So We Beat On . . .

Back in May, I asked for suggestions for an American novel to read with my English as a Second Language students. Twenty-two comments later, and after spending four or five hours browsing the shelves of my local Borders, I decided to ignore everyone’s suggestions and warnings and go with my first choice, The Great Gatsby. We finished it last night, and I have to say, the book killed. Absolutely killed.

This was the third time I’d read Gatsby, after the requisite high school manhandling and an only slightly less incompetent stab as an undergrad. It’s only in recent years that I’ve come to relish the language of great writers — the language itself and, by extension, the imaginations that create it — and, strangely, that evolution can be attributed in large part to this website, which has allowed me to experiment as a writer and as a thinker and which has proven, again and again, just how damn ellusive great writing is. If you haven’t read Gatsby as an adult, I’d encourage you to give it another go. Because it is packed with great writing.

Like, I’m sure my 11th grade English teacher pointed this paragraph out to us. I’m sure she explained how this paragraph, coming as it does on the final page of the novel, is Fitzgerald’s most explicit and bittersweet and poignant comment on the death of the American Dream. But I’d forgotten all about it until yesterday afternoon when I read it five times. It’s the end of summer, Gatsby’s dead, the lawns around his gaudy mansion are overgrown, and Nick is making one last visit. He wanders down to the beach and sits in the sand.

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as 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.

I love how, despite his disgust and anger, Nick is still moved by the vision — how he is unable to ignore its beauty while also acknowledging the human misery that now populates the land. This one paragraph, in both tone and theme, is the entire novel in concentrated form. Amazing.

A few observations from my students. By week three my friend from Iran was angry with Nick. “He is so indifferent to everyone and everything around him.” (I’ll never stop being impressed by the ways in which adult students of English take possession of the language in ways that most of us native speakers seldom do. “Indifferent” is the perfect word.) A young woman from Seoul told us that the novel felt like a fairy tale that she might read to her son, and she’s right. I’ve always thought of Fitgerald as a realist, but there is something Modern and disorienting to his style. His world is recognizable but a bit oversized, distorted.

And I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a novel that critiques so many of America’s defining tropes — Manifest Destiny, rugged individualism, egalitarianism, and the American Dream, in particular — should be such a great text to read with a class of immigrants and visiting students. Our discussion of the last two chapters lasted about 30 minutes last night; the rest of the evening was spent talking about America and the stories that define it.