What it should
FIRST published April 10, 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby gripped the American imagination and, almost a century later, has yet to relinquish its hold. Its personal, poignant narrative, fatally flawed but perfectly drawn characters, and ability to capture a particular place and time set it apart in 20th century American literature.
The story is a cautionary tale, to be sure: the illusory power of the past, the idea of money solving any or all of one’s problems, the mixed bag of virtue and foible that make up each human being, the harsh reality of having your dreams come true. But it also presents another eternal, if less examined conflict, that of Old Money vs. New Money.
Gatsby has acquired the enormous house, the garish clothes, and the fast cars. Yet his mysterious past and bizarre behavior—he has few friends and doesn’t bother to even attend the lavish parties he hosts—cement his dubious social standing, “Wealthy, but not one of us,” in status-conscious Long Island. Gatsby could have been a cliché of the nouveau riche criminal class, but Fitzgerald reveals a vulnerability and awkwardness in him, tethered to a near-universal motivation: he’s done everything he’s done just to try to get his girl back.
Tom Buchanan, on the other hand, is Old Money, but displays the worst characteristics of it. He is arrogant, self-centered, and petty. When it comes down to brass tacks, he shirks responsibility for his actions and, after tragedy befalls others, he slips away in the night, his honor tucked under his arm like stolen goods. It’s a scenario we’ve already heard or read about before: wealth and privilege, behaving badly and walking away from the consequences, unscathed.
There’s another side of Old Money, however, that makes for a less interesting story, but a more interesting study. It’s the Old Money that has integrity; that lives far below its means; that raises its children to be productive, well-adjusted adults; that uses its position and resources not just to preserve and expand its wealth, but to quietly make the world a better place for everyone.
While much of what comprises the culture of Old Money is antithetical to modern society, it has nothing to do with being a snob. Old Money dresses and behaves so that it is not obvious how much money it has or what position it holds in society. Old Money treats others without regard for how much money they have or what position they hold in society.
The geographic epicenter of this culture is Boston, where my wife was raised and educated. Tellingly, the city is also where a Beacon Hill billionaire was recently seen scraping the ice and snow off his own car one morning, just like many other citizens of the city. Make no mistake, some Boston Brahmins (more often pretenders to that throne) can be as elitist as anyone, but their core values of thrift, discretion, hard work, and public service are well-documented. In a world of professional athletes and entertainers constantly proclaiming their own greatness while bathing in bling—and just prior to filing for bankruptcy—such attitudes are refreshing.
Almost two centuries ago, the newly-minted Old Money families of Boston sought to make their city the “Athens of America”. They realized that their quality of life depended on not just their personal wealth, but on the well-being of the general population. They rightly concluded that a well educated, productive, and ethical citizenry would serve everyone well. Consequently, they put their money to work, building universities, libraries, museums, and hospitals. Walking through the city today, it’s easy to argue that they realized their vision.
The Old Money families of Boston, and of other major cities in America, personify a code of behavior: that of an educated, articulate individual who places the interests of his or her community on par with their own personal interests. They prioritize quality of life over a standard of living, eschewing vulgar displays of wealth. They pass this philosophy on to their children, and their children to their children. They act as role models for New Money and the general public.
Old Money is a culture and a philosophy that creates great people, great cities, and great nations. It holds its adherents to a higher standard of behavior, but pays great dividends. If talent does what it can and genius what it must, then Old Money does what it should.
Gatsby, for all his faults, may have understood that. Tom Buchanan, for all his money, never would.