The Great Gatsby Contents
Class in 1920s America
There were considerable social changes in the 1920s, brought about largely by economic prosperity and increasing urbanisation (see Urbanisation and modernity). In particular, the status of women and black people shifted significantly.
Education was a factor in social change, as between 1920 and 1930 the number of high school students doubled. There was also a growing number of college students, and college affiliation became a newly prominent aspect of social identity, which enabled the younger generation to challenge their parents’ moral standards and attitudes. Alumni were encouraged to continue their connection with college. Fitzgerald himself (at Princeton from 1913-17) remained a reader of the Princeton Alumni Weekly magazine throughout his life. He was reading this when he suffered his final heart attack in 1940.
Society as depicted in The Great Gatsby is stratified most broadly into Eastern and Western America. Most of the main characters move from the West to the sophisticated East, despite their being ‘subtly unadaptable to Eastern life’. In the East, clustered in and around the city of New York, we see a range of social strata:
- poorer workers, such as the Wilsons
- New York commuters and white-collar office-workers, such as Nick
- the newly-rich, of which Gatsby is one
- the established rich, represented by Tom, Daisy, Jordan and numerous other minor characters such as Mr Sloane and Gatsby’s party guests.
Prosperity and leisure
Leisure was increasingly a concern of the newly prosperous social groups in the 1920s. The working day was gradually shortening and many jobs were not as physically demanding as the hard labour required of farm and factory work.
- Sport, cinema, radio and tourism flourished, and it was believed that these ‘outlets’ helped to reduce crime and delinquency whilst promoting social and psychological health
- Public parks and playgrounds were created to support this, only exceeded in number by athletic fields, golf courses and tennis courts
- Golf, a sport played by Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby, used a large amount of space and was generally more expensive in terms of equipment, which meant it was still the preserve of the more wealthy members of society
- Camping was the most popular kind of holiday accomodation, outnumbering hotel stays, as people enjoyed the ‘outdoor life’ away from the cities.
Leisure, consumption and status
The notion of the ‘leisure class’ (from Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class) suggested that the highest social group displayed their superiority through conspicuously enjoying leisure activities, thereby demonstrating that they did not have to spend time working. Veblen also introduced the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to describe the display of buying as a way to indicate social status. The activities and purchases of Tom, Daisy and Jordan, as well as the lavish parties held by Gatsby, are typical examples of the behaviour of this social group.
Since 1865, slavery had been outlawed in America, yet black people still struggled in the 1920s under a burden of systemic discrimination and inequality. An attitude of white superiority remained, with white people dominating the economic boom period and being keen to assert their power over black people. Racial segregation was widespread and injustices were commonplace. The Ku Klux Klan, which propounded ideas about the supremacy of white people, reached its peak in 1925 and presented the threat of the lynch mob as a form of summary ‘justice’.
In the first chapter of The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan expresses some of these ideas when he warns of a threat to his Nordic racial supremacy. Nick, too, makes some disdainful comments about ‘negroes’ as he laughs in response to their ‘haughty rivalry’. Nick’s language is particularly negative in his portrayal of Meyer Wolfsheim, a Jew, focussing on stereotyped elements of his appearance and voice.
However, the 1920s saw some shifts in power. Black communities in cities developed a sense of black culture, this period being known as the ‘Harlem Renaissance’. Meanwhile, ‘The Jazz Age’ allowed black music and dance, from which Jazz music developed, to flourish. Black literature also came to prominence and there were the beginnings of a movement towards black pride and racial integration.
Radio, newspapers, magazines and cinema were vehicles for mass culture, while the development of mail-order catalogues enabled the rural communities to buy the same products - and aspire to the same lifestyle - as city-dwellers.
Mass communication enabled sports and their star players to become nationally important, such as:
- baseball (Babe Ruth)
- golf (Walter Hagen)
- tennis (‘Big’ Bill Tilden)
- American football (‘Red’ Grange)
- boxing (Jack Dempsey).
These, with the addition of college sports, became financially lucrative concerns, which then stimulated associated industries, particularly gambling. In The Great Gatsby, we see Meyer Wolfsheim described as the man who fixed the World’s Series in 1919. This is a reference to the famous real-life scandal involving baseball known as the ‘Black Sox’ conspiracy, masterminded by Arnold Rothstein.
Magazines such as Good Housekeeping included articles on etiquette and ways to maintain and increase social status. This magazine stated its mission was:
It advised its female readership on matters of childcare, fashion, and products for the home.
Fitzgerald wrote stories for magazines, such as the Saturday Evening Post, the most popular weekly magazine of this period. This publication included many short stories and serialised fiction suited to popular tastes, but also carried advertisements, letters, advice and articles, all of which propagated mass culture. Reader’s Digest, founded in 1922, was a similar publication, but without advertising, offering the public a condensed version of articles selected from elsewhere.
Higher wages and more readily available credit enabled consumers to purchase more goods, and this supported the growth of manufacturing industries. Chain stores and department stores developed throughout the 1920s, with Sears, Woolworths, Kruger and other companies extending their business. Wanamakers, a major department store in Philadelphia and New York, used its grand spaces to showcase items, creating ‘extravaganzas’. Macy’s, in New York, in 1924 began a tradition of holding a Christmas Day Parade on Thanksgiving Day, which generated increased Christmas sales and positioned the store as a major feature of the city.
The growth of mass-produced goods saw the development of advertising to support it, a field in which Fitzgerald himself briefly worked. By the 1920s, with increased prosperity, advertising was a boom industry. Prior to this, advertising had somewhat dubious associations, especially being associated with the trade in medicines. Now it increasingly improved its own image. In 1926 it was even endorsed in a speech by President Calvin Coolidge:
There was a shift in emphasis. Rather than responding to a practical or utilitarian need, 1920s advertising copy and images were intended to create a desire for personal pleasure and satisfaction. Advertising in magazines such as Good Housekeeping, on the radio, in the cinema and on large signs (as with the Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg in the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby), increasingly became part of daily life.
An example of the advertising language of the era comes from an advertisement for a luxury car in Good Housekeeping (issued 1926), which imagines a luxury lifestyle which is to be emulated:
Notably, in this advertisement, there is no mention of technical features or utilitarian benefits; its focus is entirely on associating the product with an aspiration to high social status.
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