F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic 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.

I’ve encountered this book several times over the years, but as I came to the end of this read, this re-read for my ReRead Project, I began to wonder: did I ever read the whole book before? Those last lines quoted above are practically memorized, of course, but the opening paragraph was unfamiliar, and my memory of the book seemed to end a couple of chapters before the book itself came to a close.

I don’t think it was a book I was assigned in high school, but when Robert Redford was cast as Gatsby, I dug in. [Hey, come on, some day Idris Elba will seem like an old man to your grandkids, too.] Then in college, when I did a teaching pre-practicum at a local high school, the class was studying Gatsby so I read it again. I again started it back when Colbert had his short-lived Book Club, but I got distracted by something I don’t remember now (see how that works?) and didn’t get very far. And now I’m beginning to wonder if I ever read the whole thing at all, if I’ve just picked up a lot of commentary so that it feels like I read it.

I decided to add it to my re-read list because of a tweet that happened to float by me a few months ago. Someone mentioned that there was a line of analysis claiming Gatsby was a black man, or part black, and was passing. I’d never heard that before; it sounded like a really interesting hypothesis. It’s based on several  factors: the forty acres on which Gatsby’s mansion sits, the predominance of the color yellow (“high yellow” is a term for a light-skinned or white-appearing black person), the honorary medal from Montenegro, the original working title Trimalchio (a freed Roman slave famous for his parties), and Tom Buchanan’s racist rant. Since so much of Gatsby’s persona is based on his escaping his childhood past on the North Dakota farm, it seemed plausible to me that race could be part of it.

Scholars don’t seem as easily swayed, however. One sputtered, “If Fitzgerald wanted to write about blacks, it wouldn’t have taken 75 years to figure it out. If that’s what Fitzgerald wanted, he would have made it perfectly clear in April 1925.” I had to laugh at that one given how good white America is at ignoring, or co-opting, anything that isn’t white, then claiming it doesn’t exist.

But while I’m intrigued by the theory, I had to step off the train when Gatsby’s father showed up for the funeral. Nothing in his demeanor suggested his son was black, or mixed race, or even had that proverbial one drop of blood that would have characterized him at the time. And, had Fitzgerald been deliberately inserting this theme, that would have been the place, giving Nick even more uncertainty about his friend. I’ll leave the analysis to those more qualified than I, but for this reason I remain skeptical. I don’t consider it a wasted trip, more of a detour full of interesting scenery.

And by the way: I didn’t remember the funeral at all from prior readings, which is a big reason I wonder if I ever read the entire book.

I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild strident argument which pulled me back as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

Other riches in the book came to my attention via a FiveBooks weekend reader (FiveBooks asks every Saturday: What are you reading this weekend? and the responses, and interactions, often show me interesting new directions) who recommended Maureen Corrigan’s book And So We Read On, a history of the book and its place in the literary canon. I don’t have a copy (yet) but listened to a talk she gave for the 2015 National Book Festival. I was surprised to learn that Gatsby was not that popular on publication. Fitzgerald never saw himself as a success; in later life, he’d wander into bookstores to see if his books were available, and they rarely were. That’s a book right there.

I have a fondness for Fitzgerald that comes from another story of his, “Thank You For the Light,” a story that was soundly rejected by The New Yorker in the 30s (“…this Fitzgerald story is altogether out of the question. It seems to us so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him, and really too fantastic”). Even readers in 2012 when it was finally published, hated it, called it a story written to serve up a punch line. I loved it for my own reasons, reasons Fitzgerald probably didn’t share: the bestowal of compassion from an unusual source. He probably wrote it as a lark, but I can see how he might have craved the same kind of mercy his character received, and how he, too, might have made a joke out of it rather than turning maudlin.

But back to Gatsby. Another thing I didn’t remember was how beautifully he wrote. How can you read a book and forget the paragraphs of Nick’s musing. The opening paragraph itself should have stuck in my mind:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
He didn’t say any more but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person…. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

It becomes obvious later, of course, that Nick, who holds himself to be the only honest man he’s ever met, turns out to be full of crap, and this paragraph, in which he interprets “advantages” a bit differently than we would expect, sets it up so that we can’t miss it. Yet I missed it, whenever I read the book earlier. If I ever did.

And that’s what I take with me from this entry in my ReRead project. Oh, I’m glad to more fully understand the book, but what horrifies me is how I thought I already did. I wonder what I’m reading now that I’m not really getting, or if I’m forgetting entire sections of novels that change the overall experience. I’m beginning to think re-reading is as important as reading; maybe I should incorporate more of it into my life. So I don’t continue to forget what I don’t remember.

* * *

Maureen Corrigan discusses her book, So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.

Salon Article:  “Was Gatsby Black?”

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Thank You For The Light” in The New Yorker, 8/7/12

Photo by Mike Krzeszak

Photo by Mike Krzeszak

Eastward, she had known her clientele chattily and had often been offered a drink or a cigarette in the buyer’s office after business was concluded. But she soon found that in her new district things were different. Not only was she never asked if she would like to smoke but several times her own inquiry as to whether anyone would mind was answered half apologetically with “It’s not that I mind, but it has a bad influence on the employees.”

I liked this story more than most people, it seems, but I have to admit, it’s probably because of my own personal intersection of church and smoking, as well as the story-behind-the-story. Most people, including TNY fiction editor Deborah Treisman, seem to think it’s a light piece, an extended pun. It’s not extended by much – just under 1200 words. It’s available online. (No, it isn’t… oopsie)

It was written in 1936, which means “the war” referred to as being the common experience of men under 50 was World War I. It’s also the Depression era, which, oddly, doesn’t seem to enter into things at all for Mrs. Hansen, travelling corset saleswoman. I guess even in hard times, women want to look firm and trim.

The story follows Mrs. Hansen on her rounds in Missouri, a new territory for her that was earned via promotion. The problem is: no one allows her to smoke. And she does enjoy a smoke now and then. If you’ve ever smoked – I did, for 20 years, quit 3 years ago – you’ll understand the urge, as well as the difficulty in finding a place where it’s ok to smoke.

Mrs. Hansen is finishing up her day, and desperately wants a smoke. Etiquette was different back then (and still is now, if you read Miss Manners); smoking on the street was simply Not Done. So she ducks into a church, sees the votive candles burning (she has no matches), and talks away her misgivings:

How could the Good Lord care if a tired woman took a few puffs in the vestibule?
Nevertheless, though she was not a Catholic, the thought offended her. Was it so important that she have her cigarette, when it might offend a lot of other people, too?
Still. He wouldn’t mind, she thought persistently. In His days, they hadn’t even discovered tobacco. . .

However, the sexton is in the process of dousing the candles as well as her last hope. So she slips into a pew and nods off while gazing at a statue of the Virgin Mary. Shortly, she is wakened by burning of her fingers; her cigarette is now lit.

Still too drowsy to think, she took a puff to keep the flame alive. Then she looked up at the Madonna’s vague niche in the half-darkness.
“Thank you for the light,” she said.
That didn’t seem quite enough, so she got down on her knees, the smoke twisting up from the cigarette between her fingers.
“Thank you very much for the light,” she said.

Yes, it’s a joke. But I think there’s something more. Fitzgerald was ill at this point with a variety of problems, including alcoholism. I wonder if he was hoping for some kind of mercy in a judgmental world – or just a ray of hope in the darkness, that comfort was available somewhere. There’s something that touches me deeply in this notion that God not only allowed Mrs. Hansen to smoke in His house when no one else would, but facilitated it; it’s a kind of generosity I would like to imagine God possesses.

I’ll admit I’m probably overreaching here. But I imagine Fitzgerald, tired of all the exhortations to stop drinking (and still remembering the Prohibition years), endorsing a heaven with an open bar. I wonder if he found it.

Still, even if the story itself is all about the final lines, the story behind it is interesting, in more ways than one. You can listen to a TNY Out Loud podcast in which Curtis Fox talks with Deborah Treisman (the 1:35 to 4:55 minute marks) about the circumstances of printing the story. Seems it was submitted back in the 30s, and rejected, with the following comment to his agent:

We’re afraid that this Fitzgerald story is altogether out of the question. It seems to us so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him, and really too fantastic. We would give a lot, of course, to have a Scott Fitzgerald story and I hope that you will send us something that seems more suitable. Thank you, anyhow, for letting us see this.

I’m not sure if it’s that the implication of the Virgin Mary lighting a cigarette would’ve been considered outrageous, or if the magical realism in the cigarette lighting itself was just too “out there” at the time; perhaps both, with the former being “unlike the kind of thing we associate with him” and the latter being “really too fantastic”. There’s no mention that it isn’t a strong enough story, or that it’s too light, or reads like a joke. In a curious happenstance of metafiction, the history of the story nicely parallels its theme: forbidding overcome by grace.

The other thing that interested me – and has Zin in a state of apoplexy – is a comment in the podcast:

Curtis: We seldom see fiction that short in the magazine, is that because writers don’t write it anymore or does the magazine not take it?
Deborah: Now they’d call it flash fiction…but I don’t think Fitzgerald did.
Curtis: Flash fiction? Really? I’d never heard of that.
Deborah: We’ve run short pieces before…
Curtis: Very rarely.

Now, Curtis Fox is not an editor or a writer or a literary critic; he’s a radio producer. If it had been Deborah Treisman who’d never heard the term “flash fiction,” I would be outraged. As it is, I’m a bit surprised, because he’s been producing this podcast for years, and knows enough to ask solid questions about a wide variety of literature in many segments; so yes, it’s a little sad the term is unknown to him (he does know “magical realism”). Poor Zin. Zin sent an email. Zin does that sometimes. Zin never learns.

I was happy to come across this story; I just said I wanted to re-read Gatsby, and look who crops up. And I’d like to think that the next time I’m desperate, and someone’s doused the candles on me, whatever god there is just might have that kind of mercy on me.

Addendum 3/10/16: Every once in a while, I see this post come up on my stats list, and that makes me happy. I wonder who’s reading it, and why. It’s still one of my favorite stories, nearly four years later. Maybe because Those in the Know think it’s dopey. Maybe because it still speaks to me: when the church starts dousing candles, when the Learned Men say No, when the Divine cuts off heat and light, there’s still Mary, who knew about both the human and the divine, about gifts and loss, about willingness and burdens, who has more compassion than all of them.