Jay Gatsby and the Myth of American Origins

Leo Marx, Kenan Professor of American Cultural History (Emeritus) Program in Science, Technology, and Society, MIT

Description: America's supreme economic, political and military power in the world is matched, says Leo Marx, by "correspondingly ardent, patriotic, nationalistic 'thinking of a large number of Americans, dedicated to the idea of America's unique, divinely ordained role in the world." But this "amalgam of Christian fundamentalist religion and dogmatic patriotism is 'deeply rooted in our history," he continues. Look no farther than F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, for one writer's take on the notion of America's "special and predestined role in world history." Marx teases a wealth of meaning from the final passages of this famous story, an atypical whodunit that's more "a characterological or anthropological mystery." A clue to the mystery is "in fact, the myth of American origins." Fitzgerald explains the rise and fall of Jay Gatsby, "a representative American," by invoking powerful images of the early American landscape: Henry Hudson's sailors arriving in 1609. The shores of 17th century New York, writes Fitzgerald, appear as the "fresh green breast of the new world." This, says Marx, is a landscape that conforms to the female body, one which is ripe for the taking. It's a landscape that panders to base passions, as well as "to the last and greatest of all human dreams." Arriving Europeans "arouse a dream that seemed graspable ... and they lost it," says Marx. The Europeans polluted the promise of unspoiled, pastoral America through swift conquest and industrialization of the new land, just as Gatsby snuffed out his own dreams through his dizzying leap for wealth. "Our movement into the future is one of increasing control over the natural world," says Marx. He concludes, dryly, "This makes our rather shallow notion of progress somewhat dubious."

About the Speaker(s): Leo Marx's work examines the relationship between technology and culture in 19th and 20th century America. He is the author of The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America(1964),The Pilot and the Passenger: Essays on Literature, Technology, and Culture in America (1988), and editor, with Merritt Roe Smith, of Does Technology Drive History?: The Dilemma of Technological Determinism (1994).

Marx received his B.A. (History and Literature, 1941) and his Ph.D. (History of American Civilization, 1950) from Harvard University. He taught at the University of Minnesota and Amherst College before coming to MIT in 1976. He has three times been a Fulbright Lecturer in Europe, twice a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Rockefeller Fellow. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has been president of the American Studies Association, and chair of the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association.

Host(s): School of Architecture and Planning, Special Program in Urban and Regional Studies


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