So, there’s a new movie of Gatsby. This isn’t as newsy now as it would’ve been a few weeks ago, but, you know, the book has been around for, oh, four-score and some years now, and my high school’s students read it in our “American Lit after 1900” class, and I read it in high school and didn’t enjoy it (my memory is of my teacher flat-out telling us “the green light symbolizes money”) and I reread it in recent years and thought it was better than I had remembered it, but that it still wasn’t all that great. I mean, I liked that last line, about boats being ceaselessly beaten back, etc. etc., but much of the book was not that lyrically beautiful.
And I found a fellow-traveler in Kathryn Schulz’s critique of this book:
What was Fitzgerald doing instead of figuring out such things about his characters? Precision-engineering his plot, chiefly, and putting in overtime at the symbol factory. Gatsby takes place over a single summer: three months, three acts, three chapters each, with a denouement—the car accident and murder—of near-Greek (but also near-silly) symmetry. Inside that story, almost everything in sight serves a symbolic purpose: the automobiles and ash heaps, the upright Midwest and poisonous East, the white dresses and decadent mansions.
Heavy plot, heavy symbolism, zero psychological motivation: Those are the genre conventions of fables and fairy tales. Gatsby has been compared to both, typically to suggest a mythical quality to Fitzgerald’s characters or a moral significance to his tale. But moral significance requires moral engagement: challenge, discomfort, illumination, or transformation. The Great Gatsby offers none of that. In fact, it offers the opposite: aloofness.
When I saw that I wasn’t alone in my lack of enthusiasm, I started wondering why this particular book was taught and continues to be taught so much to high-school literature students. There are many, many other novels published in the last hundred years that could also be taught.
One of my colleagues suggested that the theme of the American dream in “Gatsby” makes it worth reading — and, sure, that’s a valid theme to discuss in a lit. class. But “the American dream” isn’t a theme at all until the author takes a position on that topic — “the American dream is hollow” or “the American dream is worthwhile” — and at that point, why do we need a story at all? Fitzgerald could just have written an op-ed to make that point, and have been done with it.
Instead, there is a long story that’s about as subtle in its condemnation as a fairy tale, as Schulz says above. To take a scenario as complex as Gatsby’s (ill-gotten gains, unrequited-and-then-illicitly-requited love, etc.) and just boil it down to something like “achieving our goals may not make us happy” feels like it deserves a “duh” response from adult readers. Teens may not know this yet, and maybe it’s worthwhile for them to consider it, but I’m not sure adults will take this book all that seriously. Maybe the readers who will most enjoy and appreciate a work are those who are younger than the author was when he/she wrote the work.
According to his Wikipedia page, Fitzgerald wrote most of “Gatsby” in 1924, when he would’ve been (1896 to 1924) 28 years old. Twenty-eight is pretty darn young for someone to comment on the nature of “the American dream.” Of course, chronological age does not always match personal maturity or artistic ability, but when a writer is only 28 years old — has been an adult for only 10 years — he doesn’t really have much authority, other than authority over those who are younger yet than he is.
I’m now almost 40, and I can now look back at my 28-year-old self and see that I strongly held certain beliefs and judgments about which I am now not sure certain. This is not to say that I was wrong, exactly, about the things I said then, nor that I am perfect now, but that I now try to be more humble about my opinions (Humble enough to blog them to the rest of the reading public, of course. Also, the delusions of grandeur endure).
And so I can now look at “The Great Gatsby” and admire some of the writing but I also look at the story and think that there’s not much there for me to learn. I feel like I’m smarter than the characters, and also wiser than the author. With other books and authors, too: I don’t have to agree with Hemingway’s biases towards his characters in “The Sun Also Rises,” written when he was 26, and I don’t have to think that Kerouac’s characters could find satisfaction in their lives “On the Road,” published when Kerouac was 35. I look at some of these books now and wonder why the authors really have to tell me about the condition of being alive that I haven’t already learned on my own.
It’s age-ism to say that I can’t learn anything from writers who are younger than me (or were when they wrote — and of course, I did learn from reading Hemingway and Kerouac when I was a late-teens, early-20s reader). And yet, as I get older, and as I get more familiar with the fuller range of ideas, the range of ways of writing, the range of tones/perspectives, etc. that writers can use, I find myself less thrilled, less enthused, to read the writings of most other writers.
That’s a huge generalization, of course. And I’m not talking about reading things for “escapist” purposes — a writer of any age, presumably, can write a story. But I often read in order to learn something, and the older I get, the less I don’t know.
That sounds terrible — terribly closed-minded, and typical of an old (read: inflexible) person. And not entirely true — I am able to better appreciate some things now — including some of the classic texts — than I was when younger. But when I now read Plato’s “Apology” or the epic poem “Beowulf” (as I read last year for the “World Lit” class I was teaching), I’m more likely to approach these texts as a peer of the writer — I’m less likely to cede authority to that author. I’m gonna question the author’s veracity, legitimacy, purpose, etc. — all that stuff that my college lit. profs. probably wanted me to question when I was 20.
But I’m here now, and some of the magic of the texts is gone, or maybe it was never “magic” — maybe I’m just more clear-eyed and less reverent when I approach texts. Maybe I’m not buying into the Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Kerouac myths that I used to accept — that there was something gloriously important and rapturously tragic (or vice versa) about Being an Author and Writing Novels, etc.
I don’t feel bad about my current approach — and once one is aware of the myths and the magic, one “can never return again.” Not only do I not feel bad about my current mindset, I feel pretty good about it — I feel wiser than I used to be. Where I used to see intellectual limits, I now see boundaries whose lines can be crossed. It feels pretty good.
And one thing I feel good about is not wanting to merely criticize others and their works. I want my fault-finding to lead me into a positive, substantial new direction — and I think for me, this means that I no longer really accept texts as beyond reproach and I no longer accept ideas as unassailable answers (everything is reproachable and/or assailable). But I trust now in the process, in the act of thinking and writing, and in this way, I can continue to discuss and consider even works I disagree with — I can continue to teach my students (and myself), and I can be humble enough to see also that I may also one day find something beyond process that I like even better.