The Holocaust Was Complete: The Great Gatsby and the Lost Green Light of Liberty Part II

The second of a two-part look at the impact that the sinking of the Titanic may have had on the conception of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. What does the author mean by ‘the Holocuast was complete’? What was the author saying about the times?

Henry Adams and F. Scott Fitzgerald weren’t the only ones to see the sinking of the great Titanic as a parable of modern times. Someone else who saw it that way was G.K. Chesterton, one of Scott’s favourite British authors and a close friend of his mentor, Shane Leslie. Writing in the Illustrated London News in May 1912, Chesterton could barely contain his anger at the sheer reckless folly of the enterprise. The author found it typical of the mind-boggling extravagance and impunity of the age. It was plain for all to see “that our whole civilisation was indeed very like the Titanic”, both in its “power and its impotence”. The ‘analogy of the shipwreck’ couldn’t have arrived at a better time. It was the most painful of reminders that one day, everything material, no matter how substantial, would melt into air. In his scathing review of the culture of idleness and wastefulness that had ferried its two thousand passengers to disaster, Chesterton put forward a powerful case that the fate of the ship was analogous to that of humanity; it was humanity itself that was shipwrecked. Inquiries might attempt to determine the technical failings of the ship, but there was no doubt at all in the author’s mind that it was the delusions of those who built it and all those onboard, that were responsible for it sinking.

Chesterton saw it in terms rather like those of a mass psychosis. People were anxiously biting off the bait of a garbled dream, in the same way that Gatsby’s guests were responding to the ‘echolalia’ of his enchanted garden. A mirage had formed and the hysteria that defined it was spreading rapidly from shipping line to consumer. The fantasy that White Star had pursued of a floating palace had blinded them to the obvious: the ship had never been fit to sail. The “artificial world” of Daisy Buchanan, just like the hyperreality of the ship, was a world that was driven by want, a craving that could never be satisfied. The ship that had been built was little more than an amusement park — an ‘imagined state’ like Pleasure Island, and the White Star Line was turning everybody who set foot on its gangway into Jackasses. The only conclusion left for Chesterton to draw was that there was a very “real connection” between disasters like Titanic and “a certain frame of mind which refused to expect them”. Any fool could have seen that too much effort had had been given over for the “provision of luxury and levity” and too little for “need and desperation”. It was a floating Land of Cocagne, an over-simulated and over-stimulated deathtrap. White Star had achieved what Luna Park and Dreamland had achieved at Coney Island and turned the suspension of disbelief into a commodity that was fit for infinite consumption. Travel was no longer a means to an end, but a port-of-call in itself — a ‘megaship’ experience that served no practical use at all.

Just sixteen lifeboats were carried by the ship. The number had originally been thirty-two but there had been concerns that the additional clutter would spoil the view for the First Class passengers. It was an absolute treasure-box of riches, the ship’s lounge and four of its Parlour Suites imitating the excessively flamboyant rococo style that had been popular at the court of Louis XIV — a style hinted at in the novel in the allusion to Jean Honoré Fragonard’s painting, The Swing that hangs on the wall of Tom and Myrtle’s  love-nest. The erotic painting depicts a courtier’s young mistress swinging in the gardens at Versailles. Ironically, one of the four suites that featured the style was believed to have been occupied by John Jacob Astor and his 19 year-old former mistress, Madeleine Force. The style, which had a reputation for being superficial, degenerate and illogical couldn’t have been more suited to the Titanic. In James Cameron’s 1997 movie, the character, Rose DeWitt Bukater, ends up floating on a makeshift raft made from a single wooden panel that had once graced the ship’s opulent rococo lounge. If you were to assess on the scale of luxury alone, then Chesterton had a point. The whole thing had been a folly from start to finish.

Readers in the 21st Century are likely to view Chesterton’s objections to the ship as high-minded and sanctimonious. He was a deeply religious man with an uncompromising moral code. But it wasn’t the principles of capital that Chesterton was objecting to, but those who were drunk on capital. Men like J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line, had been living in a deluded world — in a completely destructive “unreality”. It is a criticism that might be extended to Jay Gatsby, whose delusional bid to win back Daisy results in the tragic deaths of George and Myrtle Wilson toward the end of the novel. Theirs too is a story of dreams thwarted and gates closed — their downtrodden life on the lower decks of New York relieved on an irregular basis by crudely sketched fantasies of escape. They have both been beguiled by mirages. For George it’s “that car” which Tom has been promising him since the beginning of the novel, and for Myrtle it’s in the bewitching glossy pages of Town Tattler and those “moving-picture magazines” that she hordes in her love-nest apartment. They were going to get away from the garage among the ashheaps. They were going to “go West” — a partially explicit reference, perhaps, to Horace Greeley’s legendary phrase about American prosperity and responding to the call of Manifest Destiny.

In Chesterton’s estimation, the only people that now truly understood what man was capable of were the ship’s dead. Only they understood what was in our ‘best’ and ‘worst’ natures — what made us great, and what made us absurd. The author reserved his harshest words for the matters of inequality on board the ship. The shameful stories of class divisions upon the voyage had made it clear that there was “more instinctive fraternity and sense of identical interests” on an old pirate ship, than there was “between the emigrants, the aristocrats, the journalists, or the millionaires” who had set out to die together on Titanic. [1] When the death of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, was announced just days after the disaster it must have felt like the dark prince of the Carpathian Mountains who had survived the Whitby shipwreck had risen to spread his doom.

John Gore, writing in The Bodley Head novel, The Barmecide’s Feast that year would both echo and pastiche Chesterton’s high-minded grievances with a last-minute dedication:

“For us, who freed a moment from our gyves, From the thronged ballrooms and the office stools, Dreamed we would trust our small, important lives, To the warped timbers of the ship of fools, Which sails upspoken on a phantom quest, To seek life’s wealth in some unfettered West, while Westward in the dying sunset gleams, the tattered topsail of the ship dreams.”

The novel, as it turns out, is as fitting a tribute to the pleasure-seeking ‘fools’ on the ship as it is to the busloads of guests attending Gatsby’s all-night parties. The novel’s unusual title had been a reference to the extravagant feasts and entertainments provided by Prince Barmecide of Baghdad to the beggars in The Arabian Nights. The food and the wine, as it turns out, are no more than an illusion. The feast that had been laid on for them by the Prince did not exist [2] It didn’t matter whether you were talking about Barmecide, Gatsby or Titanic, the message was the same in each: everybody was after something and it didn’t matter how careless or how foolish you were going to be pursuing it, just so long as you believed you’d had something of value. It was the go-to parable for the Gilded Age.

Writers Joseph Conrad and H.G. Wells were no less critical of the disaster, Conrad writing that the ship had been inadequately built “for the benefit of a fatuous handful of individuals” who had put their blind trust in the “mere material”. Wells, on the otherhand, was consumed with rage about the inequality of survival, horrified that the Liner’s chairman, J. Bruce Ismay had escaped in one of the lifeboats whilst over fifty Third Class children had been left to drown in steerage below. [3] Wells was adamant that the capitalist world would have to wake up to ‘inequalities’ before it suffered the same tragic fate as the ship. His words turned out to be unsually prophetic. In the weeks immediately prior to the February Revolution in Russia, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna had written to Tsar Nicholas II expressing much the same fear: “All of us are about to be overwhelmed by huge waves. All classes, from the lowest to the highest, and even those who are now at the front, have reached the limit!”

The revolution that was coming was already on the waves. [4]

Modernity and Tradition

In his pre-tour address at New York’s Biltmore Hotel some nine years later, Chesterton had, in a figurative sense at least, found himself revisiting the scene of the wreck. He had arrived on Prospero’s island and believed that it was only a matter of time before America’s own “varied rainbows” vanished into air. Chesterton was in a deeply reflective move when he stepped off the ship in New York. Contemplating his full conversion to Catholicism after years of prevarication, the author had embarked on a whistle-stop tour of Jerusalem, Rome and then finally, the United States. [5] It had recently dawned on the author that along with the Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution, Catholicism, in contrast to Socialism and Communism, was perhaps the only truly revolutionary and libertarian belief-system in the world at that time. [6] Only in Rome, where rebellion against modernity was the rule, did clear-sighted and unashamed religious orthodoxy prevail. Only Catholicism, he thought, evoked the spirit of “real democracy”. [7] In Jerusalem and Europe, Chesterton had observed how every other faith was steadily “crumbling”. America, he determined, was the only in the world it still thrived. If Christianity was to survive, then Catholicism was its only hope. [8] The author also remarked that his conversion had been inspired by the work of John Henry Newman, the legendary leader of England’s Oxford Movement that Scott’s Catholic prep school, the Newman School for Boys had been named after.

In America, the author had witnessed modernity and tradition in its most pugnacious forms. Arriving in the country in January 1921 for a lecture tour of the States, Chesterton had immediately discerned a paradox; the repressive gospel of Prohibition didn’t square well with the freedom-loving spirit of the Declaration of Independence. Stepping off the boat in New York the author would tell reporters that the prohibition movement was “a backward step in the direction of slavery”. Every day, more and more restrictions were being placed on human liberties. It was an opinion shared by Scribner’s author and essayist, Katharine Fullerton Gerould. America was no longer a free country in the old sense:

“What we had been regretting was the political ideal which we had been brought up to cherish … our fervid patriotism had been living on history alone: we were reduced to pretending that America was still what America started out to be.”

The ‘giants of the land’ who had prepared its glorious destiny, were gone. [9]

The venue that Chesterton chose to announce his arrival in America was the Biltmore Hotel, the hotel in Midtown Manhattan where just several months earlier Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald had infuriated guests and management alike with their boisterous honeymoon antics. Hoping to get an interview that day (but not), was Scott’s literary sparing-partner, Heywood Broun, whose prickly disappointment would be evident in a report he produced for the New York Tribune the following day: “He’s not as fat as we heard”, he sniped.

Resting his hefty frame in the lounge of the hotel, Chesterton sat and smoked a cigar, occasionally spilling ashes and wondering if by doing so he wasn’t violating some amendment to the Constitution. As the reporters clamoured around him, the author described how the ship’s approach up the river to the Statue of Liberty as one of the most memorable experiences of the trip so far. Chesterton joked that he had been so overwhelmed by the experience that day that he had considered taking all the liquor on board ship and pouring it out on the Statue “in one final libation”. He said he had also been struck by how ‘green’ the Statue looked. Someone commented that this was probably on account of the metals, whose properties, like those of some political parties they could mention, were apt to change colour. The science behind it was disappointingly ordinary: the statue’s exterior had been made of copper and its mesmerising green colour was not down to divine forces, but to a simple process of oxidation. [10]

The extent of just how green the statue looked had been more fully realised when New York officials had flooded the 93 metre colossus with light in December 1916. At precisely six o’clock on December 2nd, President Woodrow Wilson had stood on the deck of The Mayflower looking up at the towering giant when it was suddenly overwhelmed by strobe lights. A short but persuasive campaign led Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World had provided the necessary funds to illuminate the statue from head to toe. A gala evening that was every bit as lavish and exciting as the one at its unveiling in 1886 was now in full swing. Buzzing the statue in her little Curtiss Pusher bi-plane above them was the Liberty Bond aviatrix, Ruth Law, drawing gasps from the spellbound crowd as she performed a mesmerising display around Liberty’s torch. As the sparks from her bi-plane subsided, the word “Liberty” was spelled-out in brilliant neon letters to the cheers of the thousands below. For President Wilson, illuminating the statue had brought all of the country’s founding ideas of liberty, progress and enlightenment together in one iconic, pulsating image. Lady Liberty in her “gown of green stain” had become the ‘beacon light of the western world’. Within just a few moments the thirty-year accumulation of dust and dirt had been poetically transformed into “the precious avatar of the antique.” [11]

As the crowd stood back and consumed the towering spectacle from below, the whole of America breathed a sigh of relief. At its original unveiling in October 1886, the lighting of the torch had provided a climax to the celebrations. The whole concept had been encoded into its name: “Liberty Enlightening the World”.  The idea of light and liberty had been there all along, but for many, the weakness of the light of the torch had been hugely disappointing:  it looked more like a glow worm than a beacon. Not that it stopped the headlines in the next day’s papers: ‘Liberty’s Light!’, the papers roared. [12] Now they had something to equal the scale of that dream. The word had become flesh.

The Statue had been the culmination of every American’s dream. Symbolically at least, its creator, Frédéric Bartholdi had produced a structure that was chiefly composed of light. It was a modern-day Colossus, super-charged with messages declaring the Age of Enlightenment and representing the aspirations of a dazzling new global democracy. Scott presents Gatsby’s house in much the same way. It’s like a box of cosmic energy, a world in which everything sparkles. No one captured this better than director Baz Luhrmann in his 2013 take on the classic.  Jay Gatsby has emerged from the wreckage of the stars to spread the gospel of self-determination. At point in the novel when the house is literally “blazing with light”, his friend Nick tells him that it looks like the World’s Fair — a reference to the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, nicknamed the ‘city of light’ because of the sheer volume of electric being pumped to its 350-acre plot. The “house glowed”, Scott writes at another point.

At the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, the ‘beacon light of human inspiration’ stood for freedom in all things, a chance for humanity escape the cobwebs of the past and move forward in triumph. A five-year old Francis Scott Fitzgerald had visited the exposition in August that year, his young eyes dazzled by the brilliant strobe shooting out of the Electric Tower like some lighthouse from another dimension. When it hit the Court of Fountains below the tower, the light would reveal a set of colossal sculptures depicting the ‘Genius of Man’. Well’s War of the Worlds had been published just three years earlier, and the super-charged beams of light being punched out by the tower that year would have possessed all the other worldliness of the Martians’ lasers. For adults and children alike this vision of liberation would almost certainly have been offset by the most peculiar sense of terror. This queer, unsettling feeling is repeated in the Gatsby novel, but for the most part the light that graces his house and garden is experienced as a positive force. Shortly ahead of one of his weekend parties, the caterers are said to have brought with them “enough coloured lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden”. Again it’s no idle description. The garden is quite literally a heaven on earth, the light of life that defeats the darkness.

Addressing the crowd at the Statue’s re-unveiling in December 1916, the President, echoing the sentiments expressed by Edmund Baylies at the unveiling of the Memorial Lighthouse on South Street, remarked that whilst the light was a staggering achievement of engineering, it was “the light that shined out of our own lives” that really contributed to the liberty, peace and progress of the world. “The world”, declared the President, “was enlightened by ideas and ideals and it was the sacrifices of men that allowed the world to go forward”. The light being cast on the statue was a light being cast on the life of the nation, one that would reveal its “dignity, its serene power, its benign hope and spirit of guidance”. “When I see the statue of liberty”, he continued, “and think of the thrill that must come into some hopeful heart as for the first time an immigrant sees that statue … I wonder if he finds that the spirit of liberty was truly represented among us”.

The sentiments expressed by President Wilson would be revisited in the last few lines of the Gatsby novel. Nick has returned to take one last look at Gatsby’s house. He stands on the beach looking up at the mansion and imagines the trees that might once have stood there — “the fresh, green breast of a new world”. In his mind’s eye, Nick can see the island as it might have appeared to the first Dutch sailors:

“For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

It wasn’t dimes and dollars that gave birth to greatness, but genius. That is what the President was saying. The mood then took a sombre turn. Wilson paused for a moment and surveyed the crowd. There were challenges the world was now facing that presented some difficult questions. France, the country that had donated the statue, and whose spirit it still possessed, was facing the creeping advance of Germany whilst America stood by and did nothing. America had found itself in a very awkward position: was it worthy of it as a symbol? [13]

The author, G.K. Chesterton. A favourite of Scott and a friend of Scott’s mentor Shane Leslie

Men like Chesterton, however, were not in any doubt about its worthiness: for men like him, America, like the Statue, was still the same bright, beguiling lighthouse at the end of the world it had always been. As his ship had pushed intrepidly up the bay he had been completely overwhelmed by the colossus. It had dawned upon him that like Catholicism, the Statue was still in some sense “enlightening the world”: it was “a lamp” for a particular kind of wanderer, “a star to” a particular kind of seafarer.

At the end of his Biltmore address, the author talked of one the few good things to come out of the war with Germany — people no longer talked of Nietzsche, something which would have pleased the author immensely. In Chesterton’s eyes the philosopher’s concept of the Will to Power and his Gospel of the Self, epitomised the selfish rubric of the White Star Line. In England, at least, the Superman had gone out of fashion. [14] The war had been a triumph at both a militaristic and symbolic level: whether it belonged to God or to Science, the Light of the Enlightenment had not been diminished. Better still, over a period of just twenty years, the Statue had turned from dull brown copper colour to a captivating green, or as the newspapers put it in December 1916 “a fire of liberty” against the background of the night. [15]

A Meditation on Light

In September 1922, Chesterton published a book about his experiences in America. If you were to read it today you would probably be struck by just how faithfully its third chapter, Meditation on the Lights of Broadway, anticipates the themes of Gatsby. Walking down this “flaming avenue” Chesterton describes how he is completely overwhelmed by the “artificial suns and stars” of this legendary throughfare. The real stars have faded from the sky and have been replaced by terrestrial ones. The America that Chesterton contemplates is based on one big beautiful deception. This Kaleidoscope nation with its almost mystical attraction to travellers was quite literally a “monstrous jewel”. Moving from port to causeway, the writer imagines the simple immigrant who had escaped to the land of liberty upon some “general rumour and romance of the story of liberation.” Without knowing the native language they would be unable to read the super-bright trade-marks and signs advertising everything from pork to pianos, and because they didn’t understand the words, the words would elevate them to a place high above its skyscrapers. Liberty, the author suggests, would hang like a constellation among the bright coloured lights on the street. The America of New York is presented both as a place of worship and a place to worship — “full of beautiful, unsubstantial and useless things.” Because the immigrant has only ever seen such lights in a church, they would assume them to be imbued with the symbolic and spiritual message. Not knowing any better has allowed him to elevate New York above the ordinary. The lights may have been a little less real on Broadway but they were no less sacred for it.

Like the guests who attend Gatsby’s parties, the New York that Chesterton had arrived in was a fairy-tale world of light. In the author’s estimation, America celebrated “the two most vivid and most mystical of the gifts of God; colour and fire”. To all those who were lucky enough not to able be read, “what a glorious garden of wonders this would have been”. It is hard to know whether the views being expressed by the author were the most crooked of compliments or the prettiest of put downs. Chesterton was saying that the brilliant neon signs of Broadway were only truly magical if you didn’t know what they were selling. Stripped if their glamour and their glitter, they were really quite vulgar. In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald it was “a universe of ineffable gaudiness”.

Scott would of course take this idea to a whole new lyrical level in Gatsby, but it’s clear that he and Chesterton had much in common when it came New York. Part of America’s magnetism and its mesmerism was that there was nothing to understand. It offered nothing at all profound. If you were lucky, you left New York knowing that. And if you didn’t, then you would probably never leave at all. The green light at the end of the dock — or in Chesterton’s case, the beguiling ‘green light’ that was the Statue of Liberty — was, year by year, receding before them. It is a sentiment far that is more powerfully and more beautifully expressed by Gatsby’s friend Nick at the end of the novel as he takes one last look at Gatsby’s house under the vaporising glare of the moonlight:

“As the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world.” [16]

Chesterton’s newly arrived peasants staring up at the neon signs of Broadway and finding themselves unable to read a word of what was written had, like the nation’s original settlers, been compelled into an “aesthetic contemplation” they didn’t understand but whose ‘wonder” was pushing them forward.

In Absolution, the story that Scott had planned as a prologue to The Great Gatsby, a troubled Catholic priest warns a boy about getting too close to the lights of the amusement park. Such places had lights “as big as stars”. They had things here you’d never dreamed of. Big wheels of light turning in the air — everything would be twinkling. But don’t get too close, he warned the boy. If he did, the reality of place would hit him and the illusion would be destroyed. Contemplating the spectacle from just a short distance away would ensure that it all remained as “ineffably gorgeous” as the fantasies that had once spun themselves out in the brain of a young Jay Gatsby. Getting a glimpse of its true nature would destroy it forever.

Chesterton ended his own review of the city by addressing the bleak and frustrating reality of what he has seen: “Equality is still the ideal but no longer the reality of America”. [17] The things that America’s immigrants had hoped to see upon arrival, had been lost already. Edward Hale Bierstadt had said it. Katharine Fullerton Gerould had said it. Now Chesterton was saying it. America had entered a period of intense national reflection and many of its greatest minds had found themselves wrestling these same issues. If Fitzgerald could be accused of anything, it certainly wouldn’t be plagiarism, it would be of tuning-in his own intricate seismometer into those barely cognisant metaphors of the age: the realisation that the American Dream had died before it had ever been formally christened. All that remained of it now was a dream of the dream.

The Rising Tide

By 1912, the long cherished idea of America’s great ‘melting pot’ was in danger of being lost. The Titanic had gone down and taken the best part of American tolerance with it. Ideas about what it was to be an American were changing rapidly. Within days of the disaster, America’s newly launched conspiracy journal, The Aurora Menace, would draw a portentous cosmic connection between the sinking of the ship and the fate of the Spanish Armada. The journal had taken the view that the disaster had been the act of a manifestly Protestant God who had been punishing America for yielding to Papal influence. The death of Major Butt who had been travelling back from Rome was cited as evidence that President Taft was embarking on a dangerous political journey. [18] Just three weeks after the tragedy, the same newspaper alerted its readers to the thanks expressed by Cardinal Farley to Father Thomas Byles, the selfless Catholic priest who had knelt with Irish passengers in steerage as the vessel sank, providing comfort and hearing confessions: “Who put up the money for this absolution?”, the paper growled. [19] A few years later, the Irish Catholic writer, Katharine Tynan, would write that there was a rumour going around Ireland at the time that Protestant ship workers on Titanic had scrawled ‘To Hell with the Pope’ over every sheet and plank of the vessel. Katharine, a good friend of Scott’s mentor, Shane Leslie, added that it had taken by some as the most unsettling of omens. The claim was corroborated by William Wray Skilbeck’s respected periodical, The Nineteenth Century and After. According to the journal’s contributor, Rev. Thomas Chatterton Hammond, a Dublin priest had attributed the loss of the Titanic to the fact that “every rivet was driven home to the tune of ‘ To hell with the Pope.’” Even if the great ship itself had sunk like lead to the bottom of the ocean, the various rumours of cover-ups and conspiracies would ensure that the Titanic legend would remain buoyant for years. The Irish Home Rule Bill introduced by Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith on April 11th, 1912 would provide the fuel for a decade of sectarian myth-mythmaking. Here was another journey on which no one would be safe.

The newspapers in America who ignored the ‘Rome Rule’ conspiracies, focused instead upon the issue of immigration — media interest in the ship having rekindled discussion about who America should welcome: “the time has come when the United States must more and more carefully select those we will admit to our shores and whom we will convey citizenship”. [20] Some 877,000 migrants had arrived in America in 1911, the figure falling slightly in 1912. Somewhere between 80-90% of those travelling on Titanic were immigrants. Just weeks before the disaster the American Immigration and Distribution League had convened for their inaugural convention at the Hotel Manhattan in New York. Urgent measures were being demanded to deal with the rising tide of foreign workers. As if to prove the point, the six Chinese sailors who had survived the Titanic disaster were duly deported to Cuba. The little support they did have, came from the stalwart men and women of New York’s Seamen’s Church Institute on South Street. It wasn’t just the four compartments of the ship’s hull that had been fatally exposed that night, but the religious and class divisions that defined the whole of the Western world.

In his classic 1922 review of America’s failing democracy, reporter and political commentator Walter Lippmann recalled the great ‘Melting Pot Pageant’ that had taken place on the Fourth of July 1917 in Detroit. It was on this day that four hundred immigrant graduates had emerged from a huge wooden and canvas pot as fully-fledged Americans. After the band had stopped playing, the principal of the school dressed as Uncle Sam had marched the men in their own national costumes and singing their national songs, blithely into the cauldron. When they emerged, the men would be wearing Derby hats, Polka-dot ties and singing the Star Spangled Banner. [21] As the former White Sox manager, Jimmy Callahan remarked a few days later, baseball had “always been one of the great melting pots of America”. [22] The choice of the ballpark couldn’t have been better conceived. The men had entered the amusement park of Americanization. They had walked on to the ball park as migrants and walked-off it as patriotic ‘Citizens’.

The next few years would begin to see increasing resentment of the nation’s Jews, Blacks and Catholics. It is, of course, easy to forget that the idea of America’s ‘Melting Pot’ had been in existence long before the British author, Israel Zangwill had re-forged it in the crucible of his own pro-immigration theatre production in 1908. The ‘melting pot’ metaphor had, in actual fact, come from the pen of ‘exuberant” Catholic-American, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, a fiercely passionate advocate of the American Revolution. His birth to a family of nobles in Caen in Normandy may well have featured a gothic mansion every bit as implausible as Gatsby’s own faux-Normandy castle in the book. Crevecoeur, an enthusiastic and versatile agronomist had conceived the idea in his 1782 series of essays, Letters from an American Farmer. The rich brew of cultures drawn from Crevecoeur’s melting pot were perceived to have combined into a new race of man:

“What then is … this new man? He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds …  Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

Like G.K Chesterton, Crevecoeurs had come to believe that there were logical continuities between the notions of liberty in the constitution of the Catholic faith and the Constitution of America. [23] In the end, the irony couldn’t have been any more perverse: it was the slippery, melting influence of the Newfoundland ice banks that led to the sinking of Titanic, but it was the future of its America’s Melting Pot that was now facing the gravest threat. By 1912, everything that had once been solid and reliable in the world had was coming to pieces.

The Holocaust was Complete

The lesson to be learned in Gatsby is a hard one: it is one thing to be reaching wistfully for the green light at the end of the dock and its quite another to have its powerful electric pulse throb violently in your hand. Upon contact with the material dimensions of his dream, Gatsby falls apart like the Titanic in the North Atlantic, dropping not to the bottom of the ocean, but to the bottom of his own beautiful, yet almost purely ornamental, swimming pool. [24] The actor has made the fatal mistake of believing that the part he had played, and the world he had created for himself was absolutely real, and, like the Titanic — “the last and greatest of all human dreams” — absolutely unsinkable. [25] It could well have ended there with Gatsby being damned, his elaborate charade exposed and his sins left unforgiven. But it doesn’t. With a wave of his hand, his friend Nick casually absolves him of any past offences. “They’re a rotten crowd,” he shouts across the lawn as he leaves. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together”. Gatsby has confessed his lies to Nick. He has told him all about his poor farming upbringing in Minnesota, the “the strange tales of his youth” with the debauched Dan Cody and the “long secret extravaganza” of deceptions he had been playing on people since. Nevertheless, like the hundreds of selfless souls who had gone down with the ship that night, he had paid the ultimate sacrifice in saving Daisy. His atonement granted, Gatsby’s face breaks into a smile.

Readers respond differently to the end of the novel. There are those who think it is depressingly bleak and those who think it is oddly reassuring. For the former, the ‘orgastic’ green light which had once seemed so enchanting was once again just a green light at the end of a dock. Like Gatsby, their “count of enchanted objects had diminished by one”. [26] The telephone message he was expecting from Daisy never comes and Gatsby dies knowing that the dream is over. These readers think that upon contact with reality, Gatsby’s impossible and “incorruptible dream” had fallen apart: “With little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves, the laden mattress moved irregularly down the pool.” Gatsby — “a son of God” — dies alone in his ornate marble swimming pool, murdered by a gunman no more in control of his dreams (or his nightmares) than the great man himself. For these readers the ‘holocaust’ was indeed complete — a sacrifice had been made.

For other readers, perhaps less overwhelmed by the brutality of the ending, the power of the green light would only ever grow stronger. As Edmund L. Baylies explained at the unveiling of the Lantern Memorial Tower on the first anniversary of the Titanic disaster, the distinctive green beam now pulsing across New York Bay would remind all those who approached its shores of the brave and unselfish spirit that had helped so many survive. What they had been left with, he explained, was a “sacramental sign” to keep that light visible. Like Baylies, Fitzgerald had created a monument that had been built on the notion of sacrifice. In a world in which we were all too easily distracted by “competitive ambition”, Gatsby, like the lantern, would remind us of the even greater things we might achieve when it was done not for the pure, unselfish love of others. The novel, like the tower, would stand not for sadness but for inspiration.

The latter response rests on one thing: the reader has to believe that the energy from the light that had pushed Gatsby to do ‘great’ things can be renewed on an infinite basis. At one point in the novel, the characters discuss the strength and lifespan of the sun’s rays: was the sun getting hotter or getting cooler every year? Nobody seemed to know. It is only when Gatsby, the novel’s immaculately white-suited Sun King, is tragically gunned down by Wilson that we learn anything at all about the utterly baffling science behind the handsome young millionaire’s life-giving rays. In the moments before his death, the sunlight around his pool is more “raw” than ever, the sky more “unfamiliar”. As his dream recedes Gatsby finds himself in a painful new world, more ‘material’ but less ‘real’. He is like the spirit of Canterville Chase attempting to materialise and feeling the ache of the physical world sink into his bones:

“He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is … A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about.”

At the time of his death, Gatsby has entered what the poet T.S. Eliot might have called the ‘unreal city’, the misleading world of the senses that separates us from the more ‘real’ world of the spirit. The ideal he had held in his mind had always seemed more ‘real’ and more satisfying than the sensory world around him. [27] Gatsby’s friend Nick makes the same distinction a few pages later when he describes the intensely real impressions left upon him by Gatsby’s parties. These memories had remained so vivid that the music and the laughter that echoed around his brain long after Gatsby’s death was far more compelling than the ‘material car’ that turns up at the empty mansion one night. For Nick, the car holds no interest at all.

People often miss the metaphysical nature of the novel because it is buried so skilfully (and so very self-consciously) within the thrilling sighs and sirens of an action-romance. People often miss the metaphysical nature of the novel because it is buried so skilfully (and so very self-consciously) within the thrilling sighs and sirens of an action-romance. However, one only has to look to the book’s dedication to ‘Thomas Parke D’Invilliers’, a thinly disguised allusion to Scott’s friend, John Peale Bishop to appreciate the considerable weight of influence placed on the book by the Romantic poets and the philosophy of Kant and Nietzsche. As several biographers have observed, the classmates would spend hours in their dorms at Princeton discussing in an intoxicated fashion, the works of Shelley, Keats and Byron. Despite being an exceptional movie-maker, Baz Luhrmann’s take on the literary classic focuses almost entirely on the theme of love and extravagance. Little if any attention is paid to the fundamental nature of reality and the role it plays in progress and shaping nations. The punters and pundits of the 21st century care little for these things. We live in a post-truth world and accept its fatal dystrophy, almost without condition. Back in the 1922 however, these things mattered enormously. Philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche had left writers like Scott with a question: was there any intrinsic difference between the world of the ‘apparent’ and the world of the ‘real’? Ideas like these had their roots not only in Plato, Kant and Christianity but in the spiritualist beliefs of self-styled American prophets like Henry Seward Hubbard, who in his 1896 book, Beyond had given examples of “things real but not material, and of things material but not real”. For men like Hubbard and Nietzsche, the only things that were real in this world were the things that had meaning. The things we felt were the things that were real.

That Scott’s novel was published on Good Friday only adds to the scene’s undeniable religious frisson. One of the very last things that Gatsby does in the novel is shoulder the mattress to the pool. For a moment he stumbles and one of his servants asks he needs a little help. Gatsby shakes his head and proceeds to the pool alone. Scott is a subtler encoder of the profound within the ordinary and commonplace. In this instance, it is a case of ‘take up thy lilo with willing heart’ — a thinly disguised reference to Christ’s shouldering of the cross on his way to the crucifixion. In the eyes of the young Catholic author, Gatsby is being delivered from the burden of the flesh:

“The laden mattress moved irregularly down the pool. A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb its accidental course with its accidental burden.”

Its last line appears to have been a partial lift of an expression used by his publishing colleague, Katharine Fullerton Gerould in her 1922 story, The Toad and the Jewel. Gerould, the daughter of a Congregationalist priest, had used the phrase ‘accidental burden of the flesh’ to describe the physical limitations of being human. Like Gatsby, the story’s “discarnate” gothic heroine, Joan Delabere, has paid the highest of prices “for living too long”. Her face disfigured, her marriage in ruins, she wishes to die. She feels she has been lying “outside of time and space”. The phrase also had always had strong religious and shipping connotations. It might be the ‘burden’ carried by a ship (which means quite literally the weight of its cargo) or the ‘burden of our sins’ that Jesus was said to have borne on the cross. In all fairness, authors, poets and priests had been referring to the ‘burden of flesh’ for centuries. It is the notion of it being ‘accidental’ that makes Gerould and Fitzgerald’s use of the phrase more interesting. In Land of the Free the following year, Gerould would offer her prognosis of the slow, chronic decline of America: the nation was dying. It was “living on history alone”.

If America was not like other nations, then Gatsby is not like other people. He belongs to another world — a world in which the ideal is far more satisfying than the reality it seeks to consummate. The message had been consistent with the novel’s intended prologue. The priest in that story has such an instinctive loathing for the material world that he would deliberately pass over to the other side of the street to avoid the smell of cheap soap that floats on the breeze from the drug store. Fitzgerald explains that the smell of the soap and the shrill laughter of the girls who pass him on the way home from school create a ‘terrible dissonance’ that prevents his ‘mystical union’ with God. For the priest, the Church had offered an ideal every bit as spellbinding as America. Anything that wasn’t perfect in the world wasn’t worth having. Scott had arrived at the same as Hamlet some four hundred years before; it was better to die in the dream than it was to suffer a ‘weary’ and ‘unworthy’ life. Friedrich Nietzsche, whose philosophy Scott draws upon elsewhere in the novel, said only the quick man would be able to find happiness. Everyone else was either too slow or too stupid. It was only the man who could feel “the progress of a ray of light” that could hope to be “enraptured”. For the rest of us, the fulfilment of the ideal was always frustratingly out of reach. Only the death of God itself would bring man happiness. The German theologian, Martin Luther had once written something similar: man’s insatiable thirst for glory was ended “not by satisfying it but by extinguishing it.” They might have drawn very different conclusions from what they were saying but they were essentially on the same page. The currents had turned awry. Like the heavy leaden mattress that he carries on his shoulder to the pool, Gatsby’s body is weighing down his spirit. Death isn’t an end here. It is a release. [28]

As Gatsby and his mattress drift idly on the pool, the air is unusually still and there is only the most “faint, barely perceptible movement of the water”. With all the stealth and calm of an iceberg, a pale, ashen figure is ‘gliding toward him’ through the trees. Author and social activist, Henry Neil (aka. Marshall Everett) writing of the disaster in May 1912, had used the very same phrase to describe the movement of an iceberg as it travels silently through the water: “a vast plateau of ice may be gliding towards a steamer and giving no indication of its presence.” [29] When the assassin finally emerges, it like he is emerging from the ether of another world. There is no manic shout from the madman, no final scream from the victim. It was just how Titanic survivor Lawrence Beesely had described the collision in his book: there was “no sound of a crash or of anything else; no sense of shock, no jar that felt like one heavy body meeting another.” Just as many of the passengers aboard the Titanic had reported hearing little of the actual impact, Gatsby’s chauffeur would say that he had heard the shots “but hadn’t thought anything much about them”. Herbert Stone, Second Officer on board the SS Californian, which might well have saved the ship, had said much the same thing on observing a flare shooting above the steamer: he had seen a flash across the sky, but “had thought nothing of it.” [30]

Like the great ship itself, Gatsby hadn’t offered a “murmur of protest” against the killing blow. [31] Just as it was on the night of the disaster, everything was absolutely still. The phrase that Scott used to convey of the scale of the tragedy has intrigued literary buffs biographers for years: “the holocaust was complete” — a phrase traditionally reserved for large scale catastrophes. Look over the first newspaper reports of the disaster in April 1912 and you will see the word again: ‘Victims of Titanic Holocaust’, ‘Carpathia: Rescue Ship of the Titanic Holocaust’, ‘Congress has Awakened the meaning of the Titanic Holocaust’. Whether it was the result of coincidence or inspiration, the exact same phrase had been used by Morgan Robertson’s 1898 novella, The Wreck of the Titan, that had been serialised in the press in the wake of the Titanic disaster. The book, which describes the Ocean Liner, The Titan being struck by an iceberg in April, features the deeply portentous line: “Rowland knew that the holocaust was complete; that the invincible Titan, with nearly all of her people … was beneath the surface of the sea.” [32]

The book’s publication on Good Friday, certainly renders ‘holocaust’ an unusual choice of words. When we use the word today, we can’t help but think of the horrific events of World War II and the genocide performed by the Nazis, but in ancient times it meant something different. Originally it had meant an ‘offering’. If Gatsby really had been offered up as a sacrifice at the altar of the American Dream, as some critics have suggested, then the ritualistic nature of the phrase would have carried an additional resonance. In modern times, Judaism proclaims that love not sacrifice, in any of its manifestations, is the route to God’s mercy. But Christianity exhorts other demonstrations of praise and devotion. Among the Paulist Fathers who founded Fitzgerald’s prep school, there is a much greater recognition of the necessity of making sacrifices — not in terms of actual offerings perhaps, but in terms of giving something up for the sake of others. Emil G. Hirsh, writing about ‘holocaust’ in the Jewish Reform Advocate in 1886, explains that in religions like Catholicism, which he equates rather controversially with ‘non-prophetic’ religions, sin may be compensated by gifts of sacrifice. Much the same principle is at work in the last words purported to have been spoken by Jesus on the cross at Calvary: tetelestai (‘consummatum est’) — an ambiguous conflation of ‘the debt is paid’ and ‘it is complete’.

If Scott was using ‘holocaust’ in this way, then it was probably done unconsciously. In the end it might be a key, it might be a clue or it might simply be an instance of plagiarism or coincidence. Whatever the case, there is probably no other real-world event that had embodied so perfectly, the whole notion of tragic grandeur, and I think Scott had been keen to use it to expand the inner world of the book and add emotion and understanding to the fate of the ‘Great Gatsby’ — even if it meant doing it at a subliminal level.

Scott makes no mention of the moment that the gun is fired, just as he makes no explicit reference to Wilson himself. The action all takes place in another dimension where “poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about.” The “ashen, fantastic figure” glides towards him and the deed is done. The last and greatest of all human dreams finally collides with reality. The moment of impact passes by without a whisper and tiny ripples, that are “hardly the shadows of waves”, convey Gatsby’s lifeless body to the hereafter. It’s a moment of intense serenity. A moment of peace. In one final intense eruption of radiation the circuit is complete and the energy behind Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope” hits the earth’s magnetic fields and produces a stunning aurora. In the very last lines of the novel, his blind and infectious romanticism finally rubs off on Nick:

“Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further — and one fine morning. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Gatsby hadn’t lost sight of the green light at the end of the novel; for an entire new generation of Americans, Gatsby had become an essential part of the quanta that made it shine brighter than ever. A new star had been born. [33]

Can’t repeat the past? Of course you can. Read Part I of this story: The Green Light at the End of the Dock: Gatsby and Titanic

Some of the views on religion and politics being expressed in this article are an attempt to articulate the various themes and narratives being explored in the novels and essays cited. They do not necessarily reflect my own views.

[1] ‘The Great Shipwreck as Analogy’, Our Notebook, G.K Chesterton, London Illustrated News, April 27, 1912; The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Ignatius Press, 1988, p.288

[2] ‘The Barmecide’s Feast’, Book Pages of the Sunday Call, San Francisco Call, August 25, 1912, p.15

[3] The Rough Guide to the Titanic, Greg Ward, Penguin Group, 2012, pp.158-159; Down with the Old Canoe, Steven Biel, W.W. Norton & Co., 1998, pp.4-5

[4] History of Russia: Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna and her Martyrdom, Zoya Zhalnina,

[5] Near the end of Chesterton’s life, Pope Pius XI invested him as Knight Commander with Star of the Papal Order of St. Gregory the Great (KC*SG).

[6] Why I am a Catholic, Gilbert Keith Chesterton from Twelve Modern Apostles and Their Creeds, ed. Dr. Henry William Ralph, Duffield and Company, New York, 1926, pp. 19-31

[7] This is a quote, regularly attributed to Chesterton, which he is alleged to have made in the Toronto Daily Star.

[8] ‘G.K. Chesterton Becomes Convert to Catholicism’, The Monitor, August 26 1922, Volume 64, Number 16, p.3

[9] ‘The Land of the Free’, Katharine Fullerton Gerould, Harper Magazine, January 1923, Vol. 146, No.872, p.137-146

[10] ‘Chesterton Here Talks of Liberty’, New York Herald, January 11, 1921, p. 7; ‘Chesterton as a Fat Man Seems Somewhat Overrated’, Heywood Broun, New York Tribune, January 11, 1921, p.6

[11] ‘Plan to Light up Statue of Liberty’, The Sunday Telegram, January 9, 1916, p.1

[12] ‘Liberty’s Light’, The Iola Register, November 5, 1886, p.6

[13] ‘Wilson at Illumination of Statue of Liberty’, Indianapolis News, December 4, 1916, p.11; Robe of Light Given Liberty By President, New York Tribune, December 3, 1916, p.1

[14] ‘Chesterton Here Talks of Liberty’, New York Herald, January 11, 1921, p. 7. There was talking of restoring the original copper colour of the statue (and even painting it) as far back as 1906.

[15] Advertisement, Perth Amboy Evening news, November 28, 1916, p.11

[16] The Great Gatsby, pp. 170-171.

[17] What I Saw in America, G.K Chesterton,  Dodd, Mead and Company, September 1922, pp. 33-47

[18] ‘Major Butt Lost at Sea’, The Menace (Aurora, Missouri), April 27, 1912, p.4. The Aurora Menace had been founded immediately after the appointment of Catholic, Joseph Patrick Tumulty as adviser to President Taft in 1911.

[19] ‘Father Byles … Gave Many Absolution’, New York Sun, April 22, 1912 p.3; The Menace (Aurora, Missouri), May 11, 1912, p.1

[20] ‘Select the Immigrants’, Morning Oregonian, April 22, 1912, p.8. Chinese immigrants were forbade entry as a result of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

[21] Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann, George Allen and Unwin, 1922, pp.86-87; ‘Ford Class of 512: ‘Citizens Ready’’, The Mobile Item, February 28, 1916, p.4

[22] ‘Jim Callahan Believes End of War Will Bring International Baseball’, The Evening Journal (Wilmington), July 7, 1917, p.10

[23] Letters from an American Farmer, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1784), Duffield & Company, New York, 1904, pp. 54-55. Crèvecoeur would play an active part in founding the first Catholic Church in New York (St Peters Church, Manhattan).

[24] At the risk of going too far with the analogy, Gatsby twice tells Nick that he hadn’t once used the pool in which he dies that afternoon. The afternoon of the shooting is the first time he has used it. Could this be construed as Gatsby’s ‘maiden voyage’?

[25] “The last and greatest of all human dreams ..” features in the final few paragraphs of The Great Gatsby. Back in 1925, it may also have been a good way of describing the Titanic, the last ‘ungodly’ symbol of the Gilded Age.

[26] TGG, p.90

[27] TGG, pp.153-154. Nick amplifies this belief elsewhere in the novel: “Gatsby sometimes ‘stared around at his possessions in a dazed way, as though in her actual and astounding presence none of it was any longer real.” (TGG, p.88)

[28] Valiant Dust, Katharine Fullerton Gerould, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922, p.311. Katharine had provided a favourable review of one of his first literary efforts for the Nassau Literary Magazine at Princeton University (‘Tarquin of Cheapside’, April 1917); TGG, pp.153-154. Legend says that the toad with a jewel on its forehead is warning of a disaster.

[29] Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic, Marshall Everett, L.H. Walter, 1912, p.114. Neil writes dramatically of the ‘cold, obliterating calm’ of the smooth ocean that night.

[30] The Ship that Stood Still, Leslie Reade, Norton, 1993, p.355. The phrase was used by H.B Stephenson (Mauritz Håkan Björnström-Steffansson), a Swedish military attaché (see: ‘H.B Stephenson’, Birmingham Herald, April 19, 1912, p.15). It was a phrase repeated by survivor, George Rheims.

[31] The Loss of the SS Titanic, Lawrence Beesley, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912, p.54, p.104

[32] The Wreck of the Titan: or Futility, Morgan Robertson, M.F. Mansfield, 1898, p.28. The similarities between the book and the Titanic disaster were thought to be astonishing at the time. The author dismissed claims that he was clairvoyant. I have wondered if the ‘leg of transit’ line in Gatsby is a nautical/maritime reference (a phrase that combines notions of transit lines and the movement of a mariner’s chart dividers on a map). Gatsby’s lilo is being depicted as a vessel. In his manuscript Scott had written down ‘transept’ instead of transit. He admitted to his editor he had meant the legs of a compass.

[33] The Great Gatsby, p.90, p.171

It was after we started with Gatsby toward the house that the gardener saw Wilson’s body a little way off in the grass, and the holocaust was complete.

The Great Gatsby, p. 154