Friday, May 15, 2009

F. Scott Fitzgerald

A few years ago -- maybe 1999 0r so -- I answered an ad seeking contributors to a volume of teaching essays on the Great Gatsby. This is what I just found in the old hard-drive:

I try to make students realize that Gatsby is indeed a deceiver, without losing sight of the rationale for his deceptions and the immense personal longing that makes him live a mendacious life. Students are tempted toward various moralistic simplifications: they usually hate Daisy, for instance. They also thrill to the glamour of the big parties, and this makes them slow to admire the hapless Mr. Wilson — though he’s perhaps the only character in the book who loves someone else without lying.

A quick read of This Side of Paradise can be very illuminating for someone teaching or studying Gatsby. The earlier novel does show some of Fitzgerald’s prodigious gift for the smooth, glittering sentence, and it made him a bundle. But its profound inferiority to Gatsby gives us a feeling for the way Fitzgerald had to reinvent himself as a writer, and how that successful re-tooling of his own talent left the public slightly confused, slightly resentful. This Side is riddled with the patrician smugness of Princeton, on the one hand, and with trendy but ultimately vacuous aesthetic fashions on the other (the immediate successors of “the It girls,” the women of Fitzgerald’s first novel are entirely invented in both senses: they haven’t lived yet as characters, and neither has their young author). In Gatsby, after Successful Authorship had disillusioned him about the myth of the self-made man, Fitzgerald discovered the reality of other people.

7. Exam questions and assignments dealt with the symbolism of the green light on the dock; the destructive power of sexuality; Nick as a combined narrator and protagonist, and the issue of his development or lack thereof; Daisy’s predicament; and comparisons between Winnesburg, Ohio and The Great Gatsby with regard to the theme of the unlived life.

8. Everybody loves the “beautiful shirts” episode, sometimes because they recognize their own consumerism in Daisy’s fetishistic love of fine clothes, but more generally, they respond to Fitzgerald’s great panorama of youthful striving mixed with fatalism and the evidence of inevitable decline. T. J. Eckleburg’s gigantic defunct eyeglasses beside the turnpike are a recognizable granddaddy of the billboards our students have learned to loathe early. Even today, Gatsby’s readers know they’re in America, because they recognize the self-defeating lust for life that was already starting to wreck the place in 1925.

9. The novel is set in 1922, and it remembers back as far as — 1919. Six thousand men died each day for weeks at the Somme, but because of the way time works (especially in the New World), that immediate past can claim neither Fitzgerald’s attention, nor his characters’, nor that of his 1925 audience: they all needed to forget it, and though this kind of forgetting is also the basis of Gatsby’s self-making (as of Emerson’s call for an American national literature), the repressed past disturbs the gorgeous surface. Martinis may float down the stairs, but they’re not the only thing haunting the architecture.

The racism in the novel shouldn’t be left hanging as an ugly but accidental element, since it’s part of Tom Buchanan’s deliberate self-definition, and part of a national hypocrisy that Fitzgerald is at pains to expose — even if he’s better at exposing the hypocrisy of Prohibition than of racism, since he never seems to have fully rejected the anthropological pseudo-science of his younger days. Fitz senses that something’s foul — his villain Tom is the only character to openly avow a disdain for nonwhites — but he can’t quite give up the little hits of self-esteem he still gets from his own lingering suspicions that blond is the way to be. Blacks and Jews threatened genteel America in a way that isn’t entirely different from the way Europe threatened it, and this issue is cogent to a treatment of Gatsby because the gamble of bigotry is part of the larger gamble of self-making. Indeed, one almost gets the impression that the author permits himself these substantial vestiges of the bigotry he had already begun to repudiate, because he recognizes that it’s self-destructive. It's as if supremacist ideology were like gin: it may be sinful, but the punishment is built right in, so it’s all right.

10. I think Sherwood Anderson is very important, and because he’s distant from Fitz in a way that Hemingway is not, his inclusion tends to show how wide the range of lyrical utterance was in American fiction of the 20’s.

11. & 12. I try to say something true and useful about who Francis Scott Fitzgerald was, where he came from, and why he was a writer. Gatsby is about the struggle for love and acknowledgment in a milieu of mendacity and relentless self-assertion, and this tends to resonate with students. I discuss the way desire seems to work and how it makes us vulnerable to self-deception, while comparing this to the chronic lying entailed by Prohibition and then by advertising. The Temperance movement succeeded, but that success was surprisingly painful and confusing and disastrous because it was based partly on a pious self-delusion (the contemporary analogy to criminalized marijuana is not far to seek, and students tend to mention this). The hard part of this political aspect of the novel, is getting the students to condemn what they find despicable without sacrificing the utopian hope that might fix it.

The Great Gatsby: Desire, Deception, Self-Making
Jamey Hecht

Gatsby has traveled to the limits of the American myth of the self-made man, but he cannot get the girl. Readers of this novel must therefore be led to affirm the limitations of this same myth, which, in its more contemporary forms, many students continue to hold dear. The social mythology of American capitalism in the 1920’s implied that with sufficient desire a white man could not only make himself rich, he could re-make himself. Gatsby is not old money and Daisy is; he hopes this will not matter and sets about constructing himself as a nouveau riche. This construction includes various kinds of deception: his change of name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby is the beginning of a continuum that ends in his secret career as a gambler (who violates “the betting laws”) and a bootlegger. In the Temperance movements of the 19th century, America experienced a fantasy of its own possible purity; but that fantasy’s fulfillment, the reality of Prohibition (1920-1933) involved a criminal economy and a transgressive leisure-culture. It has been argued that both were expressions of the same striving, obsessional libido that drove the Temperance movement. In this regard, any American text of lonely striving that involves self-deception — Moby-Dick, Benito Cereno, Harold Frederick’s Damnation of Theoron Ware — can illuminate The Great Gatsby by throwing into relief the peculiarities of its technique, its atmosphere, and the weirdly balanced webs of moral complexity in which Fitzgerald, his protagonist, his narrator, and the culture that produced them are all caught. Nick’s self-professed honesty contrasts with Gatsby’s dissembling, but also with Tom’s deluded adherence to race-science, Jordan’s cheating “subterfuges,” Myrtle Wilson’s adultery with Tom, the fickleness of the crowd of partygoers who abandon Gatsby after his fall, and even Daisy’s loveless endurance of her marriage for the sake of its privileges. One can teach Gatsby by demonstrating the way these forms of mendacity (including Temperance and Prohibition) are bound up with admirable efforts at self-determination that ultimately prove self-defeating. Gatsby’s charismatic, beautiful courage is driven by an intense love which, though it transcends his eventual failure, remains tainted with deep dishonesty and an equally deep naiveté. That Fitzgerald felt some of this in himself after the success of This Side of Paradise seems evident, and The Great Gatsby is a brilliantly crafted meditation on desire that brings deeply rooted themes of American selfhood into focus.

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