The Great Gatsby (1925), maybe above all else, is a novel about the moral decay of the United States after the First World War. Jay Gatsby’s dream of romance represents the American dream of economic production and self-improvement—or so echo classrooms from continent to continent; the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are the eyes of God watching over an amoral nation, and Nick Carraway’s conflicted narration struggles to reconcile Gatsby’s ineffable desires with the social atrophy of his storied, corrupt world. In short, it is often taught as a novel of and about the United States in the 1920s. What I hope to set out here is forge a more complex understanding of the novel’s Americanness and the apparently straightforward symbolism described above—through, of all things, its contextual relationship with baseball.

Gatsby’s reputation in the novel is initially tarnished by his association with a rapacious world of capitalism gone awry. The reader sees this when Nick meets Gatsby and his friend, Meyer Wolfsheim, for lunch in New York. Before this point our narrator has only heard rumours about Gatsby’s past, ludicrous and vague; but now Nick is forced to imagine the specifics of Gatsby’s economic relationships, almost himself being dragged into a seedy-sounding “gonnegtion”.[1] After lunch, Wolfsheim leaves and Nick asks who he is, suggesting he might even be an actor. Gatsby replies: “‘Meyer Wolfsheim? No, he’s a gambler.’ [He] hesitated, then added, coolly: ‘He’s the man who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919.’”[2] The incident F. Scott Fitzgerald recounted here actually happened: there was a great scandal regarding a number of players from the American League’s Chicago White Sox who were purported to have accepted bribes from gamblers to throw the series against the National League’s Cincinnati Reds in October 1919. The truth of these allegations aside, Fitzgerald’s symbol of corruption in the sport so often called America’s “national pastime” offers a revealing allegory: America’s national consciousness is as corrupt as its national sport, and the social cohesion of American society, as epitomised in this national sport, is rotten. Indeed, a New York Times editorial from 24th September 1920 reacted to the alleged fixing in this way, underlining how it was in the interests “of honor and of pride in the national game to stamp out every vestige of crookedness.” Later in the novel, Fitzgerald similarly understands baseball as central to the Constitution-sanctioned idea of American self-improvement: Gatsby’s schedule found in a book from his youth dedicates half an hour in the afternoon to “Baseball and sports”.[3] There is, says The Great Gatsby, something thematically American about the symbol.

It makes contextual sense for Fitzgerald to draw on these ideas. Baseball historians agree that the 1920s were the decade where the sport became more formalised and popular in the United States—there was higher attendance, increased seating capacities, and balls travelled further due to the wider availability of better materials after the war. It was also in 1920, notably, that the illustrious Babe Ruth joined the New York Yankees. But dig a little deeper, and the symbol’s representation of a corrupt nation becomes more complex. Indeed, the baseball symbolism in The Great Gatsby is similar to many of the other recurrent symbols in the novel: the sense of universalism inspired by the image of the “national pastime” quickly unravels into a contextual reverie of specific social groups and the broken society from which they come. Put more simply, The Great Gatsby’s symbolism may at first seem obvious and didactic; but the more you think and talk about the novel’s allegories, the more they seem to slip through your fingers. In the same way the deceptively simple symbolism of Gatsby’s green light and the promise of American exceptionalism crumbles under the pressure of the lower classes of the valley of ashes, so too does the Americanness of baseball shudder under the threat of a divided nation.

Nick’s narrated reaction to Gatsby’s answer hints at the symbol’s uncertainty:

“The idea staggered me. I remembered, of course, that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919, but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”[4]

There were not fifty million people in the United States in 1919. The 1920 census puts the number at just over 106 million. In this moment Nick reveals a split in the so-called nationalism of the sport: baseball is, metaphorically at least, a game for only half the nation. We might then think: which half? In fact, it wasn’t until the 1950s that baseball headed westwards past the Midwest. Before then, it was a sport confined to the cities of the northeastern United States, especially New York; and franchises only moved to audiences further afield, and baseball accordingly began to have more of a claim to being a truly national game, well after Fitzgerald’s novel was published. The New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, for example, were rivals in New York in 1957; in 1958 they began seasons as the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers, towing their rivalry with them to the west coast. For the purposes of The Great Gatsby, this means that baseball was perhaps not as national as one might think.

October 3 1951, Brooklyn Dodgers v. New York Giants

In the sport’s rising popularity of the 1920s, Nick’s thinking of the fifty million Americans cheated by Wolfsheim is surely then a thinking of the eastern ‘half’ of the population. What might we want to make of this? That the symbol of baseball in the novel represents a double-corruption? Was the nation Wolfsheim corrupted already in a way corrupted as the northeast already did not represent the whole nation? This may well be true. However, a more interesting observation lies in Nick’s imagining of these symbolic binaries in the novel’s final pages:

“I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”[5]

Nick here imagines the tragedy of Myrtle Wilson’s, George Wilson’s, and Gatsby’s deaths as the product of an attempt to bring together two different geographies: east and west. Their “deficiency in common”, whatever it may be, is representative of a western mindset that means their attempts to live in and understand the world of the moneyed northeast are somehow flawed.

We as a reader may take issue with this assertion, like we do so many of Nick’s comments throughout the novel: the echelons of Gatsby’s parties are as much a representation of a class binary as they are of a geographic one. It would be spurious to suggest, after all, that Nick was the only westerner who was attracted to the financial possibilities of a booming New York to learn the bond business. In fact, Nick is from Minnesota—which we might say is Midwestern to begin with, slipping into the arena of Chicago, which was very much a baseball stronghold in the 1920s and so a part of Nick’s fifty million (north)easterners. The baseball symbolism, therefore, is difficult and slippery on both the level of plot and of context. And this symbolic binary breaks down the analogy suggested in the East Egg/West Egg binary too, and the valley of ashes/New York one, and so on. Nick’s symbolic ambiguity becomes the location of a conflicted modern American ideology. His inability to make sense of his own writing’s symbolism is, in a sense, Fitzgerald’s own symbolic comment on a fractured nation. Nick can’t explain specific symbolism, or specific allegories, from a fractured national mindset. The novel’s shifting symbolism represents a shifting United States, and we as readers pick up that Nick’s grasping for an understanding of Gatsby’s tragedy reflects a multiply divided nation and nationality.

This slippery symbolism is what I see as one of the sharper edges of Fitzgerald’s cultural critique; the formal qualities of the novel themselves represent an unreachable stability and contentedness of the United States in the mid-1920s. This sits appropriately alongside the novel’s content: Gatsby, his parties, and corruption. Moreover, Fitzgerald is not the only writer to understand the Americanness of baseball in this symbolic way. The Catcher in the Rye’s (1951) most enduring of images, Central Park ducks and where they might go in the winter, is found in another baseball phrase: ducks on a pond, which signifies the moment of intense opportunity for a batter with loaded bases stepping up to the plate. Don DeLillo’s American epic Underworld (1997) opens on one of the most famous games in the sport’s history: the 1951 showdown between the aforementioned New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, which ended with a hit that gained an epithet from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetry: the shot heard ‘round the world.

I’m confident there are more, and although it does not delve into the reflections on the novel’s symbolism as I have above, there is an academic who in 2002 that put forward a full account of baseball’s significance to The Great Gatsby.[6] He even notes that Fitzgerald edited out a scene from the novel in which our main characters go to see a baseball game.[7] Of course, it’s an east versus (Mid)west affair: the Chicago Cubs versus the New York Giants. At the very least, then, there seems to be more to draw from the well that is the connection between the United States’ national sport, and the United States’ national novels.

[1] Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Penguin, 2005. 69.

[2] Ibid. 71.

[3] Ibid. 164

[4] Ibid. 71.

[5] Ibid. 167.

[6] Johnson, Robert, Jr. ‘Say it Ain’t So, Jay: Fitzgerald’s Use of Baseball in The Great Gatsby.’ F. Scott Fitzgerald Review vol. 1, 2002. JSTOR. 30-44.

[7] Ibid. 38.