Gatsby as Gangster

By Pauly, Thomas H. | Studies in American Fiction, Autumn 1993 | Go to article overview
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Gatsby as Gangster


Pauly, Thomas H., Studies in American Fiction


In an article entitled "The Passing of the Gangster," published in the March 1925 issue of American Mercury, Herbert Asbury confidently offered the remarkable assertion: "there are now no more gangs in New York and no gangsters in the sense that the newspapers use the word." The surprising disparity between this contemporary evaluation of the crime scene and our perception of the 1920s as the heyday of gangsters hinges upon Asbury's belief that the gangsters of his age owed their notoriety to ambitious journalists, novelists, playwrights, and scriptwriters fiercely competing for audiences and paychecks. Asbury viewed these accounts as distortions of truth in support of a threadbare stereotype. "The moving picture and the stage," he pointed out, "have always portrayed the gangster as a low-browed person with an evilly glinting eye, a plaid cap drawn down over beetling brows and a swagger that in itself is enough to inform the world that here is a man bent on devilment." With obvious contempt, he counters: "in the main, the really dangerous gangster, the killer, was apt to be something of a dandy."(1) Asbury invoked his stylish gangster to return enthusiasts for these fictions to the hard fact that truly successful gangsters didn't make brazen displays of their intent.

Even though his article shrewdly appealed to the same interest in gangsters he was criticizing, Asbury little suspected that his revisionist proposal would be quickly embraced. Unwittingly his "dandy" anticipated the innovative gangster which F. Scott Fitzgerald introduced a few weeks later with the publication of The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby effectively overturned the dated assumption that gangsters were lowlifes from the Bowery and replaced it with an upscale figure who was enviably wealthy and fashionably stylish. Significantly, this portrayal was an outgrowth of actual changes in existing criminal conditions. Fitzgerald understood better than Asbury that since the advent of Prohibition, gangsters were, in fact, on the rise; not only were they gaining more wealth and power, but they were presuming to status and respectability as well. If Fitzgerald's Gatsby was solidly grounded in these historical developments, he too came perilously close to being an implausible gangster and a distortion of fact. Though readers still find Gatsby too romantic, too idealistic, and too naive to be a criminal success, Fitzgerald counteracted this impression by cloaking his gangster in mystery, then frustrating Nick's efforts to penetrate it, and finally suggesting that Gatsby, like Asbury's dandy, may be more dangerous than Nick realizes. If this elusive figure involved a significant modification of the actual gangsters on which Fitzgerald was drawing, he was not the specious fabrication that Asbury was decrying. To characterize Gatsby as a "dandy" might seem inappropriate since clothing is rather incidental to his depiction. This quality is communicated to Nick more by his other possessions than by his white suit, silver shirt, and gold tie-his palatial house, his grand parties, his fancy automobile, his hydroplane, and his library of real books. His flourish of expensive shirts late in the novel merely embellishes this image. This Gatsby is an ideal consumer in his expenditure of so much on the nonessential. He is a dandy who buys expensive merchandise to take on its desirability and to convince Daisy of his worthiness. These traits confirm the potency of a consumer culture and illuminate the social instability generated by the age's myriad products and aggressive advertising. The new credit economy of the 1920s accelerated social mobility and empowered a new ethos whereby merchandise rivaled background, profession, and merit as a determinant of status.(2)

All around him Fitzgerald beheld people who had risen from commonplace backgrounds to affluence and prominence.(3) His own success as a writer validated this new upward mobility. Still, the advances of gangsters were truly extraordinary.

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