Not so Great Gatsby? A Dialogue about that Novel and the Canon

Dear Reader,

I invited one of my terrific young colleagues, Paul Clark, to talk about The Great Gatsby. Paul–speaking for many others–regards the novel as an American Masterpiece, I do not. Some of this back and forth reflects an ongoing conversation that Paul and I have about canon formation, what kids need to know, the virtues of teaching off-the-beaten track material and the importance of creating a common culture. I spend much of my time reducing Paul’s arguments to straw men and he humors me. I put Paul’s comments in italics.

We thought we’d structure this dialogue (and we are both committed to dialogue) around Gatsby since the movie just came out, though we could have picked something else.

Dan,
 Immediately I’m aware of your home court advantage — and I’m a bit nervous that your invitation to dialogue about Gatsby is in line with your comment about Hemingway’s praise of Twain (“All modern American literature comes from … Huckleberry Finn”). Your claim, if I remember correctly, was that Hemingway was setting a bar he knew he could easily surpass, and so perhaps you drag me to wordpress with similar plans. But I arrive undaunted, with a classic on my side and the memory of many of my students who have requested the “alternate ending” — so charmed were they by the title character.
For my opening: I enter the book the way Nick enters the city:
 Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world….
“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . .”
Gatsby’s magic is the sense of infinite possibility he radiates. Nick falls under his spell, and I think it is only the cold-hearted reader who is able to stay sober and clear. Of course, his dreams aren’t able to come fully to fruition, but there’s something hypnotic about his commitment to them, his belief in his own vision of what life holds for him, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This “romantic readiness,” as Nick calls it, should have been stomped out of him years ago, most certainly by the war if by nothing else. And yet the dreams persist, his foolhardy belief that “the rock of the world [is] founded securely on a fairy’s wing.” Admittedly, this is no way to live, but isn’t there something beautiful about it none-the-less? Isn’t there more than a little Don Quixote in him, a character to which you are more than sympathetic?

Dear Paul,
What a wonderful opening! As you know, you have the much more difficult task in our discussion. You love and admire Gatsby and want to share that with others. I do not like Gatsby and think that it and Catcher in the Rye are the two most overrated novels in American Literature with Huck Finn coming in third.
I have taught Gatsby twice (on the recommendation of a colleague I admire greatly–John McGean) and have not re-read it since then–please forgive me if I get things wrong. I found several things disturbing about the novel. Let’s start with this one: is there a likable character in the novel? An admirable one? Daisy? Myrtle? Tom? Gatsby? George? Jordan? Nick?
It is, of course, in theory possible to write a fine novel with no likable characters or admirable characters (but I am struggling to think of one). Nick’s voice, for a WWI vet and Yale grad, has always seemed to me to be remarkably naive (and at times impenetrable–I have no idea what image I am supposed to get from a city “in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money” and I object to seeing a city “always for the first time.” A city could “seem” new each time one enters it but could it be seen for the first time more than once?). While novels have no absolute ethical obligations, I am curious to know what I should learn by watching people who have worshipped themselves and status climbing and money–and finally their own pleasure. You know that when Gatsby was first published reviews were decidedly mixed and the novel was little read until it made it on to so many high school curriculums in the 1950s. During WWII it was handed out free to tens of thousands of soldiers–who having little else to read, read Gatsby. It is my experience that when one has read little, it is easy to have a “favorite” book–when one has read much, few works have no value and few are unassailable masterpieces. Let me answer the question about Don Quixote and pose one to you–Quixote is indeed a character that I admire–a dreamer whose goal is to serve humanity and God (and to become famous doing so). You assert that Gatsby is a “classic,” I wonder on what basis–that lots of people read it (The Da Vinci Code qualifies; that it deals with a particular time period well (perhaps–but wouldn’t that make it a history book more akin to Grapes of Wrath); that it presents a philosophical world view that deserves serious consideration (if so, I’m struggling to figure out what that would be–a Gordon Gecko “greed is good”? a Victorian-era roman a clef looking at the lives of the rich)?

Dan,

I agree with you about the lack of “likable” characters — by my count there’s only one, Gatsby’s father. It breaks my heart when Mr. Gatz arrives from Minnesota, having learned of his son’s death from the newspaper, and asks, “Where have they got Jimmy?” (And the way he beams with pride when he shows Nick his son’s copy of Hopalong Cassidy with that schedule written inside kills me). Though I always find myself rooting for Gatsby, I do think there’s a bit of trickery involved. This has been replicated by countless romantic comedies — to justify the male or female lead cheating on his/her partner to find his/her true love, the partner is made out to be a horrendous character, a trap that the hero/heroine must escape. It’s a failure to provide a reasonable conflict. So we’re rooting for Gatsby to break up a marriage (that has produced a kid no less!) simply because Tom is so vapid and cruel. And when Nick shouts to Gatsby that he’s “worth the whole damn bunch put together,” what, really, is he saying?

But I agree with Claire Messud on this topic. “If you’re reading to find friends,” she says, “you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’” For me, Fitzgerald’s characters are alive — even (and especially) Nick, whom I tend to “like” less with each read. Quick to judgement and blind to his own short-comings, cold himself while criticizing others’ lack of care, happy to retreat to his own moral upbringing in the face of a conflict of values, yet unable to fully extricate himself from the situation… Nick is still captivated by Gatsby’s strong romantic vision, the little piece of humanity he believes is worth something. Admirable? Heck no. But I think we can find these qualities in ourselves in our lesser moments.

As for what makes a classic, I’m happy to be generous with the term. Isn’t there a natural selection that happens with stories within a culture? So even if Gatsby began its tremendous run in the 1940s barracks, doesn’t it mean something that it has stuck around decades later, and that so many people carry that character around with them in their heads?

We’ll see if Da Vinci Code (or Twilight or 50 Shades) stands the test of time. We English teachers are reader-for-hire, and as such, we are of service in two ways (I’m stealing a bit from you here): we conserve and pass on the great books from the past that our students wouldn’t otherwise encounter, and we help them make sense of the stories they encounter without our suggestion in their daily lives. (The latter is one of the many reasons I’m teaching Frank Miller’s incredible The Dark Knight Returns right now.) I believe that we do not like stories accidentally — maybe they speak to the best in us, maybe they speak to the worst. And maybe they speak to a quality that is just there, one that we have to figure out what to do with: that yearning for perfection, for the ultimate prize, whatever our personal interpretation of it may be.

Paul,

I admire your response on several levels–I had forgotten that Mr. Gatz makes an appearance. I’m not sure the obstacles of a Rom-Com are comparable to the destruction of marriages and, ultimately lives, but perhaps they exist on a continuum. Also, I’m particularly intrigued by Claire Messud’s observation–and I am not sure I agree–though it certainly sounds reasonable on its surface. I do not read searching for “friends” but I suppose I read searching for knowledge of self or the world around me, to be entertained (I think it is easy for “professional readers for hire” such as ourselves to dismiss the appetite for joy or entertainment as somehow not worthy or noble enough–an attitude that says if we don’t suffer as we read then we can’t be learning anything. I suspect also that I am looking for a “friend” in the author if not in the characters–or worthwhile companions if not friends–I have to think more about this). Still, I am struck by your sense of what Forster would call “rounded characters.” Perhaps that is part of my “disillusionment” with Gatsby–the characters are round/real–and universally disagreeable, hypocritical, and repellent–so I do not find myself enriched or entertained by them. Your lovely sense that we “conserve” a tradition and pass that along is indeed something I am charmed by–but like anything else (as a Jungian I can’t help but say this), it has a Shadow side. What if the tradition we pass on is profoundly morally or intellectually flawed (like defending slavery or segregation or refusing to acknowledge the truth of Copernicus, etc–and what current things do we debate [global warming or drone strikes] that future generations will settle against us? What if the acclamation of Gatsby is really the accretion of thousands of readers led to believe that the emperor is clothed when, in fact, he isn’t? I’ll conclude with two things: 1) thanks to you I will re-read Gatsby next fall with my habitual generosity of mind; and 2) we’ll have another discussion like this on the blog and attempt to address the importance of creating common culture and teaching students to “make sense of the stories that they encounter” and, I’ll add, to learn to narrate themselves into a fuller, richer, human tapestry.

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12 Comments

Filed under books and learning, books that shaped America, education, Great Gatsby, movies, pedagogy, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

12 responses to “Not so Great Gatsby? A Dialogue about that Novel and the Canon

  1. Dear Dan and Paul,

    Thank you for this very provocative dialogue. There is an interesting article in the latest issue of First Things (http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2013/05/debating-desire) that I think might posit an intriguing consideration, and is the basis of how I read Gatsby (and did so even as a high school student, though I undoubtedly could not have articulated it as such). In the article, Santiago Ramos argues for way to approach “common ground” on ethical questions by scrapping the Kantian moral imperative and rephraising our conversation withing a dialectic of desire. He writes “But desire may also be eros. Desire is our fundamental longing for, and inclination toward, happiness and the good. Ask Socrates, for whom (at least in Plato’s Symposium) desire begins with wanting to possess beautiful bodies, and advances toward other beauties: science, art, law, and noble sacrifice for an ideal. The issue, for Socrates, is to make sure that our desire is led to its fulfillment, that it doesn’t gorge on partial pleasures.”

    In this vein, Gatsby has always struck me as an intense meditation on this precise problem: Can desire be fulfilled? The green light, in this way, becomes the constant call on the horizon of what is “not yet” posessed with respect to desire. I am bothered by the distance of the green light, and it hints to me of something so infinite that it cannot be extinguished, even by death; it remains and ultimately has the last word in the novel.

    Of course, this probably reveals more on my take on the role of literature, which I find most interesting in your dialogue. I am always less intrigued by the possibility of comanpanionship with characters and more intrigued by companionship with authors whose vision of beauty, of desire, or of the infinite I can identify with. In this way, they become companions in my self-discovery and growth, and reading (especially re-reading over the years) becomes the event of something ever changing, ever new.

  2. Linda Hoffman

    I am so pleased Paul will reread the novel. Before retiring from teaching last year, I used the book in my English classes for years. One of the many joys of “teaching this novel” is rereading it each year. The characters, ideas, and language are timeless. I have always told my students to notice that Fitzgerald tells us what he wants us to know when he wants us to know it. For me, Fitzgerald controls the reader—-indeed,a masterful writing skill.

    Also, when I had foreign exchange students in my class, I always told them they would learn much about Americans through the book—maybe not always our best side.

    I visited Australia a few years ago, where I met a lit teacher who loved having his students read the novel. I asked him how he addressed the American Dream. He told me it was quite easy; he showed a picture of Americans singing The Star Spangled Banner at a baseball game. Hmmm. My students always loved this story—-that teacher didn’t really capture the essence of the American Dream! Just a nice image of patriotism.

    Finally, I think the last page, when Nick returns tothe shore of West Egg, makes the novel truly the Great American Novel. The pronouns change from from third person to fisrt person (we, us). Fitzgerald wants us to pay attention—“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”
    America continues to measure its success by our past. Those Dutch sailors indeed had the purest American Dream of all.

  3. mary kim schreck

    Well, I thoroughly enjoyed the post…I’ve taught American Lit for many years but I have to confess I didn’t teach Gatsby except for a couple of years….I didn’t like it…I needed more substance in a character to get into a book…I spent much more satisfying a time teaching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest…I’d take McMurphy over those characters any day!

  4. Thomas Johnson

    Really fascinating discussion here. I think Gatsby’s a worthwhile book, though my appreciation of it has always been detached and clinical. I think the lack of sympathetic characters is a problem only insofar as it makes it difficult for the reader to emotionally engage with the novel; there’s still plenty to be gleaned from intellectual engagement with it. One has to be careful not to conflate the motives of the characters with the author’s intentions. Fitzgerald isn’t interested in explicitly condemning his characters, but his depiction of the ruin brought about by a “greed is good” mentality implicitly conveys the wrongness of such a mindset. God may be watching (His gaze is unsubtly represented in the optometrist’s sign), but vice is depicted as ultimately being its own punishment. I think the tragedy of Gatsby is that he had the potential to be a much better man than the adulterous bootlegger he turned into, before being drawn into the glitz and glamor of Daisy’s world.

  5. Re Fitzgerald personal proclivities, as WB Yeats observed … “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained him through temporary periods of joy,” and also this photo which I recently posted on Facebook … https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10201063362246520&set=a.1799407665268.129693.1242062526&type=1&theater

  6. Also, speaking of Fitzgerald, I have always found this excerpt from his “This Side of Paradise” to be an stirring, bittersweet tribute those great undergraduate days, to college as a cornucopia of knowledge, and to the work and world of academe … Here Fitzgerald has his hero reclining on the lawns of Princeton at night, gazing up at the surrounding halls and cloisters:

    “… infinitely more mysterious as they loomed suddenly out of the darkness, outlined each by myriad faint squares of yellow light … Evening after evening the senior singing had drifted over the campus in melancholy beauty, and through the shell of his undergraduate consciousness had broken a deep and reverent devotion to the gray walls and Gothic peaks and all they represented as warehouses of dead ages.”

  7. Frank Young

    Dear Dan and Pat:
    How great it would have been to have had either of you, or both, as my high school English teachers.

    Re Gatsby (which I have read several times, but not recently), what I think you have missed in your discussion as English teachers, and what I think is the source of Gatsby’s continuing popularity, is it’s subject matter and message. It’s subject matter is class and wealth in America, and it’s message is that you may achieve wealth, but you can’t buy class.
    I have just finished reading all of John Lawton’s Inspector Troy series, in which the English class system plays such a large role. In England, class (and the individual) is defined by his accent, his education, his college, and his family. See also, Downton Abbey.

    America, Thank God, has no class system like the British. Nonetheless, we are a society obsessed with class. America is all about the common man making a fresh start and MAKING IT. Horatio Alger in popular lit. In real life, John D. Rockefeller in oil, J. P. Morgan in banking, the movie moguls like Jack Warner, who went from poor Jewish boys in the Bronx to fabulously powerful and rich studio heads. Sergei Brin in modern times.

    Think about the role of class in the writing of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Think about all those 1930’s and 1940’s movies with the likes of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, dressed in evening gowns and white tie and tails, while all the rest of America was suffering through the Great Depression.

    Fitzgerald falls precisely into this fascination with class. He went from middle class Minnesota to Princeton to make himself into a gentleman of the Eastern upper class. He was himself a kind of Gatsby.

    Hemingway and Steinbeck are writers outside the obsession with class. Hemingway’s obsession with being a man was forged out of his war experiences. What counted was what a man did when the shooting started. Hence, the great Fitzgerald-Hemingway exchange:

    Fitzgerald: “The rich are different from you and me.”
    Hemingway: “Yes, they have more money.”

    And this gets to the heart of the matter. When Americans say a guy has class, they don’t usually means he belongs to the privileged world of the
    British upper class. They mean the man does things the right way. They are saying the man is a “mensch.” In America, money can buy the accouterments of the wealthy: mansions, horses, fast cars, bespoke suits, etc. But money can’t buy class. That is something one acquires, that comes from inside.

    This brings us back to Gatsby. Jay Gatsby got rich, and acquired the mansion on Long Island so he could woo the fair Daisy and steal her away from her husband. But he had no class. He made his money in the underworld. He gambled and lost, and some tougher member of the underworld, perhaps Vito Corleone, took his life. He aspired, but money could not buy what he wanted.

    Gatsby’s appeal endures because so many Americans have experienced or observed this same phenomenon.

    One thinks of the Kennedys. Like Gatsby, Joe Kennedy made his fortune as a bootlegger, and went from there. The Kennedys were rich, but did they have class?

    That is why I believe The Great Gatsby is a great novel, perhaps the greatest American novel. It is a symphony on the theme of having wealth and class in America.

    And I agree with Hemingway about Huckleberry Finn. It was the first American novel written outside the mold of the traditional English novel.
    It was written in the American vernacular (contrasts with Henry James and William Dean Howells) and it’s protagonists were a juvenile delinquent and a runaway slave. That the book is still banned now and then by the morality police testifies to its enduring power.

    Thanks for enduring my vent.

    The best to you both and to DeMatha.

    Frank Young, father of Russell Young, DeMatha 2000.

    • MARY KIM SCHRECK

      Mr. Young:
      I find your explanation of The Great Gatsby the best I’ve read so far….I was too naive and short-sighted when I took up the book to teach for the first time so long ago and gave up the effort too soon for many wrong reasons. Now I would like to call back all those students I had over the years and try one more time to offer a better take on the book. Thank you for this broader view of the role of class and wealth in the American psyche.

  8. Patrick Harris

    I didn’t care for the Robert Redford movie of the book. While you can’t judge a book by the movie (or its cover), there has to be something in the story that appeals to the reader (or in my case the viewer). An aside for the new movie, is Mr. DiCaprio trying to be the next Robert Redford? I never cared for him until seeing Inception, but one wonders when actors, directors or writers try too hard. As for tragic figures, I prefer non-fiction. I can’t read about Watergate, the blue dress, etc. without wishing I had a time machine to jump back and yell: “Stop, you fools!” No writer could ever come up with a tragic story more compelling than real life.

  9. Ryan LaLumiere

    Thank goodness, Dan, to hear someone with a significant background in literature agree with me. I never found the Great Gatsby to be compelling or interesting. Certainly, the lack of likable characters was part of it. I will say that I enjoyed the recent movie, but a large part of that has to do with Baz Luhrman and the musical score. I realize that this may be particularly scandalous to say, but I also didn’t find Fitzgerald’s writing to be especially amazing either, despite his reputation with words.

  10. John Stitcher

    Dr. McMahon,
    Thanks for giving me something worth thinking about this morning! It seems this may fall into the “no accounting for taste” category in your case. For poorly developed characters, they certainly seem to draw particular strong emotions of dislike, disdain, and disapproval – no alliteration intended- from you. But, there must be a degree of realism, of humanity, to these characters for them to provoke an emotional response at all. Something about this book DOES seem to strike a chord with you, just not a chord you care to have struck. To me, a good book can make you feel good, or bad. Just so long as the main feeling one walks away with is not ambivalence. Whether you love or hate the character, an authors imaginary creation is suspending your disbelief.

    John Stitcher, ’00

    • Hi John, please call me Dan. Thanks for your comment; I wholeheartedly agree. I have found that the things I like or admire AND the things I dislike or do not respect. Both deserve a serious look because they are causing some reaction. Part of me thinks that my response to Gatsby is thematic but I recognize that a healthy part could be my innate distrust of the crowd–and any crowd of people (often uncritically) genuflecting in front of a text makes me queasy. Pax, dan

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