In 1925, the year “The Great Gatsby” was published, the top 1 percent of Americans earned about 20 percent of the nation’s income; in 2013, the year that Baz Luhrmann’s frantic movie adaptation became a hit, the figure is likely to be, well, about 20 percent.
The numbers vary depending on the methodology, and there are changes on the bottom of the scale: The low-wage domestic workers and artisans who built and maintained the great estates of the 1920s are now earning somewhat more, meaning that ostentatious excess is a bit harder to achieve. On seemingly every promontory, though, there is evidence that people are trying. In Stockbridge, Mass., the 18,000-square-foot home of the son of robber-baron-era powerbroker Mark Hanna is on the market again as a potential single-family home after having been a school since the 1930s — a “rare opportunity to own one of the few remaining grand Berkshire cottages,” according to the realtor’s website.
The Gilded Age is back, in wealth and, now, in popular culture. But just like in the early decades of the 20th century, feelings about income disparities are raw. Behind all the Jazz Age shimmying that caught the imagination of F. Scott Fitzgerald (and is giddily recreated by Luhrmann) were rising social movements advocating unionization, the end of child labor, old-age pensions, and workplace safety. Today, there is the residual energy of the “Occupy” movement, and the aftereffects of a presidential election in which imposing higher taxes on the rich was a pungent theme.
“The Great Gatsby” was a novel of the moment back in the ’20s, thought by most critics as unlikely to outlive the flapper era. Today, it is widely viewed among the greatest of American novels, not merely as a literary achievement but because it so perfectly captures the American zeitgeist.
It has themes of enduring love, ambition, celebrity, marital cruelty, class anger, organized crime, exploitation, and grandeur, rendered in prose so beautiful that critics, at first, seemed suspicious of its perfection, like a face without a flaw. Still, it’s fascinating to ponder why a novel that’s so lyrical and yet profound could have languished in remainder bins for 20 years until the Army sent paperbacks to soldiers in World War II, putting “Gatsby” on a path that led to every high-school reading list in the country. But that’s a mystery for another day.
The question for today is why so many millions of moviegoers are embracing anew a story that some of them, no doubt, recall only from CliffsNotes and essays with teachers’ comments penciled in the margins. If “Gatsby” has a message for today’s young movie audiences, what is it? (Luhrmann said he hopes his movie inspires wild summer parties.)
“Gatsby” is the story of a man who, in five years, moves from poverty to great wealth through dubious financial transactions; these deals are illegal, but, the novel suggests, not all that different from what was legal, a sense of moral equivalence that’s probably shared by much of the audience. What seemed wondrous to Fitzgerald, and awe-inspiring to Luhrmann, is that a poor American kid can vault so far, so fast, so easily. The power of the story isn’t that Gatsby pushes past class barriers, it’s that he achieves vast wealth.
Alan Krueger, chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, last year unveiled what he called “The Great Gatsby Curve,” suggesting that in times of great income disparity, social mobility of the ordinary sort — poor people moving into the middle class — is actually more difficult, because there is less access to top schools and health care. Krueger is clearly on to something, but “The Great Gatsby” isn’t concerned at all with moving the poor into the middle class, providing good jobs with decent benefits — it’s about that other American dream of becoming so rich that your friends bow in admiration, and the high-born girlfriend who shunned you comes back into your arms.
“The Great Gatsby” is a story that hates the wealthy but romanticizes the pursuit of wealth. It paints a picture of American life as coarse and superficial, but finds redemption in the purity of the American dream — defined not as mere advancement but as total reinvention, through the acquisition of money.
Like today’s America, it’s conflicted about the disparities that surround it, but not entirely sure they’re such a bad thing. Without huge disparities of income, how could anyone become as hopeful as Jay Gatsby? So we beat on, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Peter S. Canellos is editor of The Boston Globe’s editorial page.
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