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One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o'clock of a December evening, with a few Chicago friends, already caught up into their own holiday gayeties, to bid them a hasty good-by.
I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-That's and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations: "Are you going to the Ordways'? the Herseys'? the Schultzes'?" and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate. (9.120)
Nick may be from Chicago, but it sounds like all the rich people send their kids off East to prep school. What is it about the East in comparison to the West? Are the two regions really that different?
That's my Middle West – not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name. (9.121-122)
This is one of the few times we see anything rural in The Great Gatsby—Nick dismissing the "wheat" and "prairies" of what we'd call the mid-west. But the wheat and prairies he's dismissing are partly the basis of American wealth. All that money they spend on the East Coast has to come from somewhere.
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. (9.182)
Now this is a passage to linger over. Before any big houses or valleys of ashes or even lost Swede towns, America in the "Dutch sailors' eyes" was a green, empty land. (They'd apparently never read 1491.) This vision of possibility is the same vision that Gatsby has—but it's no longer possible.