It wasn’t too difficult for F. Scott Fitzgerald to capture the mood and tone for his 1925 classic of American literature The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby contemporaneously with the period depicted in the book, and he was well-acquainted with the environment in which his story occurs. New York was the center of the nation’s culture, and the decade referred to as “the Roaring Twenties” established the mood for Fitzgerald’s story of New York’s elite and the social and cultural ennui into which it was fast sinking. Fitzgerald was a keen observer of his surroundings, and infects his characters with the traits that could certainly be found among those in the New Jersey areas he inhabited while in college. Like his protagonist and narrator, Nick Carroway, Fitzgerald was from the Midwest, specifically, St. Paul, Minnesota, and aspired to greater heights and infinitely more exceitment than Minnesota could apparently provide. Both Nick and Fitzgerald served in the military, although the real-life author was fortunate to remain stateside during the Great War in which his protagonist fought. Whereas Nick traveled east to work in the bond business in New York City, however, Fitzgerald, after returning to Minnesota for a time, headed east again, and later to Paris, to pursue his first passion, writing (one could suggest that Zelda was the first passion, as Daisy Buchanan would be for Jay Gatsby). In any event, as noted, establishing the milieu in which his novel takes place was the least of Fitzgerald’s challenges.
Closely related to the issues of mood and tone are the characterizations Fitzgerald employed in his story. As noted, Nick, the narrator, could be considered a stand-in for the author, although that is almost certainly reading too much into Fitzgerald’s thought process. It is the character of Gatsby himself that was most inspired by the era’s headlines. Gatsby, it will be revealed, has made his money the new-fashioned way – through crime. One of the most powerful gangsters or organized crime figures in the country during the 1920s was Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein, the mastermind of the 1919 “Chicago Black Sox” scandal, in which he bribed members of the Chicago White Sox to throw that year’s World Series, which was duly executed, as would be Rothstein in 1928. Fitzgerald very transparently modeled the character of Meyer Wolfshiem, the individual to whom Gatsby is associated, after Rothstein, going so far, as Gatsby explains to Nick, to declare that Wolfshiem was “the man who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919.”
Fitzgerald’s novel depicts the real-life distinctions between Long Island’s “old money” aristocracy and the nouveau riche pretenders at whom the former looked down their noses in disdain. The Buchanans, of course, represent the former, their wealth inherited and spent lavishly. We are introduced to them in the novel’s first chapter, when Nick visits their estate in the prestigious “old money” community of East Egg. Explaining that their home had been built by an “oil-man” (i.e., one of the early oil industry tycoons), Tom Buchanan’s estate is old-world charm, described by Nick as follows:
“. . .a cheerful red and white Georgian Colonial mansion overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold, and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, . . .”
The Buchanan’s old but refined estate is contrasted with Gatsby’s new, somewhat gauche mansion, which sits right next door to Nick’s smaller, quaint home:
“The one on my right was a colossal affair by any standard—it was a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool and more than forty acres of lawn and garden. It was Gatsby’s mansion.”
This thinly-veiled attempt at sophistication is matched by an interior that bespeaks both extravagance and artifice:
“We went upstairs, through period bedrooms swathed in rose and lavender silk and vivid with new flowers, through dressing rooms and poolrooms, and bathrooms with sunken baths . . . His bedroom was the simplest room of all—except where the dresser was garnished with a toilet set of pure dull gold.”
It is when Nick and Jordan wander into the library, however, that the superficiality of Gatsby’s world is most revealed. It is here where Nick meets the “owl-eyed” man who serves an interesting function of observer and critic. It is the “owl-eyed” man who surprises the two guests in the library with an impromptu and insulting suggestion regarding the well-stocked book shelves:
“‘Absolutely real—have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real.”
This man has seen beneath Gatsby’s veneer and assumed that the books were merely for show, a manifestation of their owner’s superficial and transparent nature.
In short, the details of Fitzgerald’s novel were all appropriate to the period in which the story occurs. Fitzgerald captured the environment well, as he knew it well, and his characters, excepting Nick, are none so deep emotionally or intellectually that they couldn’t have existed in any time. It is Gatsby’s profession, however, that is most directly tied to the era. The connection to Meyer Wolfshiem/Arnold Rothstein is a dead give-away. Rothstein wasn’t just a gambler. Like Fitzgerald’s character, he made considerable money as a bootlegger during Prohibition. During the confrontation between Tom Buchanan and Gatsby late in Chapter Seven, Tom enlightens Nick as to the latter’s friend’s background:
“He and this Wolfshiem bought up a lot of side-street drug stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter. That’s one of his little stunts. I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him and I wasn’t far wrong.”
Prohibition was initiated with passage in 1920 of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and wouldn’t be repealed until 1933, with passage of the 21st Amendment. And, we have a protagonist, Nick, who is young but who served in World War I, the American participation in which was from 1917 to 1918, and we have a major character, Jay Gatsby, who was a bootlegger – a Prohibition-era criminal profession – working with a character, Meyer Wolfshiem, blatantly modeled on real-life bootlegger-gambler Arnold Rothstein. Fitzgerald has inserted into his story all of the ingredients necessary to depict debauchery and boredom in 1920s New York. Finally, Tom, during Nick’s first visit to East Egg, laments the decline of civilization, asking of Nick, “Have you read ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard?’” He then adds for good measure, “Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.” Lothrop Stoddard (1883-1950) was a Harvard-trained scientist and historian, and racist who, in 1920, published a book titled The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy. Fitzgerald knew what he was doing in establishing the setting for The Great Gatsby.