Add a new discussion to your Great Gatsby unit
If you’re like me, it’s easy to fall into the rabbit hole known as JSTOR, the digital library that contains, according to its website, more than “12 million journal articles, books, images and primary sources.” It’s even easier to fall into the JSTOR rabbit hole when you’re also a huge fan of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Recently, I stumbled across an interesting article that shed some light (for me, anyway) on the critical, climactic moment when Jay Gatsby lost Daisy Buchanan forever.
It’s the precise moment when Tom Buchanan made one particular comment and — POOF! — Jay and Daisy were no more. In the book, it happens quickly albeit over the course of a few paragraphs of perfectly scripted dialogue. And if you’re like me, and struggle to catch every detail (there’s just so many!) folded into Fitzgerald’s prose, it’s easy to miss.
What was Tom’s comment that so unhinged Gatsby? Here it is:
“That drug-store business was just small change,” continued Tom slowly, “but you’ve got something on now that Walter’s afraid to tell me about.”
I like how Fitzgerald has Tom speak slowly here, as if Tom knowingly suspects his divulgence will be Gatsby’s undoing. Fitzgerald follows Tom’s rumor from his friend Walter Chase with a paragraph where Nick tells us that Daisy stares between Gatsby and Tom, Jordan keeps quiet, and finally, Gatsby looks as if he had just “killed a man.”
Nick continues to paint the scene, describing how Jay then “began to talk excitedly to Daisy, denying everything, defending his name against accusations that had not been made.”
Yikes. It’s painful to picture a panic-stricken Gatsby withering beneath the pressure to cover up and explain away Tom’s carefully spoken accusation to Daisy. But it doesn’t work.
Nick continues, “But with every word she (Daisy) was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up, and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily undespairingly, toward that lost voice across the room.”
And with that, Jay lost Daisy
I’ve read The Great Gatsby numerous times, but never really noticed the potential significance of Tom’s slowly spoken words “something on now.” Of course, thanks to my JSTOR discovery, I have a new perspective on the argumentative gymnastics that took place in that “stifling” suite high up in the Plaza Hotel at four o’clock one afternoon in 1922.
What “something” was Tom referring to? Whatever it was, it must have been damning for Gatsby, and Tom knew it.
The “something” couldn’t have been Gatsby’s involvement with boot legging, since Tom acknowledged that that activity was “small change” made in “side-street drug-stores” in New York and Chicago. Clearly, mere bootlegging — Tom calls it a few lines later yet again “one of his little stunts” — wasn’t what did Jay in.
In addition, the “something” couldn’t have been Gatsby’s possible involvement in Meyer Wolfsheim’s 1919 World Series fix. After all, Tom also mentioned that crime, acknowledging how his friend Walter Chase was scared to talk about it due to threats from Wolfsheim.
So if the “something on now” isn’t bootlegging and isn’t gambling, what is it?
Well, that’s where my JSTOR discovery comes into play.
In John H. Randall’s “Jay Gatsby’s Hidden Source of Wealth,” an article published in the Summer 1967 issue of Modern Fiction Studies, Randall makes an interesting argument for what the “something on now” may have been.
The “something on now” could be the Teapot Dome Scandal of the early 1920s.
For more basic info about Teapot Dome, watch this video:
According to the History.com article, “Albert Fall, a former Secretary of the Interior, was charged with accepting bribes from oil companies in exchange for exclusive rights to drill for oil on federal land. The sites included land near a teapot-shaped outcrop in Wyoming known as Teapot Dome, and two other government-owned sites in California named Elk Hills and Buena Vista Hills.”
The scandal reeked of corruption
It involved, History.com explains, “oil tycoons, poker-playing politicians, illegal liquor sales, a murder-suicide, a womanizing president and a bagful of bribery cash delivered on the sly.”
Hmmmm… just the ingredients for “hard-boiled detective fiction”, the term NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan uses to describe The Great Gatsby in her engaging tribute, “So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.”
In fact, Randall notes that the first “crucial transactions” of the Teapot Dome Scandal occurred in 1922, the year The Great Gatsby is set. The scandal, which Randall describes as “the biggest financial scandal of the 1920s,” hit the newsstands in 1924, the year before the novel was published.
As a result, Randall contends that Fitzgerald knew the scandal would be in the minds of readers as they read his novel and that they would naturally make a connection between Jay Gatsby and Teapot Dome.
While Randall does contend that his Teapot Dome idea is purely speculative, he writes that it:
- fits the facts of Fitzgerald’s story
- explains Gatsby’s sudden and mysterious rise to great wealth
- “exemplifies the whole theme of the corruption of man’s aspiration in America.”
I would venture that Teapot Dome might have been similar in scope to the Enron scandal of 2001. Everyone and their dog knew about that bankruptcy, which was, at the time, the largest in U.S. history. Another contemporary connection might be this year’s Theranos/Elizabeth Holmes case that, by the way, offers direct ties to The Great Gatsby as discussed in this post.
Randall argues that the “something on now” is Teapot Dome with more evidence:
- In letters from Max Perkins, Fitzgerald’s editor, he asks the author to insert some brief hints (“little touches of various kinds”) about where Gatsby’s immense wealth comes from. In his revisions, Fitzgerald provides these hints with two allusions to “oil” in Chapters 1 and 5.
- With some quick figuring, Randall also computes that fixing the 1919 World Series would not have afforded Gatsby his extreme wealth. The real-life gambler Arnold Rothstein (upon whom Fitzgerald based Wolfsheim) netted $350,000 from the 1919 fix, an amount that Randall writes would be insufficient to account for Gatsby’s “tremendous affluence.”
- Also, when Gatsby tells Daisy that it took him three years to earn the money to buy his mansion, Randall disputes the timing by arguing that not enough time would have passed from his return from the war in 1919 to 1922. But Teapot Dome? It fits the timeline, Randall speculates.
And it would also explain Gatsby’s wilting, desperate demeanor at The Plaza after Tom makes his slowly uttered climactic comment. Now in Baz Luhrman’s 2013 movie, it’s presented quite differently — and inaccurately, to be sure. An uncharacteristically enraged and humiliated Gatsby, played by Leonardo diCaprio, attacks Tom as Daisy, Nick, and Jordan look on in astonishment. Still, the end result is the same: Daisy sides with Tom, and Gatsby’s dream dies.
But does the Teapot Dome scenario really matter?
No, it doesn’t. But it’s fun to think about.
It’s fun to discuss with students, too, which I contend is one of the most satisfying aspects of teaching The Great Gatsby. There are always more and deeper layers to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, and when I can supplement a text with additional insights, and draw connections across the curriculum to American history and current events, I go for it.
Thanks for reading! I hope I’ve added to your store of possible talking points with your students the next time you teach The Great Gatsby. I’m amazed at how The Great Gatsby is the book that just keeps giving and giving.
Once I feel I have it figured out, I come across an article like Randall’s that opens up new possibilities, new conversations, and new revelations. Have you ever discussed Teapot Dome during your Gatsby units? Leave a comment in the replies below or use my Contact page to tell me your experiences.
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