April 11, 2010

Some Opening Questions for Thought.

Why do you think that Fitzgerald does not show any scene of the affair between Daisy and Gatsby?  Despite the fact that we would only be able to see the scene from Nick Carroway’s point-of-view, the absence of any details of their affair during the summer is prominent. Often the absence of something in literature can be just as powerful (if not more so) than the presence (like Cordelia’s absence from Acts 1 – 4 of King Lear). If we examine the chronology of the novel, which takes place for the most part over the summer of 1922, the time Daisy spends illicitly at Gatsby’s mansion would be maybe a month or so.

The Theme of Illusion and Reality in the Context of and Elegy to the American Dream.

I believe that the dichotomy of reality and illusion, or truth and fantasy is very important in this novel. We talked a bit about it in the last class. The title of the novel purposefully sounds like the name of one of those traveling magic or medicine shows popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Fitzgerald presents Gatsby as a sort of medicine man / con-man, someone who has deft sleight-of-hand. I have always been struck with how Fitzgerald describes his flash car, its gaudy flamboyance. It strikes me as the new, modern image of the traveling medicine man who used to get around by horse and buggy or covered wagon. Remember, the novel came out in 1925. The automobile was pretty new to the road. Car owners were still in the minority as opposed to the norm it would become a decade or so later.

I also believe that the brief and odd conversation that Nick and Jordan have with Owl Eyes in the library is significant in terms of this theme concerning reality and illusion. The dichotomy of reality and illusion, waking-life and dreams (however you want to state it) is as old as literature itself. It is so prevalent in literature that it can even become hackneyed–I can’t tell you how many times a student has used the phrase “you can’t judge a book by its cover” in a paper. But Fitzgerald takes the dichotomy, and places it in the context of a decadent aspect of the American Dream (or at least notions of what such a concept means) in this particular period in American history, the mid-1920s post-War America.

My sense is that in order to get a full understanding of the power and poignancy of Fitzgerald’s “elegy” to the American Dream, it helps to have some knowledge and readership of American literature and history since the early 1800s. Whereas England has a vast and ancient history behind them, and became a superpower and world-leader centuries before American, the United States was still an infant by World War I. In fact, the America we know filled with the promise of individual success and the romantic yearnings and belief that you could purchase your dreams by going west, really begins with and after the Civil War. Many historians–and I agree–believe that what we understand as freedom, liberty, equality, the pursuit of happiness became the romantic invention of Abraham Lincoln, the Gettysberg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the first real efforts to use capitalism to feul expansion and industry.

1918: the Birth of America as a Superpower.

The birth of America as a super-power has a distinct date–1918, when the United States entered World War I on behalf of the allies. Ending the war and saving France and England (the former having saved us, the latter having been our foe in two of the three major previous wars) was America’s nativity, so to speak, as a superpower. And it marked, in many ways, the decline of England and France as the dominant leaders of the free world. Interestingly, as quickly as we could have ascended to this throne, we retreated from it. Although president Wilson fought to his death for our inclusion in the League of Nations, we turned it down, and wanted nothing much more to do with Europe and her problems to the benefit of our own industry and prosperity, and to the detriment of European affairs.

The Literary and Artistic Explosion of the 1920s: American Modernism.

The 1920s is a spectacular decade in America both economically and artistically. Some of the greatest novels and poetry were written in the 1920s–the authors we often consider “canonical” were either writing in the 1920s or began their careers in that decade: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, William Faulkner. The list could go on. The explosion of modern art occurred in the War years and in the 1920s, most artists taking their cues from either Picasso (Cubism) or Matisse (Post-Impressionism /Fauve). Importantly, America developed and defined its own music that would dominate musical culture up until today with Jazz, Country and Blues. Most of (not all, if you consider British music-hall) that we know as rock and roll has its roots in these three musical genres.

The roots and influences on this explosion of artistic production (which I have been calling “modernism”) is complex and indeterminate. Hundreds of books have been written over the decade on the birth, rise and course of modernism, so I could not possibly give you a complete education on its vastness here. Never (with the exception, perhaps, of late sixteenth and seventeenth century renaissance) had there been such development, innovation, production and excitement in so many fields: art, literature, music, science, industry. There is no doubt that the rapid ease and ability with which different nations could communicate ideas–the influence of French literature on British, the influence of American Gothic on French and German symbolism, etc. etc.–allowed for an exchange of ideas never circulated with such intensity before. What we know as Globalism gets its jump start in the 1920s. The rapid rise of industry and technology coinciding with the turn of a century combined with a devastating war that divides history between an old world and a new world creates a mentality of futurity that I do not think we have ever quite experienced, even with the beginning of the twenty first century.

The War itself fostered the desire for Europe and America to want a New World, the move forward into a future and leave the devastation behind, and to proclaim, “never again.” The explosion of both an artistic and industrial invention in America derives from a unique belief in dreams–a belief in a future of endless possibility. It is this future-oriented attitude–even in the most dark of existentialists during this period–that I believe divides modernism from the postmodern mentality after 1945. The world after 1918 was very different from the world after 1945. We were growing as a superpower in America, and we had no doubt that we would be the strongest nation on earth in the 1920s.

The Transformation of “Hard Work” and the Notion of the “Land of Opportunity.”

In the world of industry and business there was the same sense of excitement and future-oriented mentality as there was in the arts. The notion that anyone could make it big in America had certainly developed before the War. America was a land of opportunity primarily because everyone had the opportunity for land. Westward expansion in the mid to late 1800s created a sense that we will probably never have again–that you could travel to your dreams; that you could make your dreams come true by setting out upon and arriving at a destination. On top of it, we felt mandated by God to expand, to move westward. We felt spiritually chosen, just as Europe felt it their divine right in the 1700 and 1800s to colonize Africa and Asia.

But the dream of expansion and prosperity in America in the 1800s entailed hard, hard, hard work, travail, tribulation, suffering, the risk of death. The notion of rugged individualism was born from the covered wagon, the gold prospectors, the first to drill oil rigs, etc. In the 1920s, the American dream of prosperity came in a new form. The gold prospectors and frontiersman gives way to the Robber Baron, the Wall Street tycoon.

By the 1920s, there was a new notion that prosperity was easy to come by, easy to get–intimations of “fast food.” In some cases it required hard work–you needed to work hard to get an education, or gain connections, or make yourself known–but for the first time the notion of ease enters the American economic consciousness–easy credit, easy fortunes made in the market, a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage. A consumer and capitalist mentality enters the mainstream American consciousness. Remember, the notion of everyone owning a house and having enough money and credit for luxury seemed only possible for aristocracy, for people to the manor born in the 1800s. If you workded hard to make a fortune, as in a trade, it was even looked down upon by many in the 1800s. You could have a ton more money because you worked hard to build a factory, or to develop a trade, but you were looked down upon by the aristocracy in America or England (you would never be able to marry their daughter).

The old world of aristocrats and upper-class, inherited wealth and new wealth as divisions break down. What we know now as the middle class, a class that is not rich, but not poor, that works for its wealth and lives off of the consumer luxuries it provides, takes it MODERN American form in the 1920s.

The Centrality of “East” and “West” in the Novel as Symbols for Different Americas.

I would suggest that the monetary dreams of America in the 1800s tended to have its roots in the ground, in land, in property, in owning tracts of the West. Industry was, in many respects, a “European” affair up until the 1900s. The monetary dreams the grows in the early 1900s is rooted in the office, in industry, in the home. New York City, Wall Street, banks and bonds becomes, in a way, the frontier for Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. That is why, I  believe, you have such prevalent images in the novel of people–Nick, Gatsby, Daisy and Tom–mirgrating from the West to the East, the reverse of the great Westward expansion of the 180os. In fact, there seems to be a sort of disgust people have with the idea of the West, and a desire to escape East, rather than take up the mantle of the hard working, life-risking frontiersmen of their parents and grandparents. Notice the Fitzgerald makes a big deal out of the dichotamy of East and West. The “new wealth” populates “West Egg,” which tends to be people, like Nick and Gatsby, who come from frontier backgrounds and want to accumulate wealth in an aristocratic manner, and “East Egg,” peopled by those who inherited wealth, which would have meant, generally, “European” or “old world” wealth.

Gatsby’s Story: a Possible “Tragic” Figure Unique to American Literature?

I want you to look at, consider and think about the “story” of Jay Gatsby’s rise to wealth, how he got to where he is when the novel begins. Consider his poor, agricultural background–basically a poor farm-boy from Kentucky–and the things that inspire him to break from this upbringing and work toward what he becomes. Also consider that we are not talking about a huge stretch of time between Daisy leaving Gatsby for Tom and the beginning of the novel: at most, five years. Gatsby returns from the war in 1918, and the novel takes place in 1922. Although Fitzgerald makes it feel like there is a great span of time between the past and who Gatsby is now, it really is fairly short. But that sense of “distance” that is “short” is, I think, important, and a key to understanding the novel. TIME is a prevalent image in the novel: clocks, its passage, people obsessed with time and age. The novel ends with Nick reflecting upon the paradoxical nature of time, the fact that as much as we try to move forward into the future, the past tends to always draw us back.

But additionally–and this is what I  began with–I believe that everything I just typed here contributes to a very poignant and important meditation upon the American Dream Fitzgerald makes in this novel, one that is very different from how we may lament its death today as much as we may feel an affinity for it. Look particularly at Nick’s meditations at the very end of the novel–look at the items he finds of Gatsby’s, particularly the notebook Gatsby kept when he was younger that resembles the almanac style of inspiration of Benjamin Franklin. Consider Don Cody and Myers Wolfshiem in Gatsby’s context, and Gatsby’s origins.

I want to challenge you into considering that Gatsby may be the modern medicine man of the travelling show, an illusionist, but that he is far more genuine and worth a sort of tragic respect than we may be willing to grant him.


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