I have never understood the praised heaped on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short novel, The Great Gatsby. I wrote about this here some years back.
If there is only one “Great American Novel” – a nonsensical idea invented, I suspect, by Fitzgerald’s contemporaries who wanted to see the writing of fiction as a “manly” endeavor like war or boxing – it is, of course, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which nails one of the two core corruptions that underlie our supposedly perfect country.
But life in these United States and in our world as a whole is complex and multifaceted. No one book can do everything. Nor should it.
I’ve always thought Gatsby was a beautifully written book about corrupt and uninteresting people. I might like it better if I didn’t always have the feeling that both the author and the narrator admired Gatsby, who is Trump without the advantage of rich parents, though with better manners.
However, the recent college admissions scandal has changed my mind about one aspect of the book. If you overlook the romanticism about Gatsby and his “dreams” and focus on the corruption of the Gilded Age where a criminal can buy his way into a high society peopled by the likes of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, you do have an object lesson for our times.
This essay in The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan, a writer who once worked as a college admissions counselor for over-privileged kids, analyzes that scandal with the depth it deserves. She shows them as rich people, most of them white, who cheat and lie and commit all kinds of fraud to get what they think is their due, turned in by one of their own and the guy who set up the fraud scheme.
The part of Flanagan’s essay that makes it clear just how corrupt the upper class in our society has become is when she tells a story about how outraged these people get when some bit player – like an admissions counselor – doesn’t play along. Flanagan tells us actor Lori Loughlin and her husband, a designer, far from feeling ashamed about their actions, complained to the school about the counselor:
When a college counselor at their daughter’s high school realized something was suspicious about her admission to USC and asked the girl about it, the parents roared onto campus in such a rage that they almost blew up the whole scam.
This is entitlement and privilege on extreme display, and I doubt the fact that Loughlin and others are likely to be convicted and even sent to prison for a short term because of this will change anything.
Because right now we do have a society that favors those with money, no matter how they got it. A criminal who can cover their tracks is considered smart and behavior that would get me arrested (not to mention what might happen if I wasn’t white) is allowed and even fawned over so long as the person might be spreading that money around.
And it doesn’t matter if what they’re doing to make the money is crooked, meaningless, or a made-up endeavor. Most of the men involved in the scandal have the kind of useless investment, hedge fund, and corporate lawyer jobs that bring in lots of money and are destroying our society left and right. The women are heiresses or minor actresses or (probably) trophy wives. One of the kids caught up in this scandal has lost her makeup business, which makes me suspect that it wasn’t based on any more substance than her college application.
Mind you, the scandal is about those not quite rich enough to get their kids into college as legacies or by funding endowments. It’s the under-oligarchs we’re seeing here, not the people who really can buy everything.
The Gilded Age rides again. Our time differs from Fitzgerald’s, but the core corruption is still there.
Way past time we did something about it, something more than sending a few bad actors (pun intended) to jail.