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.
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?
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)?
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.
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.