Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why We Love Gatsby

The popularity of (and critical admiration for) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has grown, shrunk, and grown again since its publication in 1925. It was modestly successful at first, then nearly forgotten, then eventually recognized by scholars as one of the great novels of the English language. The book’s revival and survival at the top of American literature is certainly due to Fitzgerald’s skill with words, but it’s also a result of his creation of a character who is particularly compelling to Americans. The book also has a theme we instinctively understand.
As the book opens Jay Gatsby is in the process of self-reinvention. He has made a great deal of money in a criminal trade, a business never actually identified but presumed to be bootlegging. He downplays his criminal past and plays up his great wealth to win back Daisy Buchanan, a girl who had rejected him years earlier because of his poverty.
Gatsby embodies much of what we Americans admire. He has succeeded in his business, made himself extremely wealthy, yearns for a rise in social status, and hasn’t forgotten an early love. He ticks all the boxes. So, even though he’s a criminal who’s using his ill-gotten money to steal another man’s wife, we tend to like him and are saddened by his death. Victimless crime is not something we particularly hold against him. Gatsby is not just self-made, but also self-remade, and we admire him for that.
American history is filled with men (and they are usually men) who can be called “Gatsby-like” or “Gatsbyesque.” They’ve made money in some unsavory business and they want to hide that fact in order to be accepted by respectable society. Sometimes they’ve gone straight, while sometimes—like Gatsby—they haven’t entirely left the old life behind. But they’ve learned to compartmentalize and want to be acknowledged as something they’re not. The Gilded Age—the decades before and just after the turn of the last century—was filled with self-made businessmen who hoped people would forget their ruthless business practices and remember their charitable work and their lavish lifestyles. Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt—the Robber Barons became the American aristocracy.
Scott Fitzgerald was probably thinking of all of them as he incubated Gatsby and its title character in 1923 and 1924. The Robber Barons weren’t necessarily criminal but they were willing to stretch the bounds of ethics to make their millions, but they each hoped that their sumptuous homes and their generous gifts to worthy causes would mask the origins of their money.  But Fitzgerald also had in mind a character whose scale was somewhere below baronial level, a man who could not just downplay but completely obscure the origin of his money.
When I was researching my book The Best There Ever Was: Dan Patch and the Dawn of the American Century I quickly realized that the great pacer’s second owner, Manley E. Sturges, could easily be described as “Gatsbyesque.” He obscured his early origins and the source of his money (illegal gambling casinos) so well that even his ownership of a celebrated racehorse resulted in entirely inaccurate biographical information about him. As I discovered more about his background, I concluded that he was not only “Gatsbyesque” but may actally have been a model for Fitzgerald’s character. See my earlier entry for more information, check the book’s website: http://www.danpatchbook.com/, or read the book for the details.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Did the real Gatsby own Dan Patch?

The great harness racehorse Dan Patch had three owners during his 20-year lifetime. His first, a small town merchant from Indiana named Dan Messner, was well known locally. His third owner, a patent medicine manufacturer and marketing genius from Minneapolis named Marion Willis Savage, was known nationally, thanks to relentless advertising and promotion. But little was known about Dan Patch’s second owner, and most of what did become public was untrue.
Manley Edwin Sturges was described at the time and since as an elderly bachelor from Buffalo, a broker and a capitalist. He was not from Buffalo, he wasn’t a bachelor (although his wife was kept well out of sight), and–at fifty–he wasn’t elderly. He wasn’t a broker, but he certainly was a capitalist. He was also known as a professional gambler, which was true, although his profession went well beyond placing bets for himself. Sturges, who purchased Dan Patch for $20,000 in March 1903, was the operator of several lucrative illegal casinos in Manhattan, and it was the money earned there that gave him the bankroll to make his big buy.
Sturges’ purchase of one of the best-known athletes in America was part of an effort at personal reinvention. He was in the process of getting out of the illegal gambling business when he acquired Dan Patch and was probably personally responsible for the inaccurate stories about his background. His real back story has uncanny parallels to that of one of literature’s most famous characters.
F.Scott Fitzgerald’s title character in The Great Gatsby has been the subject of speculation for most of the 87 years since the book was published. Most literary scholars consider Jay Gatsby to be a composite character. But most also think that Fitzgerald used aspects of people he knew or knew about to construct a believable man, a criminal who tried to hide his real profession in order to be accepted by society. Several candidates have emerged over the years, but Manley Sturges, whose background most closely resembles that of Jay Gatsby of all of them, has only now been identified as a possibility. Sturges spent his young adulthood in an area similar to Gatsby’s Little Girl Bay on Lake Superior. He was believed to have contact with a Montana copper baron, like Gatsby’s Dan Cody. He was a partner in a casino with a figure a great deal like Gatsby’s mentor Meyer Wolfsheim a character previously presumed to be modeled on the gangster Arnold Rothstein. Sturges’ partner is a closer fit. 
Sturges may have not been previously identified because he was a generation older than Fitzgerald and his criminal activity was gambling rather than bootlegging (liquor was not illegal during the first years of the 20th century). But Sturges and Fitzgerald had several acquaintances in common, one in particular who knew Sturges’ story well and who spent many hours with Fitzgerald during the months that Gatsby was conceived and written. Manley Sturges may be the strongest candidate yet for the title of “The Real Gatsby.”
My book  is The Best There Ever Was: Dan Patch and the Dawn of the American Century. Visit danpatchbook.com.
For more information about me visit sharonbsmith.com.