The Great Gatsby is a novel soaked in alcohol, from Tom Buchanan’s whiskies, to the champagne his female guests rub into Gatsby’s hair. It is no co-incidence that Fitzgerald chooses bootlegging to be the “illicit” source of Gatsby’s income. Prohibition, which lasted from 1919 -1933 in the United States, was a peculiar proscription.
Driven by politicians keen to assuage rural voters the Eighteenth amendment encapsulated the self-limiting mid-Western Protestant morality that Gatsby explicitly rejects, symbolised by his flight from St. Olaf’s College.
Prohibition was also an issue that reflected the complex class issues of 19th and early 20th century America. While support for prohibition was driven largely by working class religious and labour movements, and often by women in communities which bore the brunt of alcohol addiction and abuse, the industry was also the means by which a select few made their fortunes.
In 1868 the 21 year old Adolph Hermann Kuhrs, emigrated to the United States from his native Prussia. He changed his name to Coors, and worked over the years as a labourer, fireman, stone cutter and apprentice bricklayer. In 1869, he was taken on as the foreman of a brewery. In 1872 he bought a stake in a bottling firm, and in 1873, bought a share in a brewery. Today, Peter Coors presides over a company that generates $5 billion in revenue a year. Adolph Coors killed himself in 1929.
The story of Adolphus Busch is even more extraordinary. Born in Hesse in 1839, he emigrated to St Louis in 1857. In 1880 he bought a share in the brewery of his father in law Eberhard Anheuser. At the time of his death in 1913, his fortune was estimated at $50 million dollars – over 0.1% of the United States’ GNP at the time. His empire passed to his son, August Anheuser Busch, who led the company through World War 1, Prohibition, and the Great Depression before committing suicide in 1934.
A generation earlier, and the story of Jimmy Gatz (Gatsby’s “real” name) would have been just the latest amongst the great self-made German-American brewing dynasties. Gatsby himself, of course, drinks little. The endless glasses of champagne in “glasses bigger than finger bowls” are after all not part of his world. They are for Daisy, in the belief that in order to win her love he must transform his reality into what he believes to be hers.
At the end of the novel, Nick Carraway picks up a call intended for Gatsby, from Detroit. “Young Parke’s in trouble… they picked him up when he handed the bonds over the counter” discloses ‘Slagle’, before Carraway alerts Slagle to his mistake, and he rings off.
In the late 19th and early 20th century so called bearer or coupon bonds were popular due to their simplicity and ease of use. Unlike cash they could be issued in large amounts, and unlike registered bonds they were easily transferable. All that was required was for the holder of the bearer bond to present the bond’s coupon to the issuing bank on the prescribed date, to receive payment. As can be imagined, given that the bonds were both held anonymously and difficult to trace due to their easy tradability, it was a system open for abuse. Bonds also hold a symbolic significance – they are instruments of debt, and as such fundamentally hollow – a hope built on a promise.
It’s probable that Gatsby was using the bonds to launder the proceeds of his bootlegging operations, or to conduct the financial transactions required by such a business. This makes sense, given the choice of location. Detroit is 600 miles from New York, and the alcohol coursing through the veins of the East Coast aristocracy – isolated enough for discreet transactions, close enough to be monitored, and of course a central hub in the trafficking of alcohol from Canada.
That Nick answers the phone is a not-so gentle irony. Like Gatsby, Nick has come East to succeed, a reversal of the opening up of the West by which Dan Cody, Gatsby’s mentor, and Demaine the “oil man” who’s house Gatsby buys as part of his costume, had made their fortunes. Carraway is of course himself a bond salesman, although clearly both an unsuccessful and an unmotivated one – the moneyed Tom Buchanan has never heard of the firm which employs him.
Gatsby and Carraway are often contrasted as the capitalist without hope, and the criminal with a dream. This is too light a treatment. Gatsby does not subvert the American dream , he embraces it – he embodies the race towards the “orgiastic future” of a better world, he works for it, and he achieves it. But it is not enough – he cannot escape his past, even through success. Nick Carraway fails, but he is privileged enough to have a past into which to retreat, when the long hot summer ends.