Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

"I Could Make Some Money": Cars and Currency in the Great Gatsby

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

"I Could Make Some Money": Cars and Currency in the Great Gatsby

Article excerpt

"With a touch of good-humored self-deprecation, Nick Carraway acknowledges a degree of naivete in the outlook with which he begins his career as a bond-salesman: a set of newly purchased "volumes on banking and credit and investment securities" will "unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Mecenas knew" (7). A similar low-key humor informs his response to the improbable juxtapositions he witnesses at the first party he attends at Gatsby's; but one of the seemingly incongruous catalogues that he recites--his surmise that some of the guests are selling "bonds or insurance or automobiles" (35)--may reflect his broadening awareness of how pervasive the financier's magic was becoming in 1922, descending from the House of Morgan almost to the institution that advertises "Repairs. GEORGE B. WILSON. Cars Bought and Sold" (22).

Lauraleigh O'Meara shows how, in the emotional dynamic between George Wilson and Tom Buchanan, Buchanan's blue coupe "transcend[s] its functional purpose" and takes on characteristics of a medium of exchange whose value, "as in actual financial markets, external circumstances and events cause ... to fluctuate" (86, 82). Wilson's complex emotional investment in the coupe nevertheless includes a simple plan for pecuniary gain; when he says, "I could make some money on the [coupe]" (96), Wilson almost certainly means that he thinks he can sell the car for more than he pays for it. In the automotive marketplace of 1922, a dealer in used cars would ordinarily have found that difficult if not impossible, but an irony of Wilson's talk about his prospect of making money by means of the coupe is that, in a year when re-selling a used car seldom yielded profit to a dealer, used cars commonly served as a form of currency that enabled widening spirals of money-creation. Midas transformed every object he touched into precious metal, thus creating a problematic gold standard, and the likes of J. P. Morgan had the complementary power of transforming precious metal into financial instruments. In the early 1920s the influence of such financial elites grew in part because millions of ordinary citizens acquired in a small degree the ability to turn steel, glass, wood, and rubber into currency. The grocer who buys Nick Carraway's old Dodge at the end of The Great Gatsby is probably interested only in the car's function as transportation, in its use-value. George Wilson is interested in Buchanan's coupe as a commodity, in its exchange-value. Among middle-class consumers in 1922, abstraction from a car's use-value often went beyond commodification to monetization; and Jay Gatsby's engagement in this kind of abstraction makes him more typical than unique. For all the gorgeousness that Nick sees in Gatsby, one manifestation of Gatsby's sustained belief in "the promises of life" (6) is his monetizing Daisy Fay much as the masses from whom he wants to distinguish himself monetize cars.

GEORGE WILSON AND AUTOMOTIVE FASHION

Although Buchanan thinks Wilson is "so dumb he doesn't know he's alive" (23), Wilson's persistent interest in acquiring the blue coupe comports well with trends in the automotive industry that were gaining momentum in 1922. In 1919, only about 10% of cars manufactured in the United States were closed cars, like Buchanan's coupe. By 1922 about 30% of U.S.-built cars were closed, however, and by 1926 the percentage was more than 70% (Epstein 112). For many years, variety in color was rather limited, and the ubiquitous Model T was available only in black from 1915 through 1925 (Collins 154); but by late 1926, "automakers and consumers had a thousand colors or shades to choose from" (McCarthy 80). The most dramatic expansion in options for color was made possible by technical advances that first affected the 1924 model year (McCarthy 80), but journalism announced trends in color and body styles early. Articles titled "The Balance Swings to the Closed Car" and "The Open Season for Closed Cars" appeared in the trade journal Motor in 1922 (McCarthy 290), and George B. …

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