The Great Gatsby and John D. Rockefeller- Primary Source

Reeves, Earl. “John D. Rockefeller, Jr.” The Youth’s Companion, vol. 101, no. 18, 5 May 1927, pp. 306. ProQuest,


New Historical criticism views a work of literature in terms historical impact from the time it was written. It is evident that the novel The Great Gatsby means to encompass and critique 1920’s popular culture, as its characters and plot detail the lives of old money and new money social elites in New York. Specifically affected by the figureheads of the time is Jay Gatsby himself, meant to symbolize the hard-working, American-Dream-chasing “spirit of the times.” The novel itself compares Gatsby to successful men like John D. Rockefeller, Jr, among others. In the New Historicism chapter of her novel focusing on critical theory in literature, Lois Tyson writes “everyone in America knew the success stories of millionaires like John D. Rockefeller…and popular belief held that any poor boy in America with the right personal qualities could do the same” (Tyson 301). Therefore, it is beneficial to look at Gatsby’s characterization juxtaposed with the wealthy, successful men he was based on–those who were targets of interviews, newspapers, and paparazzi, and are revered to this day. A newspaper article by Earl Reeves published in May of 1927 interviews John D. Rockefeller, Jr, inquiring about his success, values, and advice. By looking at the similarities between Rockefeller and Gatsby, it can be argued that Fitzgerald intentionally structured Gatsby’s desires around the successful men of the 1920’s to show the impact of the American Dream ideology. In this way, Fitzgerald provides critique on 1920’s society and its values.


The newspaper article on John D. Rockefeller, Jr, depicts the life and humble beginnings of “the youngest millionaire” through a small biographical retelling and direct quotations from Rockefeller himself. The article builds up the glamour of the Rockefeller fortune in the oil business, and shortly reveals to the audience the humble, hardworking spirit of Rockefeller Jr, despite reader’s assumptions of his greedy desire for wealth and power. Reeves writes, “he was not trained in a way that you might expect for a boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth” (Reeves 306). What is aimed to be a surprising revelation is Rockefeller’s ambition; he had an innate drive for learning and working hard–not being handed his family fortune without earning it. Rockefeller states, “I had to work hard for what I got,” which Reeves then adds, “there was no royal road to learning for him, and he refused to play the part of a rich man’s son” (Reeves 306). As in spirit of the 1920s, Rockefeller is praised for his dedication, intrinsic motivation, and perseverance through school, which was difficult for him. The language in the article glorifies Rockefeller’s attitudes, which exude the American Dream ideology that was identified as the recipe for good, well-earned success. The article gives Rockefeller space to talk about his personal regiment as well, showing how strict he was with himself in terms of his studies and overcoming challenges. Rockefeller recalls how “lessons did not come easy, and [he] was determined [he] would do as well as [he] could” (Reeves 306). In his boyhood he would awaken repeatedly during the night to check the time, worried of oversleeping and missing valuable time to learn and work. Reeves makes it a point to include Rockefeller’s own stress about the truth that “he had no brilliance, and that he had to drive himself to master his studies” (Reeves 306). The article repeatedly pushes the point that Rockefeller’s inherited fortune did not hinder him from working to be the best version of himself, always striving for more, and never being complacent in terms of his success. The Rockefellers valued hard work, conscientiousness, and self-improvement, much to the spirit of the times that Fitzgerald captures in The Great Gatsby.


Jay Gatsby was modeled off of successful men such as John D. Rockefeller, Jr, aiding Fitzgerald in capturing the spirit of the times so he could push a message about the faults of the American Dream ideology. Gatsby, like Rockefeller, maintained a regimented schedule during childhood, eager to utilize and manage his time to become better educated, well mannered, and successful (Fitzgerald 173). He was always trying to crawl to the top, and after being cheated out of money, joining the war, and losing Daisy, he still managed–fueled by desperation to be successful and capture the “golden girl”–to drag himself from nothing to being rich. The American Dream was so real to Gatsby that he dedicated years of hard work to it, even succumbing to illegal activities just to reach the top. Though Rockefeller’s beginnings were drastically different from Gatsby, they both had innate ambition. Juxtaposing Rockefeller’s account of his dedicated work with Gatsby’s shows two men driven by the ideas that regimented focus and perseverance are the foundations for success, and so a rags-to-riches story is all but impossible. Nick writes, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us,” detailing Gatsby’s dedication to the American Dream (Fitzgerald 180). Fitzgerald intends to criticize the ideology in this way, showing how Gatsby’s intentions were fruitless; he meets a tragic end, and struggles immensely when trying to achieve his dream in the first place. In summation, Fitzgerald, while crafting Gatsby to be charming and thus earning glorification from readers, intentionally sentences him to death upon the revelation of his illegal actions, deceit, and adultery. Gatsby is praised, like the paragons of success such as Rockefeller, but he is also flawed. Driven by desperation he commits criminal acts, and that too demonstrates the reality of the American Dream–it isn’t easily achievable, it isn’t a recipe for success, and those who start lower in society can’t always jump to elite status with just a dedicated heart. Fitzgerald is aware of the truth in the American Dream fantasy and means to show that through Gatsby, who encompasses all of the bright-eyed ambition of young men like Rockefeller who were raised in the early 1900s. The novel ends with a melancholy, “so we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past,” to highlight the futile cycle of dreaming limitlessly (Fitzgerald 180). The narrative of Rockefeller’s triumphant, self-made success was glorified in Fitzgerald’s time, and Gatsby serves as a vessel for the harsh realities of such ideology.


The newspaper article paints a gilded portrait of a successful man, John D. Rockefeller, Jr, and all of his values, hard work, and his secrets to success. Figures like Rockefeller were the basis for Gatsby, who, in Fitzgerald’s cautionary tale, illustrates the realities of the American Dream. In this way, Fitzgerald takes an unconventional approach to the depiction of the American Dream, since the news and media were shining favorable light on rags to riches stories laced with themes of triumph and hard work. Gatsby’s sole purpose is to be a successful man, to climb to the top, win the golden girl, become society’s only definition of worthwhile. His dream is shattered, as Fitzgerald means it to be, to show life’s vicious cycle of striving and failing. The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald’s critique of the American Dream: its seduction, promises, and disappointments, all felt by Gatsby in his quest for the green light across the bay. A dream forever out of reach.

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