Thursday, October 16, 2014

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Top 1%

Headlines and news pundits often refer to the 1%, a tiny slice of the American Pie granting flavors and satisfaction beyond the dreams of all other Americans. In fact, an online article by Peter Coy in BloombergBusinessweek, reports that a mere 16,000 Americans who enjoy the 1%-status and hold $6 trillion in assets, an amount equal to the total wealth of the bottom 2/3 of America’s other citizens. 

The 0.1% of those 1% enjoy the same unimaginable wealth as did the Ruling Class and Robber Barons of the 1920s. According to the same article in BloombergBusinessweek, “The richest 0.1 percent of the American population has rebuilt its share of wealth back to where it was in the Roaring Twenties” and, not surprisingly, if any one of us wishes to be richer than the rich, filthy rich, some might say, then we need to begin life with wealth. Indeed, this decade of the twenty-first century is a new gilded age, making Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, timely.

Tom and Daisy Buchanan are Fitzgerald’s versions of the 1%. Tom inherited wealth, and Daisy married it. They live in what some might call a palace set on Long Island’s East Egg, Fitzgerald’s fictional version of the North Shore or Gold Coast where grand homes allowed the upper crust to flee the stifling city in favor of sea breezes. They had the freedom to live apart from the huddled masses, and they did.

Tom is not averse to mixing it up with those masses. He has a common mistress who lives above her husband’s auto repair garage. She lies beside a husband with grease under his fingernails, but her true intimate partner is Tom who pays for less sooty residence in New York City where they can see each other and party.

Myrtle can pretend that she belongs to Tom and his class except, of course, when she slips, letting pretense inspire her to assert her will and desire. Then Tom puts her in her place, feeling empowered to slap her into submission, a privilege that derives from his gender as much as his wealth. Myrtle is a toy, an object of sexual desire; she is prey.

Myrtle longs to escape the filth of her circumstances. She longs to be free of common George and trade the life into which she was born and married for the one Tom Buchanan could offer. Her longing makes her vulnerable and stupid. She behaves as if Tom would depose Daisy and raise up Myrtle.

The sun sets before those who wish to climb the ladder to wealth attain
the top rung whereas for those born to wealth, the sun never sets.
Photo by Al Griffin
Jay Gatsby makes a similar error in judgment. He behaves as if money itself purges him of the sin of being born into humble circumstances, and thus, having acquired money, he presumes to think that Daisy will forsake Tom and the Buchanan name for Jay Gatsby and his dodgey reputation. He’s wrong.

The 1% make the rules, and one of those rules is that opportunities for admission into their company closed long ago. They alone reserve the right to grant temporary passage and camaraderie, but these are fleeting. Only those born to wealth may remain, and only those with inherited wealth deserve their regard.

Tom Buchanan’s politics could be taken from a right-wing playbook written today or from a European in the late nineteenth century when the common man had the daring and conviction to assert his will, tearing down old institutions and demanding a living wage as well as rights to vote and hold office. Tom, like most powerful people, worries that he and his kind will one day be overrun, and this worry makes him a bully.

Buchanan bullies Gatsby, emasculating him by showing him where Daisy’s loyalties lie. He bullies Myrtle by striking her, then failing to mourn her when her foolish notions put her in the path of an oncoming car. Tom callously and cleverly assigns blame for Myrtle’s death to Gatsby, thereby eliminating him too.

Fitzgerald reveals the ruling class to be irresponsible, undeserving, and blind to the needs of others, exactly the same charges leveled against them in 2014.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Writing Challenge:

Respond to these words from The Great Gatsby: “Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!”