Throwing Great Gatsby parties ignores Fitzgerald’s critiques

The novel The Great Gatsby is an American classic but here is an argument that a number of people have misinterpreted the point:

Gatsby parties are common, but this one stands out for its extravagance—the expected outlay was $20,000—and the particular irony of its locale. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby after dropping out of Princeton, once called the school “the pleasantest country club in America,” which is one of those great insults that sounds like a compliment to those being held out for criticism.

So it is with Gatsby parties, as well. It spoils neither the book nor the new film adaptation, which opens in US theaters on May 10, to say The Great Gatsby is a critique of the American dream. It peels back a gilded veneer of success to reveal the hollow, rotting underbelly of class and capital in the early 1920s. Jay Gatsby’s weekend-long parties are lavish indictments of the whole, hard-charging scene that propelled him to sudden, extraordinary, unscrupulous wealth—”a new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about,” as Fitzgerald writes toward the end.

Yet so many people seem enchanted enough by the decadence described in Fitzgerald’s book to ignore its fairly obvious message of condemnation. Gatsby parties can be found all over town. They are staples of spring on many Ivy League campuses and a frequent theme of galas in Manhattan. Just the other day, vacation rental startup Airbnb sent out invitations to a “Gatsby-inspired soiree” at a multi-million-dollar home on Long Island, seemingly oblivious to the novel’s undertones.

It’s like throwing a Lolita-themed children’s birthday party.

Perhaps all of this suggests Americans haven’t changed all that much since the 1920s: many still desire to move up and have the ability to spend money in lavish ways. This argument makes me think of Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption,” the behavior of spending money in such a way to show others that you can afford to waste that money. Isn’t that what the Gatsby parties are about? Having a good time doesn’t necessarily require much beyond the people involved but having a lavish and memorable experience, particularly one that is noticed by others, requires more resources.

Only 4% of Americans make it from the bottom to the top in income

A recent report from Pew suggests the rags-to-riches story is uncommon in American life:

While the U.S. is known as the land of opportunity — where everyone has an equal chance to succeed — one’s family’s socioeconomic status can impede success. A report from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, a study assessing the health and status of the American dream, found that people raised in low-­income families often stay in the same economic bracket as their parents. Those raised in higher-income families stay up.

While 84 percent of Americans have higher family incomes than their parents, only 4 percent of those in lower-income families leaped to the top. The rags-to-riches story, the report said, happens in movies, but rarely in reality.

This isn’t the first source to argue this.

However, I wonder if this 4% really differs from what is displayed in American culture. How many books, movies, magazines, songs, and more suggest a rags-to-riches story? Many people have heard the name of Horatio Alger and his writings but how many American stories really follow this theme? How much does it differ from other cultures? If 84% of Americans do indeed have higher incomes than their parents, couldn’t there be some truth in cultural stories that depict “moving up” but not becoming fabulously wealthy? There would be ways to do a comprehensive study of American stories and media output to see how prevalent the “rags to riches” story really is but it would take a lot of work and simply counting numbers doesn’t easily translate into the impact a small amount of stories could have.

Generation R(ecession)

This isn’t the first article or commentator to suggest that the current generation of roughly 20-somethings will be profoundly affected by the current economic malaise. But sociologist Maria Kafelas provides some insights into what she terms Generation R:

[Generation R] were born between 1980 and 1990. They’re the children of the baby boomers…

Working class kids said to us, “Listen, we’re going to be the first generation of Americans to do worse than our parents.” One young woman said, “I just feel burned. My friends who didn’t go to college, they don’t have debt and they’re making more an hour than I am.”…

[A working class girl who went to college] actually said, “I don’t even know why I spent the money.” The middle class kids were saying, “It’s very tough, I am filled with anxiety. I can’t sleep at night, but I still believe in a college degree. I’m just going to have to work harder and it’s going to take longer.” And those elite kids said, “Is there really a recession? It’s more like — it’s just harder for me to get a job.” And they’re sitting out this recession in a lot of ways…

They now talk a great deal about not wasting money; conspicuous consumption they say has gone out of fashion. And they don’t want to be seen as throwing money around when their families are eating into their resources to keep them afloat, etc.

If these characteristics do mark this current generation, their beliefs and practices would affect a number of institutions: higher education (and the education system in general), the economy (with more measured consumption practices), the relationship between generations (perhaps being the first generation in a while whose life is not markedly better), and perhaps more (government – for letting this all happen, financial institutions – for helping to make this happen, etc.).

But these comments from Kefalas also highlight the class differences that are exacerbated in these difficult economic times. For the elite, not a whole lot has changed. The middle class may still believe in college and the value of hard work. But it is the working and lower classes that might really have a lack of hope as the ways to move up, such as a college education, seem to be further out of reach.