“In a society in which the money-maker has had no serious rival for repute and honor, the word ‘practical’ comes to mean useful for private gain, and ‘common sense,’ the sense to get ahead financially. The pursuit of the moneyed life is the commanding value in relation to which the influence of other values has declined. So men easily become morally ruthless in the pursuit of money and fast estate-building. A great deal of American corruption — although not all of it — is simply a part of the old effort to get rich and then to become richer.”
–C.S. Mills, The Power Elite (1956)Eugene O’Neil’s play The Iceman Cometh and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, both classics that are part of the American literary canon, feature characters with ties to stock swindlers, which is a reflection of an America that still exists in the 21st Century. That two of the greatest works of American literature, O’Neil’s The Iceman Cometh (arguably, the Great American Play) and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (arguably, the Great American novel) feature characters who are linked to bucket shops, i.e. stock brokerages engaged in illegal activities, is part of the reason that both works are still alive, breathing an accessible, more than half-a century since they were written.
In The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan has Jay Gatsby investigated and finds out he has been involved with shady bond deals. The character of Jay Gatsby was based by Fitzgerald on a famous swindler who ran a bucket shop on Wall St. and was tried two or three times, finally convicted, but had so charmed the public, jury and judge he received a lenient sentence.
The swindler took the monies coming in from the sales and used it to finance illegal gambling. He was linked to Abe Rosenthal, the gambler connected to the ur-Mafia of early 20th Century New York, who — of course — was the man who fixed the 1919 World Series and is featured in The Great Gatsby as Meyer Wolfsheim, Jay Gatsby’s mentor.
The Iceman Cometh is set in a down-at-the-heels saloon in 1912, an era when America was still in the economic doldrums caused by the Great Panic of 1907, which had caused an economic depression that some economists say has more links with our own time, in the way it came down, than the “Great Depression” of the 1930s. (The 1907 Depression was once called the Great Depression, too, before the real McCoy blighted the lives of our parents, grandparents and ancestors.)
One of the characters in Iceman is a failed lawyer named Willie. Willie is an abstraction of the young Eugene O’Neil himself.
Willie is referred to as “The Prince,” short for “The “Prince of Wall St” as his father has once been its king. Willie laments how his father once ran a successful bucket shop, but came to ruin (likely in the collapse of 1907). His father, the King, sent the Prince to Harvard to be educated, but his name and pedigree were well known, and he was despised by the Blue Bloods of Harvard.
(Willie claims he was an excellent student at law school, but the only thing we know he has picked up from his higher education was an obscene ditty about a whore and a sailor he heard being sung in Brattle Street. He was probably always a drunkard, even as a student, and his father’s failure and his disillusionment were just excuses for him to crawl into a bottle for good.)
The Prince was educated by his father in the Ivy Leagues: So, too, was young Eugene O’Neil. The son of a famous and hugely successful stage actor who was a penniless, illiterate immigrant when he came to the United States from his native Ireland, young Gene O’Neil had been sent to Princeton after matriculating at expensive Catholic prep schools. However, Gene was booted out of Princeton after his freshman year, when as a sophomore at a school gathering, he allegedly got drunk and threw a beer bottle through the window at the digs of the President of Princeton, one Woodrow Wilson, who was hosting the get-together.
In the world of The Iceman Cometh, the King of Wall St. had sent Willie, the Prince, onto law school as “We need a lawyer in the family,” due to his father’s illegal activities.
The thing that (ostensibly) has destroyed Willie (a hopeless alcoholic like all the other “pipe-dreamers” of Harry Hope’s saloon) is that his father was so shocked after being arrested for his illegal activities, that he died in prison shortly after being pinched. Dominated by his father, Willie never got over his death.
HIS FATHER, A SWINDLER, HAD NEVER EXPECTED TO BE PINCHED!
How evocative of the swindlers of 21st Century Wall St., who know themselves to be above the law (as they, of course, were the law, having financed it with political contributions). Of these 21st Century swindlers whose nefarious financial engineering has brought the United States to the brink of another depression, not only do all of them know they aren’t going to be pinched, but they are getting taxpayer funded bonuses! They are being subsidized by the people they swindled in the greatest Ponzi Scheme in history!
Torturers and Bush 43 Administration connivers about how-to-get-around-the-law (since the rule of the law DOES NOT apply to the lawgivers) also need not worry about prosecution. But the King, Willie’s Dad, like Martha Stewart when the illegal activities of the cabal that financially supported George W. Bush were exposed during the first Bush 43 Administration, was sacrificed. A scapegoat was needed to have its blood shed to atone for the sins of society at large. Unfortunately for Willie, his father was it.
In our century, the 21st will do the 20th one better by pardoning the potential scapegoats.
Interestingly, one can think that Jay Gatsby wasn’t destroyed for being a bootlegger or a swindler, he was destroyed for living in the past, a very American sin. In America, one is not to think of the past, which doesn’t exist (think of the late Clinton and both Bush 43 Administrations, jettisoning all the economic lessons learned since 1929, and Bush 43 abrogating 350 years of international law since the Treaty of Westphalia, as well as ignoring the Nuremburg Principles, when deciding to launch an aggressive war against Iraq); to be an American, one has to live in the present and future.
Of course, Daisy Buchanan’s rejection of Jay Gatsby partly is based on the fact that he is not of her social class, despite all his ill-gotten loot. After committing her own crime, Daisy rejects Gatsby as the very rich Tom Buchanan is much more of a safe harbor in the terms of safety, if not societal norms.)
Just imagine, a novel written in 1925 (and dismissed by critics and the public during The Great Depression as being an irrelevant pipe dream about a past, the Jazz Age, that was best forgotten) and a 1946 play written in 1939 and set in 1912, nearly one hundred years ago, are still relevant to the America of today in their details. Jay Gatsby is a swindler, and Hickey — the eponymous Iceman — is a salesman. (Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, is a salesman, a bond salesman, and the character of Gatsby was based on a bond salesman cum swindler.)
Sales and pipe dreams and corruption — all an integral part of the American Dream.
Now, I was just reading Washington Irving’s 1825 tale “The Devil and Tom Walker,” and that involves land speculation and a real estate bubble that goes bust, and a corrupt money lender in league with Satan himself!
The character of America hasn’t changed for 200 years!