The Great Gatsby in the 21st century

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A graph of countries plotted on the Great Gatsby curve (Source: The complete findings are found in "Inequality from Generation to Generation: The United States in Comparison," by Miles Corak, in The Economics of Inequality, Poverty, and Discrimination in the 21st Centuryedited by Robert Rycroft, ABC-CLIO, forthcoming.


First aired on Day 6 (18/8/12)

F. Scott Fitzgerald published the The Great Gatsby in 1925, but his story of the eccentric millionaire Jay Gatsby is as captivating as ever. A movie adaptation is due out next summer (you can watch the trailer below). A musical version just opened in London, and an eight-hour reading of the novel got rave reviews in New York. There's even a Great Gatsby makeup line in the works. But what accounts for its enduring popularity? And why, in particular, is 2012 the Year of the Gatsby? Day 6 decided to find out.

Sarah Churchwell, who teaches literature at the University of East Anglia and is working on a book about Gatsby, believes that Fitzgerald's story is timeless and universal. "This is a story about human possibility," she said to Day 6 guest host Piya Chattopadhyay. "I think that readers respond to that on a very basic level."

The Great Gatsby is about the American Dream. Nearly 90 years later, the American Dream is still a dominant narrative for much of North America. With an election on the horizon in the United States, the term and what it means today is popping up in campaign speeches and rhetoric from candidates across the political spectrum. But what The Great Gatsby shows us is that the American Dream has a dark side.

For the United States,1925 was a time of prosperity, as was the early 2000s. The Great Gatsby served as a warning sign of harder times to come, but no one listened. "Fitzgerald was starting to see the corruption at the heart of it. He's starting to see that they are running through everything in this really spendthrift, squandering way," Churchwell said. "But everybody laughed at him." The same thing happened a decade ago: British politician Gordon Brown declared the "boom and bust era" to be over. But we now live in economically precarious times -- just as those who read and loved Gatsby when it first came out struggled in the 1930s. "[Fitzgerald] recognizes the danger of that materialism. It's actually quite toxic and ultimately destroys Gatsby," Churchwell said.

It destroyed Gatsby because the American Dream is just that: a dream. Even in 1925, the concept that anyone who wanted wealth could acquire it if they were smart enough, talented enough and worked hard enough -- regardless of their socioeconomic background -- is flawed. Gatsby himself only became rich once he broke the law. The American Dream didn't work for him.

And it doesn't work now.

At least, not according to the Great Gatsby Curve. Created by Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, the Gatsby Curve "is a way of ranking countries according to how well the citizens of those countries do," said Miles Corak, who researched the concept. It does so through two indicators: the overall economic inequality of a country and the "equality of opportunity," or how likely a person who is born into poverty can become wealthy through the attributes celebrated by the American Dream.

The result, Corak discovered, is that the American experience doesn't reflect the American Dream very well. In the United States, the top 1 per cent of income earners make 25 per cent of all the country's wealth. (In Canada, the top 1 per cent make about 15 per cent of all the country's wealth). This makes the United States "amongst the most unequal" of the developed countries Corak looked at. And the "equality of opportunity" indicator wasn't much better. "If you're born in the top 10 per cent, well over a quarter of those children born to rich parents end up becoming the rich of the next generation," Corak said. (Canada fared better.)

These findings directly contradict the American Dream. "What the Great Gatsby Curve shows is the greater level of inequality, the less equality of opportunity," Corak said. "If we're concerned about equality of opportunity, we should also be concerned about equalities of outcome. America's position on the Great Gatsby Curve is suggesting that the American Dream is turning into a myth and that Americans are losing their vision of themselves."

And that's what Fitzgerald was trying to say back in 1925. "The novel is very much pointing out to us that the American Dream is already a lie by the early 20th century and it continues to be that," Churchwell said. "It's a broken promise."

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