valley of ashes

p. 27:

This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.

This famous description of the bleak landscape between Manhattan and Kings Point is interesting to me in that I don’t know which is the metaphor, the ashes or the buildings and people.  Today that stretch of land is surely overbuilt suburbia, but was it actually fields of ashes in the 1920s?  Fitzgerald might be describing a desolate field of windswept ashes and noting the fanciful forms of humanity they take.  Or he may be saying that he looks at the gray houses and gray men who live in this purgatory and thinks they have the substance and permanence of ashes swirling in the wind.  I suppose the meaning is the same either way.

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