Jay Gatz, Dick Whitman, and the Emptiness of American Guy-hood

Jay Gatz, Dick Whitman, and the Emptiness of American Guy-hood - student project

"Well,—he told me once he was an Oxford man.’

A dim background started to take shape behind him but at her next remark it faded away.

‘However, I don’t believe it.’

‘Why not?’

‘I don’t know,’ she insisted, ‘I just don’t think he went


Something in her tone reminded me of the other girl’s ‘I think he killed a man,’ and had the effect of stimulating my curiosity. I would have accepted without question the information that Gatsby sprang from the swamps of Louisiana or from the lower East Side of New York. That was comprehensible. But young men didn’t—at least in my provincial inexperience I believed they didn’t—drift coolly out of nowhere and buy a palace on Long Island Sound." (The Great Gatsby, Ch.3)

People are charmed by the mystery of Gatsby throughout Fitzgerald's classic novel. And Baz Lurman's adaptation relishes in the glimmer of wealth, success, power that Gatsby represents. The movie addles the eye every bit as effectively as the chrome and champangne at Gatsby's parties. Men are, I think, titillated by Gatsby's libertine mystique.

Me are equally attracted to Don Draper's lifestyle. More than a similar biography connects these two icons of American Guy-ness.

In a recent Rolling Stone feature story on Jon Hamm, co-star January Jones says of the actor, "There's an air of mystery around the guy, like where did he come from? All of a sudden he's Don Draper..." The whole article seems to be trying to blur the distinction between Hamm and the character Draper, even though early in the article the author, Josh Eells, describes a very un-Don Drapery "fan of Wilco, Budweiser, and Words with Friends." In other words, he's really just a dude from the suburbs of St. Louis. And there ain't that much to it.

The recent hubub around the Great Gatsby has reminded me that American's are susceptible to confusing absence with mystery. People confound Draper and Gatsby's emptiness as mystery. But the tragic power these characters has always come from the detatched irony of what was real and what was missing. In the famous "Kodak Carousel" pitch, Draper points out how pictures always return home. But then the last click leaves a blank white screen. The images and memories are in a sense not real because Don Draper is not real.

 Deep down in the American guy psyche, we long to be Gatsby and Draper because they appear free and unmoored. Certainly, we are inheritors of a western archetype of what it means to be a male. While women struggle with the desire to "have it all" by which they mean family and work and personal space. Men have a deep desire to shake off the family part. Clearly Roger Sterlings serial flings with the girls at work reflects the desire to fulfill at work what can't be fulfilled by work.

That's the irony, the cognitive dissonance. Men desire what they know deep down lacks in eternal value. Gatsby and Draper reflect the anxiety guys feel about what they are losing in their changing roles and relationships with family. But this is only relative to a detached and consequently hollow ideal. Women tend to chuckle knowingly as men chafe and gripe about wanting "space to breathe". 

Francis Bacon, in his essay "on Marriage" intones, "He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief. Certainly the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men; which both in affection and means, have married and endowed the public."

Men have been uneasy about the true responsibilities of partnership and parenting at least since this hypothesis was put forward. But is this really an either or proposition? If it is truly impossible to be great and be a family man then guys are doomed to be always unfulfilled. Greatness absent the blessing fatherhood? Fatherhood spurning the opportunity for success? 

The 21st century has ushered in a remarkable expression of American Manhood. Ever since Tony Soprano, television has unveiled some surprising and even revelatory reflections on the standards of "guyness". Certainly, Tony Stark, the Lone Ranger and their ilk will earnestly protray the American Male in the ways we love and expect. But I think that the portrayal of Don Draper, as Jay Gatsby did before him, challenges us to see in our social mirror an unnervingly blank reflection of the consequences of our collective guy ideal.

Tim Evans

High School English Teacher