Motorists arrived in American city streets as intruders, and had to fight to win a rightful place there. They and their allies fought their battles in legislatures, courtrooms, newspapers’ editorial pages, engineering offices, school classrooms, and the streets themselves. Motorists who ventured into city streets in the first quarter of the twentieth century were expected to conform to the street as it was: a place chiefly for pedestrians, horse-drawn vehicles, and streetcars. But in the 1920s, motorists threw off such constraints and fought for a new kind of city street—a place chiefly for motor vehicles. With their success came a new kind of city—a city that conforms to the needs of motorists. Though most city families still did not own a car, manufacturers were confident they could make room for motor traffic in cities. The car had already cleaned up its once bloody reputation in cities, less by killing fewer people than by enlisting others to share the responsibility for the carnage.
The classic "jazz age" novel, Gatsby came out in 1925 and takes place in 1922. Among other things it's a criticism of the roaring 20s and that second Gilded age.
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.Though the principals are careless, they are not carless. The automobile has a central role in establishing the moral and economic status of characters and in moving the plot along.
When I was younger I read the cars as incidental status symbols, mostly just really big pieces of bling for the rum runners and stock speculators. The characters were careless no matter how they got around, or with what symbols they decorated their lives, and by what things they used and messed up others.
But this time I wondered if the cars are even more central than this. I wondered if, in addition to the people being bad, Fitzgerald is saying that something essential to cars threatens to make them and their drivers bad.
I don't mean there's just a neo-luddite and modernist critique of that new, industrial mechanism, the loud and belching motorcar. I mean that with the cultural sensitivity of the artist Fitzgerald is writing at a very early time about the development of what became a huge blind spot for us, the sense of autoist entitlement that governs our roadways, our transportation schemes, and our suburban development styles. It's not just that the rich are careless, but that the carful aren't careful.
(If you haven't read the novel, be warned: plot spoilers...)
Early in the novel, Fitzgerald aligns Wilson's garage with ashes, emptiness, and false appearance:
The only building in sight was a small block of yellow brick sitting on the edge of the waste land, a sort of compact Main Street ministering to it and contiguous to absolutely nothing. One of the three shops it contained was for rent and another was an all-night restaurant approached by a trail of ashes; the third was a garage--Repairs. GEORGE B. WILSON. Cars Bought and Sold--and I followed Tom inside. The interior was unprosperous and bare; the only car visible was the dust-covered wreck of a Ford which crouched in a dim corner. It had occurred to me that this shadow of a garage must be a blind and that sumptuous and romantic apartments were concealed overhead when the proprietor himself appeared in the door of an office, wiping his hands on a piece of waste. He was a blonde, spiritless man, anaemic, and faintly handsome.Even though his mansion is located in a suburb or exurb made possible by commuter rail, Gatsby's parties and the counterfeit joy they represent depend on auto mobility:
On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city, between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains....I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby's house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited--they went there. They got into automobiles which bore them out to Long Island and somehow they ended up at Gatsby's door. Once there they were introduced by somebody who knew Gatsby and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with amusement parks. Sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission.And
It was when curiosity about Gatsby was at its highest that the lights in his house failed to go on one Saturday night--and, as obscurely as it had begun, his career as Trimalchio was over.But ashes associated with autos aren't just metaphoric. The prospect of car crashes and death hang over much of the conversation, never far away. A few years before the action of the novel, Tom Buchanon crashes and his passenger is hurt:
Only gradually did I become aware that the automobiles which turned expectantly into his drive stayed for just a minute and then drove sulkily away.
A week after I left Santa Barbara Tom ran into a wagon on the Ventura road one night and ripped a front wheel off his car. The girl who was with him got into the papers too because her arm was broken--she was one of the chambermaids in the Santa Barbara Hotel.And early in the course of the novel's action, a funeral prefigures what is to come.
A dead man passed us in a hearse heaped with blooms, followed by two carriages with drawn blinds and by more cheerful carriages for friends. The friends looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of south-eastern Europe, and I was glad that the sight of Gatsby's splendid car was included in their somber holiday.In what might be an early use for automobile "accident," Nick and Jordan talk about driving and care, there too the prospect of a crash looming over the conversation:
"You're a rotten driver," I protested. "Either you ought to be more careful or you oughtn't to drive at all."And of course, after drinking Gin Rickeys in Manhattan, the party returns to Long Island and on the way there is the climatic and careless hit-and-run.
"I am careful."
"No, you're not."
"Well, other people are," she said lightly.
"What's that got to do with it?"
"They'll keep out of my way," she insisted. "It takes two to make an accident."
"Suppose you met somebody just as careless as yourself."
"I hope I never will," she answered. "I hate careless people. That's why I like you."
All too emblematic of the autocentrism, the plot summary in Wikipedia effaces the humans and treats the car as a driverless, autonomous agent: "On the way home by Wilson's garage, Myrtle runs out into the street after an explosive argument with her husband and the yellow Rolls-Royce hits and kills her before speeding off." We are no longer able to read this properly, recognizing how strange is the shift in agency from human to car.
But this shift only follows Fitzgerald's lead, as he hides the human as well:
[Michaelis] heard Mrs. Wilson's voice, loud and scolding, downstairs in the garage.The car is mysterious, monstrous even, but now we take the possibility of the seemingly driverless hit-and-run for granted.
"Beat me!" he heard her cry. "Throw me down and beat me, you dirty little coward!" A moment later she rushed out into the dusk, waving her hands and shouting; before he could move from his door the business was over.
The "death car" as the newspapers called it, didn't stop; it came out of the gathering darkness, wavered tragically for a moment and then disappeared around the next bend. Michaelis wasn't even sure of its color--he told the first policeman that it was light green. The other car, the one going toward New York, came to rest a hundred yards beyond, and its driver hurried back to where Myrtle Wilson, her life violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick, dark blood with the dust.
There's lots more in Gatsby about cars, but if the cars are sometimes described in positive or attractive terms, it's superficial and their context is almost always one of falsity, counterfeit, or death. There's nothing authentic or honorable about them. The increase in personal mobility they offer is paid for by a terrible cost. They are death-dealing, never life-giving.
(More on the invention of jaywalking here. It seems impossible that there's not a literary study of the imagery of cars and roads in modernist novels - if you know of such book or article, toss it in the comments! But I do wonder if what is out there looks more at "freedom," the highways, and suburbs, at On the Road and such, and not at the urban and street transformation between 1900 and 1940 or so, the shift that Norton describes using his different sources. Baz Luhrman and Leonardo DeCaprio will have another filmed Gatsby for us soon, and it will be interesting to see how cars play in this one. Luhrman's Romeo+Juliet had lots of cars, and Luhrman might have an interesting take on them.)