January 9, 2013

"I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife."

I wonder if "the latest thing" was a new expression back in 1922 when F. Scott Fitzgerald started writing "The Great Gatsby." Was "the latest thing" the latest thing, that is, new slang? If so, it's even funnier to see it used sarcastically like this. What a crazy trend it would be — a fashionable sex kink?

But then maybe there actually is such a trend these days. The "cuckold fetish" is a routine subject in Dan Savage's sex advice column, e.g., "Fuck My Wife, Please!"

Anyway, the sarcasm in today's "Gatsby" sentence is sublime. There's "the latest thing" and "sit back and let" and the marvelous "Mr. Nobody from Nowhere" — all of which only become funny — painfully funny — when you get to the tragically pedestrian phrase "make love to your wife."

It's also amusing that the problem is less that somebody is fucking his wife than that a nobody is fucking his wife. Mr. Nobody from Nowhere, who — if you violated the rules of the Gatsby project and go beyond the sentence — is the (supposedly) great Mr. Gatsby.

IN THE COMMENTS: Bill Harshaw uses The Great Google to show that "the latest thing" was, in fact, a well-established expression. The casual use of the word "thing" seems like modern slang. There are a lot of common phrases like "the thing to do," "a [fill in the blank] thing," "it's my thing," and "the real thing" that seem like things people would have said 100 years ago.

ALSO IN THE COMMENTS: Much discussion about how far Mr. Nobody really got: What did "make love" mean in the 1920s?

42 comments:

Bill Harshaw said...

According to Google ngrams it was well-established before 1920.
http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=%22the+latest+thing%22&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=17&smoothing=3&share=

Shouting Thomas said...

What a crazy trend it would be — a fashionable sex kink?

That's not a "fashionable sex kink," Althouse.

It's one of the standard, most common, sexual practices of humans. Probably goes back to the cave men.

The "cuckold" version is a mean spirited version.

There is also a romantic version that is probably closer to the common practice.

YoungHegelian said...

In the South when I was growing up, the older folks used the phrase "make love to" as a synonym for 'flirt" (at least in public), not as a synonym for "have sex with".

In other words, it's not about being cuckolded, it's about putting up with other men being openly flirtatious with one's wife.

Could that be the meaning here, or is it obvious from context that Fitzgerald is talking about "doin' the dirty deed"?

sydney said...

In those aristrocratic circles that the old rich in Gatsby try to emulate letting Mr. Somebody from Somewhere make love to your wife could be a very effective means of advancement.

Conserve Liberty said...

As I read Gatsby at UVA in the 70's the "make love to" passage referred to flirting openly.

But then it was in the South (University of Virginia) and it was the 70's when UVa had only been coed for three years (and we had not yet learned to discuss sex in a classroom in the company of women).

sydney said...

According to this, "lovemaking" didn't become associated with sexual intercourse until the 1950's, so "making love" in the 1920's was probably flirting or courtship.

Shouting Thomas said...

Dan Savage, true to his name, revels in mean, punitive sex. He's an awful person.

One of the most interesting things I've talked about with my gay male friends is this...

When people have sexual desires that seem to fall outside the boundaries of normalcy, they tend act very badly in carrying out those desires. For my gay male friends, this meant that abuse was very common in their relationships.

It was as if everybody understood that they were doing something really bad, so why bother being decent or kind in your relationships with your partners.

Same applies here.

Carol said...

"lovemaking" didn't become associated with sexual intercourse until the 1950's,

It was pretty ambiguous even in the 70s, when it started to mean several things at once. One was just supposed to know what was being discussed.

Synova said...

Question... does "make love" mean sex or does "make love" mean flirt or court or even simply act like a warm and pleasant hostess?

When was Gatsby written? Ah, 1922. C.S. Lewis, writing in 1950ish used "make love" to describe a little girl being a hostess.

Shouting Thomas said...

Henry Miller was born in 1891 and his writing career roughly paralleled of Fitzgerald.

Miller was a better writer.

Read Miller for a clear presentation of what people were actually doing sexually from the turn of the 20th century forward.

No different that what they are doing today.

Ann Althouse said...

"It's one of the standard, most common, sexual practices of humans. Probably goes back to the cave men."

To sit back and let?

No matter how venerable the practice, the question is how could it become "the latest thing," that is a fad or trend.

If your point is something that's been done a long time cannot become a fad, I don't know.

But the speaker of the sentence is talking about being casual and unconcerned to find that someone else is having sex with your wife. You want to say that's very old and common and something that is incapable of becoming a trend?

sydney said...

That Savage Sex certainly seems empty, hollow, and meaningless.

Shouting Thomas said...

But the speaker of the sentence is talking about being casual and unconcerned to find that someone else is having sex with your wife. You want to say that's very old and common and something that is incapable of becoming a trend?

Yes.

ironrailsironweights said...

Back in Fitzgerald's day the wife in question would have been nice and flavorful. People would have thought that the Hideous Pedophilic Bald Eagle was, well, hideous.

Does anyone know how to build a time machine?

Peter

Ann Althouse said...

On this question of whether "make love" meant something as extreme as fucking, the OED goes back to 1927:

(b) orig. U.S. To engage in sexual intercourse, esp. considered as an act of love. Freq. with to, with.

1927 J. S. Bolan Deposition in L. Schlissel 3 Plays Mae West (1997) 218 Jimmy embraces Margie LaMont and goes through with her the business of making love to her by lying on top of her on a couch, each embracing the other.
1929 E. Hemingway Farewell to Arms xviii. 114 Besides all the big times we had many small ways of making love and we tried putting thoughts in the other one's head while we were in different rooms.


The failure to include Gatsby (which is before '27), when it's such a conspicuous work, must mean that the Mr. Nobody was paying amorous attention to the wife but not getting all the way in there.

Shouting Thomas said...

There are as many reasons why a man would be casual and unconcerned about this as there are couples.

He might (just like some women) not care that much for sex, and prefer that his wife take care of it somewhere else.

The couple might get their jollies from this, and the husband might think himself very lucky because his wife comes back to him with a very hot box.

There are as many variants as there are people when it comes to this stuff.

creeley23 said...

Sublime? It's good phrase-turning, snappy dialog, and moves the plot along like it's supposed to, but sublime?

Writers, who have the knack, come up with this stuff all the time and generally people don't call them sublime.

creeley23 said...


I continue to wonder how random your selections are. There are plenty of ines in Gatsby which are perfectly fine but hardly interesting at all. I mean, there are places where characters say, "Good morning," and that's the line.

This is no knock on Fitzgerald. It's just the way novels are. They are not collections of interesting sentences.

Chip S. said...

I don't think Tom Buchanan would use a word like "woo", which always sounds like Madeleine Kahn talking, so "make love to" is what's necessary to make the equivalent statement.

Synova said...

(yes, I should read the comments so I can save time and type "me too")

66 said...

"Miller was a better writer."

Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.

traditionalguy said...

Divorce Decrees being Equity Jurisdiction giving the Courts power to protect all parties before the Court customarily granted the ex-spouse freedom to have whatever relationships she/he wanted to have in the future.

Without that provision it was assumed that the ex-spouse's going out and having a new relationship with a commoner could do damage to their former spouses social standing, and would permit a suit for damages.

The ownership of a wife by a husband was still a strong cultural norm until recently.

My bet is that the husband owner of Daisy was referring to simple flirting which has always been a valued art in higher class social circles. It is in the Episcopal Church.

Balfegor said...

Don't know what it meant in 1922, but some of the 19th century references for "make love" that one can find in Google Books end up awfully bawdy if you read them as "have sex." Lot of plays come up.

mccullough said...

Here's Hamlet talking to his mom:

"Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty—"

He's talking about fucking

Rob said...

In today's less Puritanical parlance, the sentence would be, "I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere fuck your wife." And you know what? It's a stronger, better sentence with "fuck."

Shouting Thomas said...

The ownership of a wife by a husband was still a strong cultural norm until recently.

It was? Which culture have you been living in?

mccullough said...

I think the ambiguity of fuck and flirt makes this a good line.

ricpic said...

When you're great every decent effort's "sublime;"
When you're not sublime's an impossible climb.

Irene said...

What would Gatsby make of the phrase, "friends with benefits?"

ricpic said...

Miller's a very mixed bag. First seventy five pages of Tropic of Capricorn, hot lava. Also long passages where he's a cranky bore. Overall a much larger canvas than Fitzgerald because much richer in life experiences.

Cleanthes said...

Evo and Proud has a good post about the possibility that the 'Cuckold Fetish' results from bacterial infection. http://www.evoandproud.blogspot.com/

As Toxoplamosis causes major brain changes in mice and crazy cat ladies, so other infections may significantly alter behavior.

Any time a behavior or phenotype has clearly counterproductive evolutionary effects, infection should be suspected.

EDH said...

Dickie Dunn wrote it, "it must be true", from "Slapshot".

"To see the three Chiefs make a scoring rush, the bright colours of their jerseys... flashing against the milky ice, was to see a work of art in motion."

Reggie: That's good writin', Dickie... a nice tribute to the guys.

Dickie: I tried to capture the spirit of the thing.

Reggie: [to the players] This is Dickie Dunn. He wrote the article on you.

Dickie: Hi, guys. Nice to meet you. I was tryin' to capture the spirit of the thing.

Cleanthes said...

Evo and Proud has a good post about the possibility that the 'Cuckold Fetish' results from bacterial infection. http://www.evoandproud.blogspot.com/

As Toxoplamosis causes major brain changes in mice and crazy cat ladies, so other infections may significantly alter behavior.

Any time a behavior or phenotype has clearly counterproductive evolutionary effects, infection should be suspected.

tiger said...

A Dan Savage reference?

The guy is pretty much a scumbag.

edutcher said...

Rings a little tinny as a 20s expression. Sounds more 40s.

Ann Althouse said...

It's one of the standard, most common, sexual practices of humans. Probably goes back to the cave men.

To sit back and let?

No matter how venerable the practice, the question is how could it become "the latest thing," that is a fad or trend.


Like the 60s, the 20s thought they invented everything. I can see where this was one of the new "emancipated" fads.

glenn said...

"Could that be the meaning here, or is it obvious from context that Fitzgerald is talking about "doin' the dirty deed"?"

No .... and ... Yes

But it's not dirty.

glenn said...

Actually I just flashed on my grandmother with that twinkle in her blue eyes telling her young rake of a grandson (me):

"Young man, you aren't doing anything your grandfather and I didn't do up in the hayloft. We just spent more time doing it and a lot less time talking and bragging about it"

Words of wisdom.

Eric Jablow said...

Do you remember Jean Hagen's line in Singin' in the Rain, “I can't make love to a bush!”

wyo sis said...

I have no insight on this one. It seems to be just a sentence that moves the story along. Maybe gives insight into Tom.

Laura said...

Mr. Nobody from Nowhere exploded on the scene, apparently more than once.

Old money artistocrat, fight-up from the trenches. Money gives you a soft bed, but passion can work off the edges of a hard one.

carrie said...

And what did "make love" mean in F. Scott Fitzgerald's own social circle? From what I have read of F. Scott and Zelda and the Paris years, I think that in F. Scott's circle it meant the same thing that it does now.

Mitchell the Bat said...

There was an old New Yorker cartoon by John Held of a young couple alone in a drawing room.

The guy delivers the caption which was something along the lines of: "Let's not speak, my darling, so your father will think I'm making love to you."