"Material without Being Real": Photography and the End of Reality in 'The Great Gatsby.'

Article excerpt

The first-class compartment was stifling; the vivid advertising cards of the railroad companies--The Pont du Gard at Arles, the Amphitheatre at Orange, winter sports at Chamonix--were fresher than the long motionless sea outside. (Tender is the Night, p. 12)(1)

What I was looking at wasn't Stahr but a picture of him I cut out over and over: the eyes that flashed a sophisticated understanding at you and then darted up too soon into his wide brow with its ten thousand plots and plans; the face that was aging from within, so that there were no casual furrows of worry and vexation but a drawn ascetism as if from a silent self-set struggle--or a long illness. It was handsomer to me than all the rosy tan from Coronado to Del Monte. He was my picture, as sure as if he had been pasted on the inside of my old locker in school. (The Last Tycoon, pp. 71-72)(2)

Photography and the Jazz Age

"[T]he 1920s marked the golden age of American advertising," writes Ann Douglas, and early in the decade New York became the home of the nation's largest agencies, making "`Madison Avenue'... a synonym for the industry itself' (pp. 64-65).(3) F. Scott Fitzgerald spent the spring of 1920 at the advertising firm of Bannion, Collier. Three years later, the marketing impulse still coursing through his veins, he suggested, in an essay entitled "How I Would Sell My Book," filling a store window with copies of his latest book and placing "a man with large spectacles sitting in the midst of them, frantically engrossed in the perusal of a copy" (qtd. in Douglas, p. 67). As it turns out, Fitzgerald's following book would be The Great Gatsby, a novel deeply concerned with optics, including two images similar to the one prescribed for marketing purposes: a "stout, middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles"(4) surrounded by shelves of books in Gatsby's library, and the spectacled eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg (p. 49). Fitzgerald's marketing ploy, which proposes using a real man as a prop, is part and parcel of a society whose proliferation of images has distorted the relationship between original and representation.

The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg imply that God has been replaced by mass marketing, and Fitzgerald's book provides numerous examples of the way in which the omnipresence of advertisements in the 1920s went a long way toward making photographic images an intrinsic part of Americans' daily lives: when she first sees Tom, Myrtle pretends to read advertisements on the train in order to avoid staring at him; Nick recognizes Jordan from the rotogravures in the sports press; and Gatsby spends his five years away from Daisy by amassing a fortune and accumulating clippings of her from society columns. Fitzgerald's New York abounds with images that dictate reality: Gatsby affects a "strained counterfeit of perfect ease" (p. 91), while Daisy notices his resemblance to an advertisement because he "always look[s] so cool" (p. 125), and Nick thinks that Jordan "look[s] like a good illustration" (p. 185). The magazine Town Tattle proffers still images of the real people who bring to life the illusions of Hollywood films. While the title implies the magazine panders in gossip, the secrets of the rich and famous, we must question whether Town Tattle is moving closer toward reality or further from it since almost immediately after the invention of film, producers recognized the merchandising windfall in planted gossip. So, like the images that seem to offer the "real" people behind the characters, the text appears to tell a "real" story; both, however, are marketing gimmicks which call reality into question. Given this superfluity of representative imagery, it is no wonder that Daniel J. Boorstin suggests that "reality" is an endangered concept in American society: "The making of the illusions which flood our experience has become the business of America [including advertising, public relations, journalism, publishing, entertainment, travel, foreign relations] . …


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