Thursday, June 11, 2015

Gatsby and Kurtz 6

Why do we read The Great Gatsby? Why isn't it just a period piece the way so many other books from the 1920s are?

You might be tempted to say that it's because The Great Gatsby is a great novel, perhaps the great American novel. Well, it is now but it wasn't when I was a high school student. It was recognized as something pretty special and it was a standard novel for high school students along with Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, A Separate Peace and others. But it was seen as something just equal to them. And Fitzgerald's novel was taken as a poor second when compared to Hemingway.

It's really quite jarring to think of how much author's reputations have changed since I was in high school. Hemingway doesn't have nearly the stature he did in the 1970s. Likewise e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, and John Dos Passos. All of these are still held on considerable respect, Eliot much more than the other three, but none has the godlike status they had in the 1960s. Their halos were all somewhat tarnished by the time I got to high school but no one would have guessed how much they would decline.

And no one would have guessed that The Great Gatsby would ascend to the heights it has. Everyone could always see that Fitzgerald could write incredibly well; there was something Mozart-like about him. But many people wondered what all that genius was being used in service of—some, like my Grade 11 English teacher, would sneer that it doesn't matter how well you can write if you have nothing worthwhile to say (a criticism that I, like Dos Passos, would be more inclined to level at James Joyce).

The other thing that tainted Fitzgerald in the eyes of critics was his popularity. He was a pop culture writer and the critics of the 1950s disdained popular culture. And here I turn to Waller Newell:
... I will argue that pop culture can provide important clues to our repressed longings. Through pop culture, we often experience the guilty pleasure of vicariously enjoying ways of life that are forbidden to us by our prevailing social orthodoxies. These longings may begin as frivolous or trivial, but they can, surprisingly, furnish a more direct path back to the profound teachings of the Western tradition than what sometimes passes for scholarship in our centers of learning.
WARNING: Outrageous claim coming: Gatsby is a great novel because it warns us of the dangers of eros. It has a lineage that goes back to Plato and Saint Paul. Eros, we would say "love" is a virtue only when balanced by others. Taken by itself, it is no virtue at all.


  1. Interesting question and here's my purely anecdotal input. Hemingway is still widely read, as far as classic authors go--I read a bunch of his novels and it would never surprise me if I heard that one of my peers had too--but it's true, people talk about him pretty much as a young adult novelist.

    On the other hand, I'm surprised to hear you say that T. S. Eliot's reputation has declined. I think he still has the stature of a giant. This is especially true among conservative and Christian young people (he is in that pantheon of explicitly Christian authors of unimpeachable cultural standing) but honestly, of people of my age whether religious or not, I'd say a lot of them had their introductions to poetry reading The Waste Land sometime during high school. I don't know why this should be, it seems like a kind of crazy introduction to poetry honestly, but that's my impression. Young people who get into poetry is a small group anyway.

    E. e. Cummings and John Dos Passos have fallen off the map for sure.

    1. Estimating influence is always a subjective game and necessarily fraught with problems. And my point was not that Eliot and Hemingway are no longer read, admired and imitated. But I would argue that neither has anything like the stature he once had. It's difficult for us to see because no one in the literary world has had the kind of influence Eliot or Hemingway had during their lifetimes.