The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 23, 2014

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The Great Gatsby
John A. Pidgeon (from MA 49:2, Spring 2007) - 03/06/08

I am absolutely convinced that The Great Gatsby (1925) is one of the finest pieces of American literature. It is such because F. Scott Fitzgerald has displayed not only insight into the American psyche but also a magnificent grasp of “The American Dream” which Jay Gatsby represents.

Much of America was settled by people who brought with them the doctrines of John Calvin. The Calvinist belief with which we are most concerned today is the “Doctrine of the Elect” that essentially proposes that mankind is doomed to eternal damnation, for it is burdened with original sin. Calvin held out no hope that man could be saved; as a matter of fact, he thought it impossible except for those few whom God had predetermined would be spared. This group, whose identity was known only to God, was called “The Elect.” Calvin suggested that a member of The Elect could be “dropped” by God if he failed to live a proper life of hard work and atonement, hoping that, if he should be one of the Elect, he would not lose this station.

When the Puritans settled in America, they brought with them these beliefs, and as time passed became more and more obsessed with learning who the Elect really were, despite the fact that they had been taught that this was impossible. In looking for a sign, they came to believe that the possession of material things might be an indication, since it was likely that one who had such objects must have worked and prayed hard and long. Of course, it is often true that those who do work hard frequently amass a considerable number of material things. Since hard work was associated with God, and since hard work often resulted in wealth, it was not long before these two things became associated. Wealth came to be a sign of goodness, since it indicated membership in the Elect.

From this, it is easy to see where snobbery in American life is derived. A person who was not well-to-do and who did not belong to the right club or attend the right school was considered not only poor, but sinful. The pursuit of wealth came to have a meaning which transcended the mere desire to be more comfortable. It served in an attempt to erase original sin and earn eternal salvation. Striving for wealth has become a way for Americans to ease their consciences, while one’s morality is often measured by the ability to acquire material possessions.

In America, however, several other factors have been at work. They combine with the Puritan ethic to create what we can call “The American Dream.” This dream is founded upon the philosophical fundamentals on which our nation was built, summed up in Thomas Jefferson’s expression that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights to liberty, life and the pursuit of happiness. In other words, America was to be a place where men were politically free to pursue whatever goal they wished.

The second factor incorporated into the American Dream resulted from the legacy of the Transcendental revolt that took place from about 1830 to 1860, a revolt which attempted to free man from the burden of the old Puritan conscience, by imparting the idea that man and God were not separate entities, but one. Therefore it was essential that each individual should behave as an individual in order to represent faithfully the elements of God within him. The Puritan wealth/goodness concept gave Americans a goal to pursue; our political philosophy freed us to pursue this goal, and Transcendentalism showed men that they, as individuals, were to lead the way.

Out of the combination of puritanism, democracy and transcendentalism has emerged the term “rugged individualism” that describes an inner-directed, individualistic approach to the acquisition of material wealth, an approach which every man is free to take. And out of this comes the idea of the American Dream, the idea that one can, if one wishes, make a fortune, rise to great heights, and achieve. However, always in the background is the belief that the only truly worthy achievement is that leading to material gain. Perhaps the most famous literary example of this is the Horatio Alger stories which in their time were perhaps the most widely read literary endeavors in America. These stories all follow the same pattern; a poor boy perseveres through hard work, goes from rags to riches, climbs the ladder of success, and earns not only wealth but also acceptance from the “better people,” the wealthy in our society.

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