The Elusive American Dream in Cather and Fitzgerald

The influence of Willa Cather’s work, A Lost Lady, on Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, has been both declared by the author himself and recognized by the critics. The two novels are, first of all, bound by one common theme: the dissolution of the American Dream. The history of America itself is the main inspiration for both authors. Since the discovery of the continent, America struggled between two polar tendencies: unalloyed idealism and absolute pragmatism. These opposites are not merely ideologies reflected in the American culture, but actual realities blended in the destiny of the nation. Thus, on the one hand, the roots of the American culture are well fixed in Puritanism, the doctrine according to which the American virgin land offered the possibility for a new Garden of Eden, “the city upon the hill”, in John Winthrop’s phrase, that would set an example of virtue and beauty for the entire world. The first settlers abided by this idealism, and ventured upon realizing the utopian American Dream. Soon though, the beginning of the industrialization era and then the advent of capitalism brought the contrary tendency towards materialism and consumerism.The Roaring Twenties, as the historical period to which the two writers belong is usually referred to, was a time of excess and extravagance, when the chase for money and material value flourished more than ever. The historical configuration of these two opposite tendencies is obvious in the two novels, which investigate precisely the moment when the world seems to have broken in two, or cracked-up as Fitzgerald put it. The depletion of the West is suggested by the titles of the two novels: Gatsby’s greatness alludes to the incommensurable American dream that slowly falls to pieces, whereas the “lost lady” in Willa Cather’s novel represents the corruption and loss of the dream through moral decadence. The novels do not hint simply at the political and social transformations during the Roaring Twenties, but emphasize also the loss of aesthetic and moral values which are a symbol of humanity. Even if the texts are different in many respects, the influence of Cather upon Fitzgerald’s fictional world is tangible at a few points: the main theme, the construction of the characters, and the style of writing are similar. The novels share primarily in their nostalgic tone, which describes the fall of the Western world and which underlines the major theme.

Thus, first of all, as it has been noted, the two authors describe the decline of the West, and the shift form idealism to a marked materialism. The same design is traceable in both texts: as it shall be seen, both novels are centered on the symbols of the American Dream. The ironical, dejected tone is identifiable in both texts. In Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, this symbol is repeated in two characters: on the one hand, Marian Forrester is taken by Niel Herbert as the representation of the American dream. When he discovers her extramarital love affairs, his myth is destroyed and he realizes that in fact, it was Captain Daniel Forrester who actually incorporated his ideal. Thus, in Cather’s novel, the American dream undergoes corruption through Mrs. Forrester and dies through the Captain.

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In Fitzgerald’s novel, the dream is almost entirely embodied in the mysterious and fascinating personality of Jay Gatsby.

Thus, Fitzgerald points out that his intention in The Great Gatsby is not merely to convey the story of the elusive American dream, but also to draw a history of “all aspiration”, of the human dream in general:

“The American story, Fitzgerald wrote late in life, ‘is the history of all aspiration—not just the American dream but the human dream. …’The story that Fitzgerald told was his version of a dream hauntingly personal and national.”(Callahan, 378)

As such, Gatsby represents not only the grandiose American dream, but also the human dream in general. The lavish parties he throws are perfect instances of the excesses typical of the twenties. Consumerism is reflected in Gatsby extravagant opulence: the expensive limousine that brings the guests, the jazz bands that play the music, the machine that is able to squeeze two hundred oranges in half an hour, Gatsby’s generosity when one of the guests tears her dress on a chair. At Gatsby’s parties, anyone can come without having been actually invited and sometimes without even getting to know the host: “There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”(Fitzgerald, 25)

This opulence paired by generosity is the perfect representation of the American dream, and stands in sharp contrast with the materialism symbolized by Tom Buchanan. John Henry Raleigh observed that the author dramatizes the opposition between materialism and idealism which is specific of the American culture: “America had produced an idealism so impalpable that it had lost touch with reality (Gatsby) and a materialism so heavy that it was inhuman (Tom Buchanan).”(Mizener, 101) Thus, the novel seems to be about the “game of belief and illusion”(Bloom, 138), in which Gatsby with his own invented reality persists in his perfect dream in spite of everything. For Gatsby, Daisy is the personification of the Holy Grail. The quest of the Grail, a remainder of the Arthurian narratives, emphasizes the mythical reality of the American dream. Hugh Kenner points out that the greatness of Gatsby alludes not only to the American dream, but also to the central theme of the book- the appearance made real: “it is important, in short, that Gatsby shall be Great. It is important because the central myth of the Book has to do with Appearance made Real by sheer will: the oldest American theme of all”(Bloom, 137) Although Gatsby’s past and the mysterious aura that envelops him are entirely his invention, he is still “great” simply because he appears to be so. Thus, the critics emphasized that Fitzgerald’s novel has much more to do with dreaming and illusion than with reality. For the author the supreme power is that of the language and of imagination, which are infinitely more important than factual evidence:  “the sovereign power of language and imagination is set over against the paltriness of evidence”(Bloom, 138). In this view, Gatsby is a true “hero of belief”, who seeks for the supreme truth of God: “Gatsby is the consummate hero of belief: his belief in Daisy, in the green light, is of such a magnitude as to move worlds.”(Bloom, 139)  His pining for the green light far-off which comes from the place where his Daisy lives, is symbolic of the incorrigible idealism that believes in appearance rather than in fact: “[…] he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.”(Fitzgerald, 8) The “material without being real” world is in fact what Fitzgerald attempts to deconstruct in his novel. Gatsby is the believer in the world of truth, which for him, as for the author himself is the real one:

“He must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid too high a price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about.” (Fitzgerald, 169)

Gatsby even believes in the past he had forged for himself, or at least, acts as if it had really happened. As Nick ‘s voice announces, Gatsby seems to has sprung from his own Platonic conception of himself. He is “a son of God”, therefore someone engaged in a sacred and true mission, like the quest for the Grail:

“His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people–his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God–a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that–and he must be about His Father’s Business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end. (Fitzgerald, 99)

As the comic episode in Gatsby’s library suggests, the host is actually inclined to “realism”, that is to a search of the truth that is more real than the artificiality in Tom and Daisy’s life. The gentleman in the library hilariously notes that the books that Gatsby hold are indeed real and not painted:

“‘See!’ he cried triumphantly. ‘It’s a bona fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop too–didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?’”(Fitzgerald, 28)

Tom Buchanan, is constructed as a foil for Gatsby, the representative of the emerging capitalism and corruption. He is violent and materialist, and seems to be the conventional symbol of self-sufficiency and safety. The opposition between Gatsby’s and Tom’s world is marked symbolic by the setting of the novel: the two egg-shaped parts of the Island are called the West and the East Egg. Gatsby lives, of course on the West Egg, since he represents the decline of the Western ideal. Daisy is caught between these two opposite worlds, and her choice of Tom is symbolic for the choice that the generation made between idealism and materialism.

The arrangement of characters in Fitzgerald’s novel and their construction seem to imitate that in Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady. Also, the writing style of Fitzgerald seems quite close to that of Cather. In The Great Gatsby as well as in A Lost Lady, we have the same bitter and sometimes ironic tone when looking at the world’s decline. Gatsby is in many ways based upon Captain Forrester, who has a significant reputation (although in his case it is also real, as opposed to that of Gatsby) among his fellow citizens. As it has been observed earlier, Mrs. Forrester also plays the role of the American dream, although she cannot sustain it eventually. She thus makes Daisy’s choice of materialism when she becomes Ellinger’s mistress, and renounces the Captain.  The Forresters live in a small town in Nebraska, called Sweet Water. First of all, Daniel Forrester’s style of life which resembles that of Gatsby points to the influence of Cather’s novel over Fitzgerald’s. Thus, the Captain is a “great man” (Cather, 12), just like Gatsby. Although, Gatsby’s past is his own invention, the same idea of historical importance is attached to both characters. Forrester is actually one of the settlers, the railroad constructor who helped building civilization in the wildness: “a railroad man, a contractor, who had built hundreds of miles of road for the Burlington, — over the sage brush and cattle country, and on up into the Black Hills” (Cather, 10). The aristocratic harmonious parties given by Gatsby also seem to have been influenced by the ones that take place at the Forresters house. Gatsby’s generosity is paralleled by Forrester’s magnanimity. The Captain is actually ruined when he restores the depositor’s funds of a failing bank. As Bloom emphasizes, he appears as the believer in generosity and nobility, two essential qualities of the American Dream:

“In at least one instance, as the only director of the failing bank to restore the depositors’ funds, Captain Forrester stubbornly clings to the ideals of generosity and nobility that were the real glory of the Western dream. His only guilt is his failure to follow his vision, and his self-recognition invites our compassion. Thus, as a frustrated pioneer living to see the result of his own weakness, he takes on an intensified pathos.”(Bloom, 71)

As Webb emphasizes, Forrester’s philosophy takes dream away from the realm of imagination and introduces it into the world of action:

“Forrester’s philosophy thus eliminates what seems essential about dreaming–that it happens in the mind, that it happens prior to the state of affairs that it envisions, and that it has some causal role in accomplishing that state of affairs. Dreaming in the way Forrester means is not a mental phenomenon at all.”(Webb, 543)

Gatsby’s belief in the human dream and in the possibility of transforming every appearance into reality and real action is recognizable in Forrester’s almost identical creed: “a thing that is dreamed of in the way I mean, is already an accomplished fact” (Cather, 64). There is no substantial difference between fact and dream, and this is the exact expression of the American idealism of transforming dream into action. Just like Gatsby however, Forrester soon becomes the victim of his own dream. His decline begins when, after becoming broke, he has a stroke and then gradually sinks more and more:

’Once last winter he had been drinking with some old friends at the Antlers, — nothing unusual, just as he always did, as a man must be able to do, — but it was too much for him. When he came out to join me in the carriage,’ Marian Forrester said, ‘coming down that long walk, you know, he fell. There was no ice, he didn’t slip. It was simply because he was unsteady. He had trouble getting up. I still shiver to think of it. To me, it was as if one of the mountains had fallen down.’” (Cather, 179) The greatness of Gatsby is mirrored by Mrs. Forrester’s expression about her husband: she compares him with a mountain falling crumbling down. Gatsby is also taken down while pursuing his dream Daisy. He is murdered by Wilson, Myrtle’s husband, who is convinced that it was him who killed his wife in the car accident. The actual culprit was actually Daisy herself, who had borrowed Gatsby’s car. As the author hints, Tom and Daisy were careful to keep this secret through a conspiracy. Thus, Tom triumphs over Gatsby, just as Ivy Peters triumphs over Forrester: “[Ivy Peters] would drink up the mirage”. (Cather, 90) Peters’ name nickname as a child, “Poison Ivy” is symbolic, as it stresses the deadly effect of materialism and capitalism on society. Also, the grotesque act of violence performed by the little Ivy who maims a woodpecker and pulls out its eyes is restated in The Great Gatsby. Tom is also very brutal violently hits Myrtle at a party when she repeats Daisy’s name over and over.

Thus, Gatsby is replaced by Tom, just like the Captain is by Ivy Peters. The Captain replaced the Indians when he settled in Sweet Water, but, he will be, as Cather herself hints, replaced in his turn by the capitalists: “Something forbidden had come into his voice, the lonely, defiant note that is so often heard in the voices of old Indians” (Cather, 45).

Thus, it is plain that the opposition between Forrester and Ivy Peters is played again in Fitzgerald’s novel, through the antagonistic Gatsby and Tom Buchanan. Even from the beginning of the novel, Cather divides society into two classes: the homesteaders and the capitalists coming from the East:

“There were then two distinct social strata in the prairie States; the homesteaders and hand-workers who were there to make a living, and the bankers and gentlemen ranchers who came from the Atlantic seaboard to invest money and to ‘develop our great West’ as they used to tell us.” (Cather, 3).

This division is also present in The Great Gatsby, through the symbolic opposition between the East Egg an the West Egg. The Old West belongs, as Cather points out, to the unpractical dreamers, who will be removed by the capitalist and investors:

“The Old West had been settled by dreamers, greathearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence; a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defense, who could conquer but could not bold. Now all the vast territory they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risked anything.”(Cather, 89)

The new generation, that of Tom Buchanan and Ivy Peters is the representative of the pettiness, opposed to the old greatness: “A generation of shrewd young men, trained to petty economies by hard times”(Cather, 8)

Besides the parallels between the two pairs of characters, Gatsby and Forrester and Tom Buchanan and Ivy Peters, the novels also share in the construction of the female characters, Daisy and Mrs. Forrester. Both are beautiful, sophisticated aristocratic women, almost exotic and exercising a great attraction over the others. Although Daisy is not criticized very much by Nick in The Great Gatsby, her model, Mrs. Forrester, is the symbol of corruption in Cather’s novel. The disappointment that she causes to Niel is symbolic. She is the one who betrays first the American dream and takes company with the ones that represent immorality and corruption, like Ivy Peters. Her adultery is note merely an instance of immorality, but a betrayal of the aesthetic ideal: “It was not a moral scruple she had outraged, but an aesthetic ideal” (Cather 72)

As Bloom shows, Mrs. Forrester is the one that actually drifts away from the ideal and adopts the opposite attitude:

“Mrs. Forrester is genuinely tragic because she drifts away from the felicitous spirit of the pioneer and is absorbed into the new evil order promulgated by men like Ivy Peters. That she had violated ‘a moral scruple’ was a sin, to be sure. But in the opinion of her disillusioned champion Niel, she had added to this sin one of a much deeper gravity. She had outraged “an esthetic idea” in which resided the absolute values of beauty and moral good.”(Bloom, 99)

Daisy too makes the same choice between the ideal, represented by Gatsby and the conventional stability offered by Tom, symbolizing materialism in general:

“She wanted her life shaped now, immediately–and the decision must be made by some force–of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality–that was close at hand.”(Fitzgerald, 89)

Mrs. Forrester also serves as a model for Daisy the character, not only for her as a symbol. Thus, Marian is extremely charming not through what she does or says, but through her entire attitude and the feeling she transmits:  “The charm of her conversation was not so much in what she said, though she was often witty, but in the quick recognition of her eyes, in the living quality of her voice itself.” (Cather, 70)

The musicality of her laughter and the whole resonant presence of Mrs. Forrester are very similar to those of Daisy: “And never elsewhere had he heard anything like her inviting, musical laugh, that was like the distant measures of dance music, heard through opening and shutting doors” (Cather, 41-42).

Nick himself is fascinated by Daisy’s manner of speaking and murmuring:

“This was untrue. I am not even faintly like a rose. She was only extemporizing but a stirring warmth flowed from her as if her heart was trying to come out to you concealed in one of those breathless, thrilling words.”(Fitzgerald, 10)

Both Daisy and Mrs. Forrester benefit from the class privilege that allows them a certain freedom of action and a possibility to be immoral without suffering the consequences:

“[…]with Adolph Blum her secrets were safe. His mind was feudal; the rich and fortunate were also the privileged. These warm-blooded, quick-breathing people took chances,–followed impulses only dimly understandable to a boy who was wet and weather-chapped all the year. (Cather, 68)

The two women are indeed charming, but at the same time, both seem artificial at some point, suggesting the shift from true idealism to mere superficiality and ornament:

“For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes.”(Fitzgerald, 78)

It is also interesting to notice that while Daisy is Gatsby’s supreme ideal, Mrs. Forrester is Niel’s ideal. Both are eventually tainted by the materialism of the rising capitalist generation.

The two narrators of the stories, Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby and Niel Herbert in A Lost Lady are both extremely subjective and personal in their accounts. Although Cather’s narrative is given in the third person singular, the subjectivity of the point of view is obvious. Niel’s disenchantment with the new world and his nostalgia for the past, represented in his mind by the old condition of Forresters summarizes the message of the novel. Likewise Nick, although even more subjective and impressionistic in his accounts, obviously endorses Gatsby’s ideal. Nick seems rather a spectator in many parts of the novel and renders his version of the events in a pictorial, photographic manner, always studying the effect that each objective event has on his inner world.

However, it is plain that he is Gatsby’s most ardent admirer, although he does not expresses so. In the end of The Great Gatsby for instance, he identifies himself with his middle west, therefore with the ideal that Gatsby represents:

“That’s my middle west[…] I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see 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.”(Fitzgerald, 177)

Thus, as Seguin points out, Nick is certainly based on Cather’s Niel: “The Nick Carraway we know today only fully emerges after Fitzgerald reads A Lost Lady, where there is, if not a first-person narrator, at least a limited third-person narrator who closely follows the perspective of Niel Herbert and his ambivalent fascination with the charming Marian Forrester (a relationship echoed in The Great Gatsby).”(Seguin, 922)

The main difference is that Niel chooses the wrong ideal to admire, that is, Marian Forrester who in the end terribly disappoints him and changes his vision of the world. As Seguin shows, Cather and Fitzgerald do not share only the common concerns about social structure, but also connect this theme with affect and love:

“[…]both Cather and Fitzgerald are equally concerned with questions of class and social structure. In particular, it is Cathers’s use of affect as a means of charting social space and cultural change that Fitzgerald learned from but also altered for his own purposes: what is an aesthetic pedagogy is also, and at a certain level indistinguishably, an emotional pedagogy.”(Seguin, 922)

The cultural change that takes place is thus connected for both authors with the interpersonal relations and the change in priorities for the individual. Both Nick and Niel perceive the sharp difference between the old and the new, between East and West. For Niel, in the beginning, Mrs. Forrester represents the absolute ideal, a different world from everything he knew: “He was proud now that at the first moment he had recognized her as belonging to a different world from any he had ever known”.(Cather, 33)

When this ideal is shattered, he retains the doleful image of the bouquet of roses that he had smashed when he saw the corruption of Marian:

“He went down the hill touched and happy. As he passed over the bridge his spirits suddenly fell. Would that chilling doubt always lie in wait for him, down there in the mud, where he had thrown his roses one morning?” (Cather, 100)Thus, the symbol of the ideal trampled in the mud is symbolic. Niel observes thus the general decay and the tendency towards disorganization and laxity of the moral and aesthetic values.

As it can be noticed, Fitzgerald was indeed influenced to a great extent by Cather’s fiction in the construction of his characters, as well as in the articulation of the major themes. The style and the language of the novels also share common traits. For instance, the opposition between idealism and corruption is done through similar symbols, and the tone is equally nostalgic. Also, the authors emphasize the differences between the old and the new through the antagonism of the two social classes, representing the West and the East. One important contribution of The Great Gatsby is connected with the emphasis on the jazz music that was indeed specific of the age. The musical piece played at Gatsby’s party and entitled “The Jazz History of the World” is very significant as it points to the essence of modernist fiction in general, which is structured, like the piece around more themes or impressions, and does not have a single core.

Thus, Fitzgerald’s novel is based on Cather’s A Lost Lady, and it develops the theme that his inspirational source had sketched: the American dream collapsed for ever during the Roaring Twenties. The civilization and the industrialization leave behind only a heap of ashes, as Fitzgerald suggests, menacing the human environment: “This is a valley of ashes–a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.”(Fitzgerald, 23)  The smile of Gatsby that provided absolute understanding, confidence and belief is the perfect representation of the American Dream:  “It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on YOU with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself[…]”(Fitzgerald)


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