“If he’d of lived, he’d of been a great man. A man like James J. Hill. He’d of helped build up the country.”
James J. Hill (1838-1916) is sometimes referred to as “The Empire Builder”; he rose from humble beginnings to make a fortune building railroads across the Midwest (making him especially noteworthy to someone like Mr. Gatz). He died with a net worth of $50 million, about $2.5 billion in 2007 dollars.
In confronting this comparison, Nick is confronting the myth of the “American Dream.” Unlike Hill, Gatsby didn’t make his fortune building up the country, and he did not leave behind a legacy like the railroads for his fellow citizens. Does this imply something negative about Gatsby—that he’s a selfish hedonist in comparison with Hill—or something about the times, and the kinds of fortunes being made in the “Roaring Twenties”?
To help improve the meaning of these lyrics, visit “The Great Gatsby (Chapter IX)” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and leave a comment on the lyrics box