Friday, June 8, 2012

A Transitory Enchanted Moment -- A Review of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning --

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

The Great Gatsby is now 87 years old and still feels fresh, edgy, modern, and still has something fundamental to say about the American experience. The novel pulls us into the past, then into the future, and then back again. Like the tide that ebbs and flows between East Egg and West Egg, and the motor parkway and the railroad that pulls people back and forth, back and forth, between East and West -- in search of something that is just within reach, yet never grasping it. The tide pulls out again, just before we can hang on to that mesmerizing green light at the end of the dock.

Fitzgerald distinguishes the East, with its fruitless grasping, with the more solid and contented Middle West:
That's my Middle West -- not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all -- Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.
The tug between east and west, old world and new, old and young, is also the tug of the future and the past.
[A]s the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes -- a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
So sad, so tragic. This grasping into a future that is already in the past just as we come upon it. And we race along carelessly, turning a once beautiful continent into a Valley of Ashes, and leaving the less fortunate dead on the road as we speed on.

It is also a book about growing up. Nick refers to his age several times in the book and, on the night of the book's climax, he turns 30. He is leaving youth behind. Later, he tells Jordan, "I'm thirty. I'm five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor." Fitzgerald depicts a nation that has not yet crossed this threshold. We are still young and still lying to ourselves. The Valley of Ashes and the dead bodies in the road are not something we are ready to admit to ourselves. But Nick is staring it in the face and he's decided to return to the Middle West. Fitzgerald describes this Eastern/American carelessness:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
Nick grows up in this story and stops lying to himself. At the start of the story, he believes himself to be an honest man and prides himself upon it. By the end of the book, he's more realistic:
Thirty -- the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair. But there was Jordan beside me, who, unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age. As we passed over the dark bridge her wan face fell lazily against my coat's shoulder and the formidable stroke of thirty died away with the reassuring pressure of her hand.
So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.
Then there are the all-seeing eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. Wilson looks out at these eyes plastered on the billboard and says, "God knows what you've been doing, everything you've been doing. You may fool me, but you can't fool God!" We can lie to ourselves, but reality is reality. You can't recreate the past. And in the future lies death.

Sounds depressing and it is, in a sense. But it is so beautifully written and so stunning in just under 200 pages that the novel itself seems to be a metaphor for life: short, beautiful, tragic.

Why you should read it:
  • to experience what New York may have been like in the Roaring Twenties
  • to sink into a glamorous, short, engrossing beach read (the entire story takes place in the summer)
  • to read one of the greatest novels about the American experiment and the American dream
  • to become enthralled by the author's stunning command of the English language
Why you might hold off:
  • no one should hold off; read it again and again
Local alert: F. Scott Fitzgerald attended Newman School, a prep school in Hackensack, New Jersey, from 1911–1912, and entered Princeton University in New Jersey in 1913 as a member of the Class of 1917. There he became friends with future critics and writers Edmund Wilson (Class of 1916) and John Peale Bishop (Class of 1917), and wrote for the Princeton Triangle Club, the Nassau Lit, and the Princeton Tiger. He was a member of the University Cottage Club, which still displays Fitzgerald's desk and writing materials in its library. A poor student, Fitzgerald left Princeton to enlist in the US Army during World War I; the war ended shortly after his enlistment. Fitzgerald moved to Great Neck, NY, with his wife and child in 1922 where he worked continued work on his masterpiece The Great Gatsby, begun in 1911. Great Neck was the inspiration for the fictional West Egg, with East Egg lying just across the bay. In the book, the characters drive down Northern Boulevard toward Manhattan, which can still be done today -- although of course it is a much different experience. Wilson's garage is located in the old Corona Ash Dumps (the Valley of Ashes in the novel). The World's Fair grounds are currently located on the site. An interesting discussion of the spot can be found at ArchiTakes. All of these places -- Princeton, Great Neck, and even the site of Wilson's garage -- are within a car or train ride for many New Jerseyans.
Review submitted for The Classic Bribe, Summer 2012.

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