Greil Marcus on Gatsby: A Blues Fable of the Great Depression

The Great Gatsby can be read as a fable of the Crash—a writer’s instinct, his feeling out the boundaries of history as it was being made, or ignored, that not only was the great dance around the Golden Calf sure to lead to ruin, it should. Jay-Z heard it that way on Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby soundtrack on his “100$ Bill,” playing through the dance of Gatsby, Nick, Tom, and Meyer Wolfsheim in the New York speak: “Go numb until I can’t feel, or might pop this pill / Stock markets just crash, now I’m just a bill.”

Even the dollar loses its voice. In historiographical time—the kind of time art and history make when you realize that artists sometimes write more complete history than scholars—you can hear the replacement of Gatsby’s parties by Skip James’s “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.” “Isolated during the European War, we had begun combing the unknown South and West for folkways and pastimes, and there were more ready to hand,” Fitzgerald wrote in 1931; that same year, the acerbic minor-key Mississippi blues guitarist traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin, to record for the Paramount label.

The recording director asked James if he had anything about the Depression—a topical song might sell. Playing off of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” what James came up with, like that, had no time or place fixed in it.

“Sometimes I’d be laying down through the night and there are things that come to me, and I’ll get up and jot it down,” James said in 1964. “Maybe just the title of a song. Skip, you could make a song out of just about anything, the cigarette blues, the paperback blues, Co-cola bottle, most anything. And then I get up and jot that down. Perhaps maybe, the next morning, I see this title—the next day I see this title, I supposed to compose a song. And in my later time, it look like things have come to me, I don’t know why. . . . I don’t know, I just can’t fathom that out, but yet and still things come to me. And I can get up through the night and start playing something I never heard.”

James took the long view: a song that sounded right the day it reached the public had to speak to publics born after the singer was dead. He opened “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” with soft, fatalistic notes on his guitar, descending, the slow, grudging rhythm of someone dragging himself down the street, taking the listener down, shutting out the lights, with the last word of a sentence unspoken, a chord left hanging in the air.

With a high, religious moan, James seemed to be dragging the future behind himself. It was as if the whole country could fit into two lines: “People are drifting from door to door / Can’t find no heaven, I don’t care where they go,” which meant there was no place the people in the song could go that would take them in—and, behind that, that the singer didn’t care. The song is hard, unkind, unforgiving, until the end, when the singer might be laughing after picking up a copy of The Great Gatsby someone had dropped in the street: “You know, you’ll say you had money / You better be sure.”

The market for blues had exploded in the 1920s. From Chicago to New Orleans, from Harlem to Houston, Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Charley Patton could sell tens, even hundreds of thousands of copies of a single disc, but the Crash dropped the bottom out of the market. A record might cost 75 cents, but 75 cents could feed a family, if you had it. James’s records—“Devil Got My Woman” on one side, with “Cypress Grove Blues” on the other, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” with “Cherry Ball Blues,” “If You Haven’t Any Hay Get on Down the Road” with “22–20 Blues,” and a few more—were and remain singular works of American art, but they didn’t sell.

The Great Gatsby seeks its own readers, who read the book back to itself, and the book changes, and moves through time, rewriting the history not only of 1922, or 1925, but of all the time that it has crossed over.

In the late 1940s and early 50s, right about the time when people again began to talk about The Great Gatsby, when collectors began to comb the South for James’s records, they found, then and in the decades to come, almost nothing: six copies of “Devil Got My Woman,” five of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” for most of the rest two copies, and for one, only one.

I’ve always treasured the fantasy that this was no accident: that having put aside his guitar after the failure of his music, James set out to destroy as many copies of his records as he could, purposely leaving only a handful in the world—not to make them more valuable on some market to come, but so, if and when they were ever found, they would glow with the power of fable. What were they? People would ask. Who was he? Where did this come from?

What if the same were true of The Great Gatsby, with the book and James’s songs touching hands across the years before and after the Crash that anyone can now see enacted in Gatsby’s life, passed into the devastation enacted on tens of millions, a World Series fixed for real, all the people left with nothing for the bets they never placed? Not only that it would take a generation before people began to hear the tunes behind Fitzgerald’s words, but what if, by the time people began to look for the records Skip James had made, there were only three copies of The Great Gatsby left in the world?

It’s not until about 1948 that the country begins to breathe again, when after nearly 20 years of depression and war, there is a kind of mass psychic awakening—My God! We’re not dead!— that would send an anarchic spirit into the air. It was just before the country was ready to turn to Fitzgerald’s short book as a story that, as Harold Bloom said with such warmth of the likes of “The Weight” and “Across the Great Divide,” was, as an account of the American predicament, always there.

That may be right. It’s also wrong. The book may serve as a social document. But as Jay-Z goes on in “100$ Bill,” repeating an old commonplace, “History don’t repeat itself it rhymes.” The book seeks affinities. It seeks its own readers, who read the book back to itself, and the book changes, and moves through time, rewriting the history not only of 1922, or 1925, but of all the time that it has crossed over. People aspire to so acute a fable about a national life. But what makes people think that it is a social document, a social critique, is the music of the writing—and while anyone can aspire to the social document and realize that aspiration, not very many people can come close to the siren song that called them to it, which is why Philip Roth, from “Goodbye, Columbus” in 1959 to The Human Stain more than 40 years later, kept after it so long.

It was why, as Ross Macdonald admitted in 1972, from at least The Galton Case in 1959 through The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Far Side of the Dollar in 1965, Black Money in 1966, and The Instant Enemy in 1968, he was rewriting The Great Gatsby over and over again, and how, from the start, with The Moving Target in 1949, he was trying to lead Lew Archer into a life Nick Carraway should have lived.

And it is why Raymond Chandler, finally giving up on the idea of writing the movie, the real movie, in 1953 began his book The Long Goodbye, even dropping the West Egg mansion into Los Angeles (“Whoever built that place was trying to drag the Atlantic seaboard over the Rockies. He was trying hard, but he hadn’t made it”), with his Daisy killing not only his Myrtle but her own husband (an alcoholic best-selling novelist drowning in self-loathing because every word he writes dishonors his hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald), with his Gatsby, Terry Lennox (“He had been a man it was impossible to dislike,” Marlowe says of the guy who insists on calling him “old top.” “How many do you meet in a lifetime that you can say that about?”), taking the rap but then with the help of his mob pals from the war faking his own death, only to return to Los Angeles, disguised as a courier, to his Nick, Philip Marlowe, the one-time Lennox now a perfumed Señor Cisco Maioranos, so repulsive in his perfect manners that even after he drops the act he all but oozes embalming fluid.

The small tragedy that wafts into the room is that Chandler’s Lennox and Marlowe, his Gatsby and Nick, have nothing to say to each other. “He turned and walked across the floor and out. I watched the door close. I listened to his steps going away down the imitation marble corridor. After a while they got faint, then they got silent. I kept on listening anyway. What for? Did I want him to stop suddenly and turn and come back and talk me out of the way I felt? Well, he didn’t. That was the last I saw of him.”

People aspire to so acute a fable about a national life.

As with the words Skip James does and doesn’t sing, the music in The Great Gatsby is in the play of echoes Fitzgerald sets in motion throughout the book, until, at the end, they fold together, and the sound they make is that of a distant gong. Then you can hear that Gatsby’s vision of paradise is to be realized not in his life, but in the passage of the Dutch sailors, when they made landfall on the fresh, green breast of the New World in 1609.

And if you hear that, you also hear the sound of the gong growing louder, as the tragedy of the twinned images expands to take in the whole of the country, as desire and fact, illusion and reality, truth and lie.

Truth and lie: in July 2019, in New York, 500 people came together for the National Conservatism Conference, “organized,” Jennifer Schuessler reported in the New York Times, “by the Edmund Burke Foundation, a newly formed public affairs institute.” A highlight was a talk by Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, called “Why America Is Not an Idea,” which set about to dismantle what Lowry named “one of our most honored  clichés”: the notion that what America is is nothing more than the promise the country made to itself at its founding, the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which after 1776 was set loose in the land as a train that would never come to rest.

No, Lowry said, it was culture: a very particular culture, made by particular Americans. He was followed, Schuessler wrote, by the University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, who pursued the same argument with a harder edge. “She dismissed the idea,” Schuessler said, “that immigrants somehow became American simply by living here, which Ms. Wax (borrowing a term used by white nationalists and self-described ‘race realists’) mocked as the ‘magic dirt’ argument. There’s no reason that ‘people who come here will quickly come to think, live and act just like us,’ she said.

Immigration policy, she said, should take into account ‘cultural compatibility.’” Wax was not talking about all of the cultures that make American culture; the music of Skip James, as the product of a black man, was not American culture. You could hear the echo hammering back out of Baz Luhrmann’s movie as his Tom read his Gatsby out of the country, erasing him from its history: “We were born different. It’s in our blood. There’s nothing you can do, say, steal, or dream up—”

This is what was already behind Fitzgerald, and behind the reader as she or he is sucked into Fitzgerald’s last page, as Scott Shepherd makes his way through it like a navigator, and Luhrmann lets Tobey Maguire leave it hanging in the air: the discovery, the taking possession of the place where Gatsby would come to life, centuries before he was born, when the green light was lit.

When all of this comes together—one life playing out the blighted, stubborn idea of America, then you have tragedy slamming you and the country down to the ground. Then any citizen is made to put on Nick Carraway’s clothes, walk in his shoes, and watch, as Gatsby’s private catastrophe moves on, dropping the shadow of the red white and blue, now a banner, now a shroud, over the country, the land and the idea.


Excerpted from Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of The Great Gatsby. Used with the permission of the publisher, Yale University Press. Copyright © 2020 by Greil Marcus.