may sound too fastle but I do think that in so far he I don't think he thinks there's a corrective but I think he thinks that they're mitigating and a miliorative.
Conditions and that art is definitely one of them he was not religious was he was he was he was raised Catholic and he was lapsed Catholic to be sure.
He actually wrote a wonderful story called absolution which is he published in 1924 as he was working on Gatsby and it was originally meant to be J. Gatsby's backstory and he eventually decided he said that it that it that it.
That it conflicted with the neatness of his overall pattern for the novel so he decided to cut it and he published it separately as a story but it's about a young man rejecting Catholicism and deciding that there is something beautiful in the world that is absolutely nothing to do with God.
That's the epiphany that this young man has this kind of secular affirmation of faith in beauty is something that Fitzgerald would come back to again and again but what I've said about his faith before is that his faith may have lapsed but it didn't expire entirely.
Well that's that's often the case with.
You have early on instilled in in you a sense of this sacramental nature of things here on earth that you can you don't need God for them to retain their charisma and a certain mystical.
Symbolic quality to them do you find that there are in Fitzgerald's novels and short stories.
Symbols objects that take on a they glow with a certain halo of a well-ismistical light give you a green light.
One of the most famous symbols in American literature you know every every high school student in America is written an essay about the meeting of the green light.
Look yeah absolutely I remind our readers what the green light is.
Of course so the green light is the symbol in the great gods before J. Gadsby's hope it's the symbol for his aspirations.
It is literally in the novel it is a green light on the end of Daisy Buchanan's doc that he can see across the water from his house.
And so there it it for him it symbolizes the possibility of bridging the gap between them this hope but it's it's become this very famous symbol for for all kinds of reasons but one of the things that I think is
interesting about it is a symbol is that is that certainly in in Anglo American culture green has some pretty consistent meanings it means hope it means spring but it also means envy and in America it means the color of money.
And so all of those meanings are sort of wrapped up in the green light and then there is what turns out to be a slightly interesting question about whether green light mean go in Fitzgerald's imagination is that a meaning that's yet available to be a
and a meaning that's yet available to him or is that later and something that we superimpose on the novel it turns out that it is a meaning to give the short version it turns out it is a meaning that was available to him and so the green light may also mean go but the green light is is the most famous for various reasons but it is not the only symbol in the novel and it is a novel that is full of to use Fitzgerald's own phrase for it enchanted objects that's what he that's what he calls them and that is a very Catholic imagination as you say this the sense of that there's a mystical aura.
or and that these objects can be imbued with this power that's beyond that is literally transcends their own you know kind of sublunary meanings and that sense of a metaphysical level to objects is what leads jigats be a stray but it's also what the artist has to be able to register and so there's a kind of ambivalence and irony in the novel that I think gives it a really interesting tension on the one hand.
It's Gerald loves enchanted objects and he feels that they give our world a beauty in a grandeur that it doesn't always have but then or otherwise have but then he knows that they lead people of stray and that what it becomes is just a chase for a chase after empty material objects and so this question of what is the value of an object is actually a question that the novel asks I like your phrase that he has a the question whether he has a sacramental imagination and I would say he absolutely does.
One of the things that happens at the end of the novel when I don't want to spoil it for listeners but I'm afraid to say jigats be dies it doesn't turn out well for him ends up deadness swimming pool.
And he's been shot by George Wilson and then when Nick Herway describes this scene he says you know they see jigats be body in the pool and then a little ways off they discover his killer George Wilson who has committed himself committed himself is committed suicide killed himself and they find his body off to the side and then Nick says the Holocaust was complete.
And many readers since that in the last few decades have have written expressing a certain amount of outrage at Fitzgerald's hyperbole in daring to compare to dead insignificant bodies to a Holocaust and there are aware of course the novel was published in 1925 and that the Holocaust as we know it hasn't happened yet but they still think that Holocaust means genocide but in fact in Fitzgerald's time the primary meaning of Holocaust was sacrifice.
And that's how Fitzgerald is imagining that as a sacrifice that's what he thinks that word means and I think he would be perturbed not to say appalled at the idea that that in fact he would see it as reductive and limiting to only think of it as genocide because he's trying to add by using that word.
That metaphysical layer to a consideration of what we have lost in losing jigats be.
Now in the lecture that you gave yesterday that I was at you talked about the green traffic lights and what green meant and how there was a lot of confusion about the green.
I don't remember now well enough the end where where Gatsby and Daisy run over or they have a car.
Is there a traffic light involved in that scene where they know there's not.
Because there weren't enough traffic lights around which is part of the problem.
So it turns out that there is a very straightforward reason for the preeminence that car crashes are given in the plot of Gatsby and it's because in 1922 to 1924 people in New York were crashing into each other all the time.
They didn't you know cars as I'm sure many people know in America you know at the beginning of the 1920s the cars are only for the very rich by the end of the 1920s anybody who's reasonably affluent has a car and it changes the landscape of the
America in all kinds of important ways but in 1922 when the novel is set people were they they didn't have licenses for drivers they didn't have any particular different rules about drunk driving versus sober driving mean they didn't approve of it but they didn't have any specific laws against it they didn't have seat belts they mostly didn't have any kind of traffic signals they didn't have stop signs the only rule was to look out for each other intersections and if you've been drinking a lot you might forget especially if you've been drinking you know bathtub gin prohibition whoo.
So they were all slamming into each other all the time and it sounds funny but of course it's very serious I mean the part of the reason why the laws changed was because it was clear that there was kind of carnage on the streets of New York on an almost daily basis.
Fitzgerald says that the newspapers described the car that runs over Myrtle Wilson they describe it as the death car and it turns out that that's a phrase that the New York papers were using to describe hit and run drivers they would call it the death car so he's absolutely.
bringing in contemporary discourse about crashes and accidents into the story.
Was that car yellow it am I remembering correctly it's cream colored because people tend to interpret that as yellow as yellow and there is but you're right because look I would say two things about that one is that.
In addition to its interest in symbolism.
So Gatsby I think is one of our greatest novels of color it is a novel that is full of color it is a riot of color and it is very very interested in color and it and it's part of the reason I think why people respond to the novel in such highly sensory ways because Fitzgerald is extremely good at stimulating sensory perception throughout the novel it's actually something that he does technically.
That's what Catholics are best absolutely he's really good at it so it is I think it's not an accident to use an apt word.
That we would remember questions about what the colors are in the novel because he makes it such a prominent theme and in fact in terms of the car that kills Myrtle it is there is a dispute about what the color of the car was so one of the witnesses thinks it's a green car and that's partly how.
The Buchanan's and Gatsby managed to get away with it in so far as they get away with it officially.
There is only unofficial vengeance and retribution but as far as the authorities are concerned it was just a terrible accident and nobody knows what happened but partly because they never get the color of the car right so it it lets them it lets Gatsby and Daisy hide.
The issue there also is that the question of who's driving right and that becomes a fairly obvious metaphor but I think one that has a certain amount of purchase in that world for you know who's responsible who's who's running who's running things around here who's running a show and it's Daisy was Daisy who was driving driving but he was willing to take the responsibility for.
The accident yeah well I think it's I mentioned earlier the the fact that I think it's really significant that Nick in Dights Tom and Daisy together when he calls them careless people and.
In this context it's worth returning to that which is to here's what happens at the end of the story.
Gatsby Myrtle and George Wilson are all dead and Daisy has not come to Gatsby's funeral she's just kind of left him which Nick is horrified by and startled by he thinks that she will keep thinking he'll hear from her.
And then he makes up his mind to go back to the Midwest because he's had enough of these corrupt people in New York and he's on fifth Avenue about to leave and he runs into Tom Bekani bumps into.
And he refuses to shake Tom's hand and Tom says at first kind of tries to bluster his way through it and says you know why won't you shake my hand and Nick guesses he says to Tom.
What did you say to George Wilson that day when he came to your house and at that point he doesn't actually know that George Wilson came to Tom's house but he's worked out that that's the most logical way that George Wilson would have found Gatsby's house.
And Tom at first tries to you know bluff his way out of it and then he admits it and he says what if I did that fellow had it coming he ran over Myrtle like you'd run over a dog and never even stopped.
And Nick's response to that is there was nothing I could say except the one unutterable fact that it wasn't true.
They were careless people Tom and Daisy and then Daisy comes into it.
The way I read that it is open to interpretation but the way I read that is that the reason Nick can't say to Tom it isn't true is because what that means is that Tom doesn't know that Daisy was driving.
Daisy didn't tell him that she was at the wheel so it's not only that Gatsby is willing to take the fall for Daisy it's that Daisy is willing for Gatsby to take the fall for her and as it were throws him under the bus.
And she says or she lets Tom believe that Gatsby was driving and in Tom's mind that justifies Gatsby's murder.
So Daisy is equally to blame and I think it's really really important because for a lot of readers of this novel and this is very influenced by film adaptations they read it as a story of Star Cross lovers in which Daisy loves Gatsby but for some inexplicable reason isn't able to go off with him.
And for some inexplicable reason chooses Bruce Dern over Robert Redford in the 1974 version which never fails to make my head explode because who does that?
And part of the point is Daisy's carelessness. She cares about Gatsby in the most careless way.
Can I ask about Fitzgerald in the biography of the novel and I'm interested in whether Fitzgerald could be characterized in his own life and behavior as a careless person.
Oh yeah. And I think certainly by the end of his life he would have been the first to admit that. He knew that he had wasted a lot of his talent and that the word he always used to describe it was dissipated.
Which of course has that double meaning of decadence but also of entropy of letting it just float away from you.
And that's the word that he uses in his great story Babylon revisited.
Yeah it's squander. This is the amazing thing to me about a certain kind of capitalist economy where on the one hand there's a huge obsession with accumulation.
But that accumulation seems to correlate with extravagant squander and dissipation at the same time.
Yeah absolutely. And waste we were saying earlier this sense of waste on a vast national scale but also on a personal scale.
On the other hand the economy of the novel, the great Gatsby is so contained and restrained and it seems to be the counterpart of this kind of dissipation and squandering because it's tight.
As he read somewhere that he wanted to make it simple but intricate in its patterns and beautiful.
And it is self-contained in a way that doesn't correspond to the behavior of some of his characters.
It is rigorously controlled. It is an incredibly controlled novel. It's a prose poem.
And in many ways he learns from Keats he learns from, he is explicitly consciously thinking about this in terms of the economy of poetry.
And I think what gives some of the novel, some of its propulsive power is his.
And that sense we were talking about a minute ago rather of the ways in which when language can mean so many things at once.
It actually means that in a very economical way you can make meaning explode in the reader's head and it can go off on all these kind of radial angles.
And it's another kind of dissipation, a good kind of dissipation, diffusion of meaning or dispersion.
And I think that he definitely saw this novel as you were asking earlier about a corrective to carelessness.
He was concerned his art was in terms of his own life, absolutely his art was the corrective to carelessness but he could never quite, the carelessness kept winning.
He was going to give it a different title. I didn't know that until yesterday. What was a title that he first proposed?
Well actually the very first working title for the book was among the Ashheeps and Millionaires.
And that was what he was always picturing. The Ashheeps were real. Everybody remembers those famous Ashheeps in the novel.
But they actually existed in flushing between Manhattan and the Gold Coast of Long Island.
And that the world providing its own symbol there was something that he was very alert to.
This idea that literally next to juxtaposed with some of the greatest wealth of America were these vast mountains of waste of its own wasteland.
The novel is set in the same year that T.S. Eliot would publish the wasteland. So this sense that there is an American wasteland next to all of this opulence.
The starkness of that juxtaposition was always his conception of the novel.
But then as the novel evolved he realized that it was as it was always intended it was a novel about class and about social mobility and it was about the New
the New Vareesh. And Gatsby is New Vareesh Fitzgerald describes him in several of his letters as a part of the New. That's how he thinks about Gatsby.
And again that's something that maybe film versions don't want to focus on but certainly how Fitzgerald is conceiving the character.
And he therefore decides that what he really wants to call the novel is either Tromalchio or Tromalchio in West Egg.
And that's the title that he had on the manuscript when he submitted it to his publisher.
Tromalchio is a character in Patronius' Satiracon. And this is Tiamalchio's mostly lost but we have a couple of fragments that have survived and the Tromalchio fragment is the most extensive bit of it that's left.
And Tromalchio is a merchant. He's a part of a new merchant who's made a lot of money and is prone to boasting. He's prone to showing off.
He throws these opulent banquets and tries to impress everybody with his wealth and his name dropping.
People don't in my experience tend to notice that Gatsby is a name dropper at his parties but he is.
And that the sense of describing Gatsby as a Tromalchio which does survive in the final copy although he changed the title under protest.
He does continue to describe Gatsby as a Tromalchio at the end of one of his parties. He says his career as Tromalchio was over.
So he sees Gatsby as a Tromalchio figure as somebody who's vulgar, who's a name dropper, who's boastful.
And part of the poignancy of the novel is therefore the discovery that Gatsby despite being those things and a thug also has the soul of an artist and has a greatness to him.
That's the poignancy of it. He has to be slightly absurd in order for that poignancy to register.
But Fitzgerald's editors, his publishers, that Scribners did not think Tromalchio in West Egg was a commercial title and so they went with a great Gatsby.
But he actually wrote a letter saying I guess Gatsby is okay but in my heart it will always be Tromalchio.
Sarah, I have two questions that I can maybe put into one about Fitzgerald's relationship to Joseph Conrad.
I opened up my intro, I mentioned him because I gather that Conrad's aesthetic was an important influence on Fitzgerald.
And the second part of this would be something that you quoted yesterday in your talk about the genius of Fitzgerald to expose the underlying beauty of facts.
And the reason I bring in facts is because Lord Jim, the book that I referenced in my intro is all about one simple appalling fact as Marlow called it, namely Jim's jump from the ship, Patna, in a dark night.
And that creates a vortex about what is the meaning of the fact and how does everything get generated from this. It makes the fact so inscrutable and impenetrable and it's enigma.
And I don't know if you still have that quote that you referenced yesterday, I think by Taylor.
And where you said that he learned from Conrad to create this immense uncertainty around certain facts.
So can you say something about that?
Yeah, absolutely.
Fitzgerald learned a lot from Conrad and he was the first to admit it. Conrad was one of his Conrad and Keats are far and away the two most important writers in Fitzgerald's evolution as a novelist.
And Keats teaches him about language and Conrad teaches him about story and character to put it reductively.
And actually I should say Conrad teaches him about perspective and the importance of controlling perspective in the novel.
The most obvious way in which Fitzgerald owes a debt to Conrad in Gatsby is in his use of caraway as both a character and narrator.
And of course that's how Conrad uses Marlowe in Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness and in some of the other books.
Fitzgerald actually said around the time that he was working on Gatsby, I think it's in 23 he says this.
He was asked to name his favorite novel or what he thought, you know the great novel of the great novel of the future.
Anyway, he says James Joyce is the great novel of the future and that Conrad's Nostromo is the great novel of the past and that he said he wished that Nostromo,
more than any other novel Nostromo was the one he wished he had written.
And he says explicitly that's because he wished that he had invented Nostromo's character.
He says I wished I had been able to pull out that man out of the ether or whatever the right.
That's not the word he uses but that's the kind of idea of it.
And so he's I think they were all I mean Conrad was immensely admired at the time and they're all learning a lot about how to structure modern literature,
how to think about modern literature but also what its materials could be, what it could be about.
And one of the things that emerges in looking at the historical context of 1922 and 1923 as Fitzgerald is thinking about and beginning to draft Gatsby is how much contemporary literary discourse was focused on the question of what an American literature might look like.
And there wasn't a sense yet that they had an American literature and sometimes people don't realize that for example a book like Moby Dick which we take as such a classic.
Was had been forgotten.
It had not yet been rediscovered and that it was actually Melva's later book Billy Bud which comes out around the same time.
I think it's 1899 that it's published that might be wrong but it's basically within a few years of heart of darkness.
And they see Melville as a modernist like Conrad and they start to rediscover Melville because of the ways that he actually reminds them of Conrad.
So Conrad is helping writers like Fitzgerald figure out what this new modern American literature might look like.
So he is immensely important.
The other...
The thing about facts.
Yeah, the quotation that you ask about is from a music critic called Deem's Taylor.
Deem's Taylor has been almost entirely forgotten today but if anyone has seen Fantasia, the Disney film.
Deem's Taylor is the orchestrator before St. Kowsky comes out who has a chat with Mickey Mouse.
So that's his one claim to enduring history.
Deem's Taylor was a very influential music critic and a composer himself.
And he was an acquaintance a friend of Fitzgerald's from the years, the Long Island time that inspires Gatsby.
And Taylor read Gatsby and wrote Fitzgerald a letter right after it came out in the summer of 1925.
And he writes him and says, "You've got wells as gift of going after the beauty that's concealed under the facts and God damn it, that's all there is to art."
And I found this letter Fitzgerald saved the letter in his scrapbook and it hasn't really been published or used much.
It's in the archives.
Can you repeat it?
He's actually, he's talking about HG Wells who was another writer that they much admired although I think he's again slightly fallen out of favor.
What Conrad hasn't fallen out of favor obviously but well slightly has.
So I might take wells out of it just so I don't confuse the issue.
And what he says is, "You've got the gift of going after the beauty that's concealed under the facts and God damn it, that's all there is to art."
And you and I were having a discussion yesterday about what Taylor might mean by the facts.
And I have taken it to mean that he is talking about the facts of their world and the historical realities that Fitzgerald is picking up on and transforming in his novel.
And you suggested quite rightly that of course Taylor might also be talking about the literary facts, the facts of his own story, and that he's, and that without getting bogged down in his own facts he is finding the beauty underneath them.
And I certainly think that is, you know, it's a legitimate interpretation. In fact what I would say is that they're not mutually exclusive.
It's a line that haunted me as I started writing this novel because in this novel I didn't write a novel.
I wrote a nonfiction book, Literature 101. I've got to go back to school and work out the difference between fiction and nonfiction.
As I was writing this biography of a book, this line really did haunt me and because it felt like an arse poetica for exactly the question that we began this conversation with.
What is the relationship between life and literature? And that I started to feel very strongly as I was looking at, there were these really uncanny echoes of Gatsby in the years that it depicts.
So if you go to the newspapers of 1922, 1923, you find arguments about green lights. You find all of these car crashes. You find stories about mistaken identity. You find stories about class resentment. You find stories about people who make up aristocratic pasts and change their names. It's all there.
And some people might say that makes Fitzgerald a lesser artist that he was drawing on the things around him. But what struck me was that these stories themselves started to acquire their own kind of beauty. That history has its own patterns.
And I'm not sure that I see a lot of religion in pieces of toast. Maybe it's all just an accident. Maybe it's all just a coincidence. But it begs the question of where beauty resides and where do we legitimate?
It's as if we have these rules about where it's acceptable to find beauty and these rules about where it's not. And somehow we've decided that history isn't beautiful. But I started to feel that maybe it was and or could be that there were these sorts of patterns to be found there if you were alert to them.
Well, here's the question then for you. History can be beautiful. But perhaps it takes its passing and a certain pastness of history to become to reveal its beauty. Because if you think about it, the publication of great Gatsby in 25 or 26.
It was not a very successful novel. Perhaps because the history that imbues it was a little too present for its audience. And therefore it obscured perhaps the perception of the literary beauty that you're talking. But with distance, even that history becomes part of the artwork at such.
It's as if you've read the end of my book. Yeah, absolutely. That's exactly what I think. And what happened was for me, the research that I did, I didn't set out to answer this question. But it seemed to me that without meaning to I had. Which is the question of why the first readers of Gatsby didn't appreciate it.
And I think it is exactly what you just described that he was drawing so much on the detritus of the world around them. Those ash heaps that they all knew were real ash heaps. Well, they weren't they weren't sensitive to the symbolic possibilities of those ash heaps. They saw them as literal ash heaps.
So they only read the book in the most literal possible way. And what I came to feel was that Fitzgerald describes Gatsby in the beginning of the novel as somebody who is defined by his responsiveness. And then he likens him to a Geiger counter and says like he can register earthquakes 10,000 miles away.
And I came to feel that that responsiveness was something that was shared by Fitzgerald he was he was imparting that to Gatsby. And his responsiveness to the world around him when it goes back perhaps to the discussion about Catholicism was his sensitivity to the symbolic possibility of things around him.
And so to answer your question do I think that we that in order to see the beauty of history we had to achieve a certain kind of distance absolutely.
But also the measure of Fitzgerald's greatness was his ability to achieve that perspective without that distance. He could see it.
He saw those patterns that we all need hindsight to reveal to us and indeed we need Fitzgerald to reveal to us. I mean he was telling me to go look at green lights and without him pointing me in that direction I would never have gotten there.
He's the one who has this incredible intuitive ability to feel that these meanings are going to are going to amplify and augment. I mean let me give one little example and you could say this again these can always be coincidence they could be but it's remarkable how consistently this keeps happening.
The the Jewish gangster Wolfshine who is Gatsby's boss his company is called the swastika holding company and people wonder why Fitzgerald is a Jewish character with a swastika.
The answer is that swastika when Fitzgerald is writing is a very generic symbol it's like yin yang or aunk or something it doesn't yet mean fascism in the way that it does to us.
But it still strikes me as remarkable that he chooses the one symbol that would go on to have this incredible potency. He has a knack for identifying the potent symbols in the world around him.
His audience initially did not have that and what's happened now is that we've reversed the equation. We only see his transcendent meanings and we've lost touch entirely with the fact that he was writing a contemporary novel that had a lot to say about what was happening in the 1920s as well.
Fascinating stuff Sarah we've done justice that theme of life and literature couldn't have done better than that we've been speaking with Sarah Churchwell professor of American Literature and public understanding of the humanities who is visiting Stanford from the University of East Anglia in England.
And thank you very much for coming on next time you come to Stanford we'll get you back here in KZSU and continue this conversation.
I look forward to it.
Take care.