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The Nuances of Money

By Anna Maria Gillis | HUMANITIES, January/February 2000 | Volume 21, Number 1

No American writer has understood money more than F. Scott Fitzgerald, says James L. W. West III. "He knows money has a deadening effect on morality. It insulates people from the pain of others."

West, who is editor of the Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, sees Fitzgerald's views on wealth permeating his books. He has a series of characters who have inherited wealth or who are waiting for their legacies. "Those waiting seem to have difficulty finding purpose,"says West, pointing to Anthony Patch in The Beautiful and Damned and Amory Dlaine in This Side of Paradise. "If you know money is coming, it changes your drive."

Fitzgerald himself did not come from the privileged background that dominates his writing. At Princeton, he "saw himself as a poor boy at a rich boy's school," says West.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Fitzgerald made his own living. He was a rarity even among professional novelists because he lived entirely from the earnings of his pen.

His fame brought him into monied circles, where he observed the relationships of money and class. West believes that Fitzgerald, like writer Edith Wharton, understood that in the circles in which they traveled, "the type of money people have is important. It should not have been made in trade."

Fitzgerald's deftness is apparent in the touches he uses to distinguish the classes, says West. For example, in The Great Gatsby, when Daisy and Tom Buchanan and their highly bored friends travel from Long Island to New York City, they end up in a suite at the Plaza because they want a place to drink. At the time, explains West, people of the Buchanans' class would drink in private rather than at a speakeasy.

The masquerade in Trimalchio is wilder and more drunken than the scene it becomes in Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, a man of new money, has arranged the event for Daisy, thinking that she will be delighted to meet celebrities and people from the world of entertainment.

After Daisy is introduced to a movie star, the actress asks Gatsby for the name of Daisy's hairdresser. Daisy is reluctant to give it. If the actress copies Daisy's hair, then everyone will look like her, Daisy tells Gatsby, making it clear she does not find that prospect remotely appealing. Gatsby cajoles her into writing the hairdresser's name on a tablecloth, but then he strikes it out. "Gatsby learns quickly that Daisy is repelled by celebrities," says West. "The wealthy are insular, disdainful of them. Gatsby's disappointed, but he's a quick learner. That's his last party."

There is something of Gatsby in Fitzgerald, says West. Both are romantic idealists. Nick Carraway, the somewhat priggish narrator in Gatsby, is also partly Fitzgerald.

Both Fitzgerald and Wharton were social critics, says West. "They did not come to praise money. Fitzgerald knew that money provided freedom, but we rarely see that in his characters. His great disappointment with the privileged classes shows up in his work."