Dr Eckleburg’s Myopia

When I was growing up in Chicago, my mother kept a large print on the kitchen wall, showing a New Yorker’s View of the World from 9th Avenue, a map with skyscrapers and a large Hudson River in the foreground, a strip of New Jersey, and five cities (Chicago, Washington DC, Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles) beyond. In the middle distance lies the Pacific Ocean, in which float three blobs at the edge of the frame labelled China, Japan, Russia. Eventually I discovered that we weren’t the only family who found Saul Steinberg’s iconic New Yorker cover image amusing; people around America, and around the world, recognized a wry truth in its suggestion that New Yorkers’ perspectives can be a trifle myopic—and by extension, that this most iconic of American cities also symbolizes a national myopia that is highly visible, and risible, to the rest of the world.

What I didn’t know then, and what most people, I suspect, still don’t realize, is that Steinberg’s 1976 satire of New York’s inability to see beyond its own boundaries was not the first recognition of such American short-sightedness. Fifty years earlier, The Chicagoan, a forgotten 1920s magazine created as a response to the popularity of The New Yorker, got there first. In February 1925, Harold Ross, The New Yorker’s founder, famously articulated The New Yorker’s vision: ‘The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.’ Dubuque, a small city in Iowa, soon became shorthand for life in the American provinces. The Chicagoan was launched in 1926, and lasted a decade, before the Depression killed it in 1935; in 2008 historian Neil Harris published a beautiful illustrated volume, The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age, reproducing much of the magazine. One of its pictures was a revelation:  on July 6 1929, The Chicagoan included a cartoon by J.C. Davis called ‘The New Yorker’s Map of the United States‘, which showed a standard American map of 48 continental states, each state dense with scattered cities, all of which are called Dubuque. The only cities in America that are not Dubuque are New York, Atlantic City, Los Angeles, and Reno—where New Yorkers went to get quickie divorces in the 1920s. Now there’s an irony that a Chicago girl like me can appreciate: even New Yorkers’ jokes about their own myopia are myopic; it turns out that Chicago got there first.

But the truth is that someone else beat them all to the punch, at least conceptually, in seeing New York’s myopia as a synecdoche for American short-sightedness: two months after Harold Ross launched The New Yorker, F. Scott Fitzgerald published the great novel of the American 1920s (some would say of the 20th century), The Great Gatsby, which features among its network of symbols the billboard of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, whose vast, bespectacled eyes peer unseeing over the ashes and dust of the New York landscape. ‘The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic’, wrote Fitzgerald:

they look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.

Eckleburg’s eyes have become one of The Great Gatsby’s most famous symbols, their meanings debated as frequently in classrooms around the world as Jay Gatsby’s beckoning green light. One of the first publicity images to be released from Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming film adaptation was of his vision of T.J. Eckleburg’s billboard, while Francis Cugat’s original jacket illustration for The Great Gatsby featured a woman’s large, haunting eyes hovering over an amusement park while a single blue tear drops down into the night.

In fact, Fitzgerald’s entire novel is carefully patterned around images of perception and vision that he links to the meanings of America. From T.J. Eckleburg’s gigantic eyes to Nick’s ‘eyesore’ of a cottage next to Gatsby’s mansion, from Owl-Eyes, the man in Gatsby’s library who’s been blind drunk for a week to Gatsby’s father, who looks at the grandeur of his son’s house while ‘seeing nothing’, eyes are mentioned repeatedly throughout the novel—and those eyes are usually unseeing. Even Myrtle Wilson’s little dog views his mistress’s squalid prohibition party with ‘blind eyes through the smoke’. This is no accident, of course: it lets Fitzgerald suggest that Gatsby’s greatness comes from the grandeur of his visions, while everyone else in his world is blind.

Fitzgerald set The Great Gatsby across the summer of 1922, and as fate would have it, in the spring of 1922 The New York Times printed an article about its own popularity throughout America: ‘The New York Times has been called the masterpiece of American journalism. No daily newspaper printed in New York City is so widely read outside of New York … The success of this newspaper represents a triumph of clean journalism over a very different kind of competition… The Times is by far the greatest advertising medium in the East… it circulates, in fact, among 10,000 cities, towns and villages throughout the world… It is a newspaper with a perspective, seeing beyond merely temporary profit to the larger and more enduring benefit of its readers, and thereby of itself.’ This ‘far-sighted policy’, the editors were certain, made The Times far more successful than ‘its myopic rivals’, who traded in sensationalism and gossip: ‘the ultimate fate of vicious journalism will be that an enlightened public will refuse to read it, not only because it is indecent, but because it is dull.’

Fitzgerald’s guess was better: not just New York, but America, would embrace the myopic self-interest of temporary profit, a view that would threaten the values the nation purported to uphold, including the very survival of the ‘clean journalism’ in which The New York Times was so confident less than a century ago. Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes symbolize not only what Fitzgerald viewed as America’s short-sightedness, but the way such myopia suggests a nation buying into its own myths, and the financially asymmetrical society that these self-advertisements have always shielded and protected. What is being sold so aggressively doesn’t exist: Eckleburg is a defunct billboard, after all, selling services that are no longer available, an apt image for a nation selling itself a dream that increasingly seems to many like just so much snake oil. (In this sense it is not unlike the idea of ‘moxie’, a very American blend of spirit, audacity, and enterprise, which began as a patent medicine brand, and evolved into a soft drink: always selling something.)

Thus Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald tells us, is a representative American, a believer in his nation’s secular faith: and so ‘he must be about His Father’s Business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty’. Gatsby’s greatness comes from his vision: his tragedy is the distortion of that vision by a country that increasingly can see only the business of buying and selling, reducing human aspiration to asymmetrical material acquisition. By the end of Gatsby, Eckleburg’s colossal, bespectacled eyes will themselves be mistaken for God: the false god of advertising, worshipped by sad, ghostly men like Myrtle Wilson’s husband George, who runs a garage among the ash-heaps, once aptly described by Lionel Trilling as resembling a little corner of Dante’s Inferno. In other words, just as The New Yorker’s myopic view of the rest of the world rang true for those outside of New York who had been made all too clearly aware of their own invisibility, so do Dr Eckleburg’s eyes suggest the ways in which America itself remains a myopic place, blind, unseeing, a billboard selling itself, and the world, something that no longer exists.

Of course, it is myopic to think that Americans, or New Yorkers, have any kind of monopoly on myopia or on monopolies (or giant spectacles, for that matter, which are enjoying a fashion moment, as if Dr. Eckleburg’s advertisement has finally reached its demographic, nearly a century later), but it is true that there are not many places that convert myopia into a virtue. It’s not really myopia from which America suffers but astigmatism, characterized by a recurring problem with symmetry and the loss of finer detail. It is that finer detail we miss in the landscape stretching beyond us, back in that vast obscurity beyond New York City, where, as Fitzgerald famously wrote, the dark fields of the republic still roll on under the night.