Michael Wood

When asked what part of the Middle West he comes from, Jay Gatsby says: ‘San Francisco.’ This is usually taken as a sign of his shaky geography or his eagerness to cover up his origins, or both. But the response seems too blunt and broad for that – too blunt and broad for either Gatsby or Fitzgerald. If Gatsby were at all given to making jokes, we might think this was one.

There is an American myth, Fitzgerald’s myth, in which the West and the Middle West are one: they are not-the-East. The East is New York City, Harvard, Boston, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Long Island, various ritzy, long-settled provinces, or just poor and ancient ones. The West is everything west of Chicago, and there is no south or north. ‘That’s my Middle West,’ the narrator says at the end of The Great Gatsby, ‘not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow.’

The place sounds, not accidentally, like the setting of Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons or Minelli’s Meet me in St Louis. This is the West not as the future or the frontier, but as the unspoiled past, the impeccable past of nostalgia, not a snowflake out of place. We look at it from the perspective of a remorseless East-ernising which appears to be synonymous with the movement of history itself. The narrator of The Great Gatsby says he sees now ‘that this has been a story of the West, after all – Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.’ Or not so subtly, since Gatsby is dead, and Tom and Daisy Buchanan are said to be ‘careless people’, who ‘smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together’. The West is not innocence but a fantasy of innocence; not old American history but the place where history hasn’t happened yet. In the West, the trains always take you home, and the American dream becomes not a hope but a fantasised memory: ruin rewritten as a fresh start, or rather, the only start, the old promise and the old ruin both thrown out of the window as if they had never been. Fitzgerald understood as few writers have how appealing and impossible this scenario is, how touching and how reprehensible. When he said there are no second acts in American lives, he was not stating the obvious but pointing to the irredeemable. The thought makes serious sense only if we imagine someone, perhaps a whole culture, actually shocked by it, anxious to deny it, the way Gatsby responds to the truism that you can’t repeat the past: ‘Why of course you can!’ This is not naivety but principle; it is part of what the narrator means when he identifies ‘a romantic readiness’ in Gatsby, and suggests that this garish, touching and unscrupulous man ‘sprang from his Platonic conception of himself’.

Long Island, east of the American East, described as ‘that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of New York’, was once a distant, western sight for Dutch sailors’ eyes, and the novel’s conclusion reminds us of this:

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