January 17, 2013

"Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry."

Think hard. It doesn't really matter — does it? — that this is today's sentence from "The Great Gatsby," another dutiful posting in our Gatsby project, wherein we look at one sentence, out of context, each day. I know the context of that sentence. I know what happened in the story. You can look it up.

It's so tempting to break out of the form of the project and tell you, to go back into the paragraph, even as I want to tempt you out of the book altogether to look at this proposition that Americans are willing — occasionally! — to be serfs but won't accept the notion that they are peasants. What's the difference?!

But I've got to tell you. There was a rich man — not Gatsby — who tried to get the people in the houses around his house to accept having their roofs thatched with straw. He offered to pay their taxes for 5 years if they'd accept this imposition which would have allowed him to have a nice view of a faux-peasant village. They refused, and the rich man, we're told, "went into an immediate decline." And "His children sold his house with the black wreath still on the door." That's how Gatsby got his house. So that's the peasant idea that offends Americans.

But serfs. We are willing to be serfs.

46 comments:

Bob said...

"Willing to be serfs" has a bad link.

Balfegor said...

Really feels to me like those two are backwards. Or perhaps it's just me, that sees the serf as beaten down next to the slave, and the peasant -- the dishonest, the crude, the cunning peasant -- as an image of resistance to lords and law.

Ann Althouse said...

""Willing to be serfs" has a bad link."

Yikes. Thanks.

Try it now!

rhhardin said...

Imus, when he lived on the waterfront in Connecticut, reported receiving an offer of tens of thousands of dollars from a rich neighbor if he'd cut down a tree blocking view of the water.

Imus was planning to plant a large stand of hemlock instead.

Ann Althouse said...

"Really feels to me like those two are backwards. Or perhaps it's just me, that sees the serf as beaten down next to the slave, and the peasant -- the dishonest, the crude, the cunning peasant -- as an image of resistance to lords and law."

I see this distinction, but I also get what he was seeing, which connects to what you are saying and works as a criticism as Americans.

We are insulted to be called peasants. We think we are noble agrarians. But we submit to near slavery and don't notice.

virgil xenophon said...

Serf? Peasant? Had a few dates with a gal back in the early 70s in the UK who lived in a 400 yr-old thatched roof cottage--but she was a hairdresser..

ricpic said...

Liberals' contempt for middle Americans is precisely the contempt of the lord for his serf/peasant, but with no corresponding obligation to protect the serf/peasant, only the mania to fleece him.

wyo sis said...

We don't mind being something as long as we don't appear to be that thing. There's a long history of that idea. It usually doesn't work out well for those who submit.
I wonder of the neighbors would have thatched their roofs if it had been sold differently?

edutcher said...

But we shouldn't be. That's why people came here.

Even the Indians.

We need to go back to the days when a British investor, looking for the manager of the Montana ranch in which he had invested, showed the bad taste to ask the foreman, "Is your master about?".

"The son of a bitch hasn't been born yet".

traditionalguy said...

Peasants are day laborers. But Serfs are owned by a piece of productive land that also has obligations to care for them in a Feudal Manorial System.

So some of today's serfs might be Union Officials, Priests, the Elevator Repair workers, Career Military, Utility Company Employees, Law School Teachers, etc..

The UN's disarming of America is aimed at the peasants. Serfs will have an income security while the peasants are starved as their economic opportunities are re-distributed abroad.

traditionalguy said...

Peasants are toast until they run into translations of scriptures out of Latin.

The Reformed Protestant tradition sees all men as equal and with UNalienable rights and empowers them to stand and fight the Papists, The Catholic Kings, and the English Monarch's version of the same.

The radical aspect of Reformed Christianity is a covenant group that will oppose tyrants to the death.

So a Serf status at Downton Abbey may not be so great after all.

Paddy O said...

"There was a rich man"

Fitzgerald based this on an article that was in the New York Times. Only he left out some details.

Turns out the rich man wanted to have a nice view of a faux-peasant village while he watched mixed martial arts fights on television.

creeley23 said...

But serfs. We are willing to be serfs.

Fitzgerald foists any number of social, cultural, and psychological insights upon the reader, and he does so with complete assurance. Your mileage may vary.

It's not a case of the unreliable narrator. Fitzgerald makes these prouncements while writing as himself. See The Crack-Up.

I guess Fitzgerald is getting at Americans willing sell themselves to work hard for a business versus appearing as social inferiors. Maybe. There is something to that. Not that Fitzgerald knew much about it himself.

But who cares? Fitzgerald was a supremely gifted prose stylist. It's foolish to come to him for ideas. He cut a beautiful figure on the page, however he wasn't a thinker.

edutcher said...

traditionalguy said...

Peasants are toast until they run into translations of scriptures out of Latin.

The Reformed Protestant tradition sees all men as equal and with UNalienable rights and empowers them to stand and fight the Papists, The Catholic Kings, and the English Monarch's version of the same.


Too bad they didn't do so well when they got crosswise of all those Irish and German Catholic boys at places like Antietam and Gettysburg.

creeley23 said...

Giving the absence, so far, of short, dull sentences in the Gatsby Project, I take it that the selection is only somewhat random.

CWJ said...

I see that Balfegor got there ahead of me. Yeah, its backwards. My understanding is that serfs were more far more close to actual slaves than "next to slaves." They were legally tied to the estates they served. Peasants I'm not so sure. Ann Althouse, I think you need to support your proposition that we submit near slavery a bit more than just throwing it out there. In what way(s)?

No, F. Scott F. Got this one backwards, I think. Not that it takes away from his sentence.

traditionalguy said...

In Feudalism the man who owned fields of land also owned the workers attached to the land (without which the land had little value.)

That sounds like modern slavery where the slave is owned separately and can be sold down the river.

But serfdom was a two way street. In the Feudal Manor the serf had the right to stay there and be fed and he could not be sold separate from the land that he worked.

The serf's problem was no mobility. His job for life made him stay there for life sort of like a Professor in MadisonTown.

traditionalguy said...

Edutcher ...Of course there were Catholics on both sides at Antietam and at Gettysburg. You must know of of the French Catholics from Louisiana and the Irish American soldiers such as Patrick Clebourne.

The point is that seeing men as equals was the rediscovered part of the Christian tradition that had been carefully hidden away by the Roman Empire's version of the Christian Faith.

Don't let the Cardinals and the Archbishops divide us. Live free.

Crunchy Frog said...

This is the first Gatsby sentence that I've liked. Instead of flowery scene-setting, it's insightful commentary.

The serfs of Gatsby's era are the ones who owe their soul to the company store, but they still have their pride. They can still look down at the simple farm life that they (or their parents) left behind to make it in the big city.

That the peasant farmers live a more honest and fulfilling life is not lost on FSF.

Tim said...

"Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry."

That's truer now than it used to be; worse it, it absolutely is worse to be a serf than a peasant.

Obama's voters would rather be serfs, with the trappings of unearned wealth, than peasants, self-sufficient and proud, if still bereft of the outward signs of wealth.

It is culturally corrosive, of course, and unsustainable.

The last irony is, if the Republic is to be restored, it will be the later day peasants who do the restoring.

No one should count on them giving a shit though.

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chip Ahoy said...

My favorite part is where the guy shriveled up and died. The thought of the townspeople unwillingness to blend into his view of Hameau de la Reine ha ha ha ha ha they built add-ons to their houses instead, pop-ups which are my favorite add on, just to obstruct his view even more. See, now that there's just good writing.

But unfortunately that part comes from outside the part that we're reading so must be discarded. Which is a word that my whole life I've been pronouncing disguarded and nobody bothered correcting me.

Lem said...

I have to take this Fitzgerald class... I need to learn how to read and write... otherwise I'm going to be confused with a peasant...

Don't you know I'm a surfer?

n.n said...

serfs = submission with benefits
peasants = lifestyle commensurate to economic productivity

Not every American is a peasant. However, every American, excluding the likes of "TurboTax" Timmy, Obama, and other privileged individuals, are serfs of varying degree. We pay taxes in perpetuity to live on State land (progressive through artificial inflation). We pay taxes to fund the lifestyle of others (e.g. welfare without cause). We are subject to arbitrary restrictions of our rights (e.g. gun control). We pay for the hubris of the elite/royalty (e.g. "affordable" health care).

As serfs, we are subject to the whims of people who would presume to control our lives.

Dante said...

OK, I was confused about the difference between a "peasant" and a "serf." So I looked it up. All serfs are peasants. But not all peasants are serfs.

Freemen, who owned their own land, were peasants, but not serfs.

Also, once a serf, always a serf. Your kids are serfs too.

Freemen can become serfs, by choice, and swearing an oath.

I suppose what Fitzgerald is saying is that we would rather be bound, outside of our control, to our station. Even if it's worse than a superior station. It's not your fault your life sucks, eh?

Modern day equivalents: Oprah, the ObamaPhone woman, who is still pissed there aren't enough minutes. Some minorities claiming their poor position in society is on account of racial injustice. Criminals with bad childhoods. The list goes on, and on. Women who feel their Vaginas haven't been heard.

So long as it's out of your control, it's someone elses fault. And you get to be angry at someone else for fucking up your life.

kentuckyliz said...

If in modern times being working class equals peasantry, I think there's some defiant pride in being hardworking, driving a pickup truck, drinking beer, liking hunting fishing NASCAR mudding and country music.

Dante said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lem said...

Marie Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine (Queen’s Hamlet, for our non French reading audience)... unhappy with her posh lifestyle, decided to build a hamlet so she could pretend every once in awhile that she was actually just an average citizen. There was a dairy, a farmhouse, a mill, a barn, some other buildings, then about five or so buildings designed for the Queen’s comfort. All constructed in such a way as to make them look rundown and rustic, to the point that she requested the builders put in imitation cracks and fissures, rotting timbers and moss.

Lem said...

Is it possible that part of the camping thing/experience is done so as to give the appearance/proof that the camper is not a peasant?

We play a nice trick on ourselves.

betamax3000 said...

The correlation between this sentence and spanking is too obvious to elaborate.

Basta! said...

I hear serf primarily as a legal term, whereas peasant strikes me as a cultural insult: you're a rude and crude, unsophisticated, unlettered bumpkin. We don't care to think of ourselves like that. No, no, that's those people who won't admit that all the details of how we prefer to live are the only right and rational ones.

John Lennon knew the sore spot: "you think you're so clever and classless and free, but you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see".

betamax3000 said...

Re: "We think we are noble agrarians. "

Hence 'Hair': this is the dawning of the age of agrarians, the age of agrarians..."

betamax3000 said...

"Bangled, tangled, spangled, and spaghettied" is an apt description of a typical Fitzgerald sentence.

David said...

Always seemed to me that this was a weak passage--a young writer showing off his social insight in a way that did not add much to the story. It seemed jarring and out of place.

Paul said...

And we don't like being stinken SLAVES either. Took us a while but we had a national discussion over slavery and decided it had to go.

But this is why we don't want gun control. Peasants don't own guns, neither do serfs. Nor do slaves.

Sadly those on welfare are close to being serfs, and those in unions peasants. Both willing to submerge their individualism in order to get what they hope is a guaranteed existence.

Quaestor said...

In the Feudal Manor the serf had the right to stay there and be fed and he could not be sold separate from the land that he worked.

This was not true of serfdom in Eastern Europe and Russia. As late as 1860 one could find advertisements of serfs offered for sale without land or other goods.

This dichotomy offered between serfs and peasants is wrongheaded. A peasant is one who makes his living from the land, regardless of whether he is free or unfree. Some peasants own the land they and can be quite prosperous. Others are tenants on great estates and pay some form of rent. Some are free, and some are not. Unfree peasants may be serfs, or they may be outright chattels, i.e. slaves.

Serfs are sometimes peasants,but they can also be domestic servants, artisans, or even industrial workers.

edutcher said...

traditionalguy said...

Edutcher ...Of course there were Catholics on both sides at Antietam and at Gettysburg. You must know of of the French Catholics from Louisiana and the Irish American soldiers such as Patrick Clebourne.

The point is that seeing men as equals was the rediscovered part of the Christian tradition that had been carefully hidden away by the Roman Empire's version of the Christian Faith.

Don't let the Cardinals and the Archbishops divide us. Live free.


Gee whiz, seems to me there was as much of that after the reformation as before, not to mention after the Anglican Establishment.

The Micks came to America to get away from it.

And a lot of non-Catholics, however, loved class systems and old boy networks.

edutcher said...

Quaestor said...

In the Feudal Manor the serf had the right to stay there and be fed and he could not be sold separate from the land that he worked.

This was not true of serfdom in Eastern Europe and Russia. As late as 1860 one could find advertisements of serfs offered for sale without land or other goods.


There's an interesting vignette in "War And Peace". One of the old landowners, who is starting to lose it, suddenly and unexpectedly loses his temper with a serf and starts beating him. Because this isn't the landowner's usual behavior, the serf raises his hand to ward off the blows and both are shocked that the serf actually tried to defend himself.

So much for being a serf.

Probably didn't even have his own board.

The Godfather said...

My sense is that the Americans who will DIE rather than be serfs are the ones that the elites think are peasants. Call them rednecks, crackers, horny handed sons of toil, or what you will. A lot of them have guns, mostly for getting some venison into the freezer, but it would be a mistake to push them too far.

kentuckyliz said...

Amen. If the tyrant comes, I feel safe among the hillbillies.

And I don't mean y'all.

Penny said...

Serfs create pyramids of pulpless halves of lemons and limes.

Peasants compose compost cups of oranges.

Penny said...

And did you know that it's National Fresh Squeezed Juice Week?

Dante said...

If in modern times being working class equals peasantry

It didn't use to be. It used to mean freedom. It used to mean you made yourself. It is what made America great.

Now, it means something else. It's the "social contract," that you signed in the womb. Not to excite the folks that want more rights for the fetus/child in the womb, because, in my view both are misguided.

Dante said...

So long as it's out of your control, it's someone elses fault. And you get to be angry at someone else for fucking up your life.

Hah! Where is farmer when you need him?

Mitch H. said...

I'm sort of desultorily reading Pipes' Russia Under the Old Regime, and one of his points was how little of Russian serfish economic activity was what we would associate with peasantry. The term Pipes uses is "promsyly", which appears to cover all non-agricultural economic activities - hunting, fishing, cottage industry, trade and marketing. Since the Great Russian agricultural season is so viciously short, the Russian masses developed a lot of low-skill part-time jobs to fill in the black months. They were very much jacks-of-all-trades. Therefore, most landlords in the north didn't really make much of anything from their souls' agricultural output - they taxed their serfs for their industrial output, really.

Nichevo said...

Which is a word that my whole life I've been pronouncing disguarded and nobody bothered correcting me.

1/17/13, 8:16 PM


Chip, the last guy who dared correcting/questioning you got told to skip past your posts. Maybe something similar obtains with you in spoken words.