Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Roseanne Barr and The Great Gatsby? Absolutely!

What could have provoked Roseanne, at this particular moment, to offer her racist comments about Valerie Jarrett? Roseanne, after all, would have seemed to have been at the top of the world. Her eponymous show was rated the third most popular on network television and had been picked up for another season. She should have been at the top of the world, right?

And yet she chose to lash out at Jarrett, a former senior adviser to President Obama. Jarrett is not currently in a position of particular power. Obama is not in office. How, at this moment, was Jarrett a threat? Why would Jarrett have merited attack? Why did Roseanne need to bully someone and what made Jarrett a worthy target?

Certainly, the simple answer is that Roseanne’s outburst reflects a kind of commonplace racism. The odd juxtaposition of “Muslim Brotherhood & Planet of the Apes” in Roseanne’s tweet suggests a kind of knee-jerk and thoughtless targeting and conjoining of Muslims and African-Americans. 

But leaving that base and grotesque racism aside for a moment (as it has received a wellspring of deserved attention from a range of commentators), it’s enlightening to turn to Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel in relation to Roseanne.

The opening chapter of Gatsby offers some surprising answers to the question of why someone in power might be gratuitously cruel. As we read the opening pages of Gatsby, we meet Tom Buchanan, who, like Roseanne, would seem to be on top of his world. 

He is wealthy and powerful, although unlike Roseanne, he was born to this position of power. We learn about his background: Yale. Tom has a heroic football background, “one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven,” and enormous family wealth. When our narrator, Nick, meets Tom, it is at Tom’s “even more elaborate than I expected” house.

Yet with all this acclaim, money, and power, Tom is cruel. He has “a rather hard mouth,” “arrogant eyes,” and “a cruel body.”

Like Roseanne, the object of Tom’s cruelty in chapter 1 of Gatsby is people of color. For reasons that are never explained by Fitzgerald, Tom is obsessed by “The Rise of the Colored Empires” by Goddard (in real life Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy) and the idea that “if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged.” 

To be clear, Tom, at the very top of the food chain, is worried that his kind are in danger of being utterly submerged by people of color. What? Why?

Why the paranoia and cruelty, why the insecurity and gratuitous vitriol from someone at the pinnacle of power? Why Tom? Why Roseanne?

Two units in our new volume on Gatsby may help you explore these timely questions. First, excerpts from Stoddard and Kenneth L. Roberts elaborate on the anxiety about whiteness and power expressed by Tom and other characters in the novel. Second, Paul Piff’s “Does money make you mean?” discusses a series of fascinating social psychology experiments that explore how wealth, power, and privilege breed greed, a diminution of empathy, and unethical behavior. 

Such discussions may seem like a detour from your usual reading of Gatsby, but they offer an important opportunity to help your students use their critical thinking to make insightful connections between the past and the present and better understand the impacts of the various cultural and political discourses across the range of media – from Fitzgerald’s novel to social media – they encounter on a daily basis.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Jesmyn Ward on Gatsby's tricky vision of hope for young readers

Jesmyn Ward, the brilliant author of Sing, Unburied, Sing and Salvage the Bones, has written an introduction to a new Scribner edition of Gatsby. We haven’t yet gotten our hands on the new edition, but an essay version of Ward’s introduction appeared in the New York Times in April 2018. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful meditation on Gatsby, an essay certainly worth teaching and meditating on at length. Ward offers us a model reading of Fitzgerald: careful, nuanced reflections in her own incandescent writing style.

It is striking, however, to note how Ward describes her own early reading experience with Gatsby. She writes of reading the novel as a teenager:

We read it when we are bewildered and delighted at our changing bodies, flush with burgeoning sexuality, heady with the certainty of our ascendancy, the prospect of our future greatness shining off in the distance like a great green star. 
It is easy for young people to see themselves in Gatsby. His earnestness is familiar. His ambition, twinned with desperation, resonates with any teenager who wants to journey off to college or move states away for work, in a bid to escape youthful boundaries.
…. he believed that if he worked hard enough, he could remake himself. He could ascend to a different social class, a class where life seemed to be an enchanted necklace, each moment a pearl on an endless string. It seems to be a universal sentiment of youth: the belief that, given the luxury of time and focus, one can become anything.

Ward offers us here a vision of Gatsby as full of hope. This is Gatsby as the embodiment of the American Dream – full of possibilities. Gatsby, as the ambitious young man, whose aspirations and hard work enable his economic and social mobility.

The novel, however, also carries with it a darker underside. After all, we only meet Gatsby after we have been introduced to the rich and powerful: Tom, Daisy, Jordan, and even Nick. None of them are ambitious youthful strivers. They have each, in their way, been born with silver spoons in their mouths. No striving is required. Nick, the least among them, is himself a legacy at Yale, the son of three generations of “prominent, well-to-do people.” He graduated in 1915 and went to war, from which he came back “restless.” It isn’t until 1922 that he comes to New York to “learn the bond business,” financed in this enterprise by his father and supported by aunts and uncles “as if they were choosing a prep school for me.”

In other words, by the time we meet the striving Gatsby, we have already been well acquainted with the world of the entitled rich, for whom hard work seems entirely unnecessary and the luxuries of time and leisure seem to abound.

For some readers, then, Gatsby seems to be a novel about the impossibility of ascendancy and future greatness for those not born to social privilege. The wealthy within the novel are vastly ahead and inhabit an entirely separate space, engaging begrudgingly with the marginal characters at the margins of their world: the “gray, scrawny Italian child … along the railroad track” or the “gray old man who bore an absurd resemblance to John D. Rockefeller” selling puppies.

Tom’s affair with Myrtle only underscores the impermeable boundaries between the elite in Gatsby and everyone else. She may think Tom is going to leave Daisy for her, but she is as clueless about her powerlessness in her relationship to Tom as she is about the “puppies of indeterminate breed.” Tom, however, has no trouble discerning that the puppy is “no police dog.” 

The novel, in other words, can joke about the gray man’s resemblance to the uber-wealthy John D. Rockefeller and about ersatz police dogs because those in power have no difficulty identifying and excluding interlopers.

Ward writes of how easy it is for young people to see themselves in Gatsby. Surely the opposite is also true. If young people see themselves in Gatsby, they may also see how Gatsby’s failure is marked right from the beginning of the novel. They may read Gatsby as a novel that scorns their ambition and tramples their dreams of ascendancy. Perhaps this duality underscores how difficult this novel can be to teach.

Before we even meet Gatsby, we learn about an impenetrable world of the heady, wealthy elite. And then, as we meet Gatsby and see the evidence of his wealth – his fancy house, his elaborate parties, we also immediately hear rumors about his “dim” background. 

Gatsby is not a man with a Yale legacy and an easily understood family past. The idea that he is a fraud is introduced immediately in the novel.

For young people, then, it’s possible to read the novel not as an invitation to aspiration but as a warning. Don’t be ambitious; don’t think you can work hard and succeed. The only access those outside of the elite have to wealth and power is through crime. It’s a rigged system. 

Strive for education and go to an elite college like St. Olaf’s and you’ll be reminded of your place by being tasked to work as a janitor; you won’t last a month. Attend Oxford as a war veteran? You won’t really be able to earn a degree or credibility. Befriend a wealthy patron like Dan Cody? The legal system is set up in ways you won’t understand to be sure that you never inherit any legacy.

And what of Jewish readers and readers of color who encounter the racism and anti-Semitism within Gatsby? As Stephanie Powell Watts, author of No One Is Coming to Save Us, a compelling reimagining of Gatsbyexplains her experience: “However swept up and away I may be, I can’t help but fear that the door of the book will suddenly close in my face by excluding or demeaning people of color, women, the poor. . . . it hurts to find yourself on the outside, the butt of the joke.”

Ward argues compellingly that Gatsby endures “generation after generation” because it offers “new revelations, new insights” at every reading. So true. But for young readers, at that pivotal moment in their lives, full of youthful ambition but also youthful insecurity, Gatsby is a tricky and potentially devastating text to encounter.

Perhaps above all else, Gatsby reminds us of the power of narrative: to shape youthful ambition, buoy young readers, and embolden new voices. As teachers of this consummate American novel, our work is tricky. But we can all be heartened at how Gatsby has continued to serve as an inspiration to young people, including to contemporary writers like Watts and Ward, to take ownership of their own narratives and find their own greatness. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

A little summer Gatsby reading: Corrigan's So We Read On


If you teach The Great Gatsby, put Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On onto your summer reading list. It’s chatty and fun, full of all sorts of tidbits and details about Fitzgerald, sources and context for the novel, the initial publication and reception of the text, and the ways in which Gatsby made it into the literary canon and our many classrooms.

This is a compelling and refreshing read, not a stuffy academic treatise; Corrigan is thoroughly honest and highly engaging about her own relationship to Gatsby. She writes in the very first paragraph about how, as a high-school senior, she thought it “was a boring novel about rich people” (3). Susan didn’t fully appreciate Gatsby until college after being roundly unimpressed by it in high school, and Audrey still sometimes finds Fitzgerald’s text a frustratingly claustrophobic examination of a narrow slice of society.

So We Read On is that rare and charming combination: both scholarly and totally fan-girly in its adult enthusiasm for Gatsby. Corrigan gushes that The Great Gatsby is “the Great American Novel, if there is such an animal” (8) and “as perfect as a novel can be” (9). And she worries about how students are and are not reading Fitzgerald’s work: “It’s not the green light, stupid; it’s Gatsby’s reaching for it that’s the crucial all-American symbol of the novel” (5).

This latter comment, of course, is in alignment with our visions. Like Corrigan, we think students need to be thinking about big ideas and essential questions when they read literature, and our volumes on using informational text, including our latest on Gatsby, are designed to help teachers guide their students away from the small questions about the green light and onto the bigger questions about what all these symbols – the green light, the mongrel dog, the gray child – illustrate about the vision of America and American possibility offered by and thwarted within the novel.

What is probably most infectious about Corrigan’s volume is her humility as an always-eager reader and thinker about Gatsby. For example, despite the fact that she has taught Gatsby at Georgetown year after year, Corrigan describes asking a group of students at her alma mater high school in Queens about why Daisy cries when she sees Gatsby’s pile of shirts. Corrigan admits, “I often ask classes that question because I’m never sure what that scene means” (293). And then she writes, with admiration of the answer a student offers:

A dark-haired girl raises her hand and says something I’ve never thought of: “She cries because she sees that Gatsby is just like Tom now. The poor boy she loved is gone. He’s rich like Tom, so he’s changed.” Her comment stops class discussion in its tracks for a few minutes because it feels so emotionally smart. I’ve never thought of Gatsby “becoming” like Tom. I’m not sure if she’s right but I love that this novel, like all great novels, spawns endless sharp interpretation. (293)

So read Corrigan this summer, if you haven’t already, and embrace some of the tantalizing ideas and writing and discussion prompts her text offers. Here are just four that we gleaned:

1. “The Great Gatsby is America’s greatest novel about class. In fact, it’s the only one of its canonical peers (Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Invisible Man, Beloved) that foregrounds class instead of race” (16). Do you agree? How do the anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and racist moments in Gatsby connect with its broader narrative of class?

2. Corrigan describes giving a “contrarian talk” with the title “The Great Gatsby: Just How American Is This Great American Novel?” What do you think she means? In what ways, for you, is this novel distinctly American? What narrative of America does it offer? How compelling is that narrative in our current historical moment?

3. Corrigan tells us that Fitzgerald struggled with the title and when the novel was in production called it “Trimalchio,” after a character in the first-century Roman work Satyricon, by Petronius. She explains that Trimalchio “is a freed slave who’s climbed up the ladder of Roman society through hard work” (201). What do you think of “Trimalchio” as a title instead of Gatsby? Corrigan also informs us that Fitzgerald wasn’t “fond of `The Great Gatsby’ because he said that Gatsby wasn’t really great” (201). Do you think Fitzgerald was right to be skeptical about the title of his novel? Do you agree with Fitzgerald that Gatsby isn’t really great? Why or why not? Can you think of a better title?

4. Corrigan writes that Fitzgerald was “aiming for a big statement about America” (300). She notes that “So many immigrants had poured into America via New York City by the early 1920s. . . . Fitzgerald was a man of his time; he was nervous about those alien hordes, but he also understood their yearning. Could America deliver on its promises?” (301). What answer do you think Fitzgerald offers to this question at the end of Gatsby? Do you see echoes today in Gatsby’s nervousness about “alien hordes”? Do you think America today is delivering on its promises?

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Asking more of pairing nonfiction with literature

In the March 2018 edition of English Journal, Ameer Sohrawardy offers a compelling article about the use of nonfiction in connection with Julius Caesar. Sohrawardy writes about using a piece of political commentary written by Andrew McGill about West Virginia coal miners and the election of Donald Trump. Sohrawardy reflects on how the discussion that followed, in a class comprised primarily of Clinton supporters, “rehearsed many of the dyadic frameworks” of the election, oversimplifying frameworks that were “already being questioned by political analysts” (64).

This exercise, it strikes us, reflects the dangers of using nonfiction simply to find (and perhaps exploit) relevance in literature. Sohrawardy notes that her students were willing and able to extend their analysis of McGill’s piece to Caesar, making interesting connections, but they couldn’t see the limitations of the analogy. Their reading of McGill, in other words, enabled them to discuss Caesar in the context of the Trump election, but that discussion didn’t productively complicate their reading of either the election or the play.

Relevance is critical, and we do want our students to make interesting connections between our world and the literary texts we ask them to read. But Sohrawardy is right to ask for more from this kind of contextualizing reading.

Next, Sohrawardy asked the students to read excerpts from Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (2009). This text, as Sohrawardy explains, focuses on the dislocation and diminution of manual competencies in a fragmented and alienating 21st century economy. More importantly, the class discussion of Crawford’s work enabled Sohrawardy’s students to rethink the election, McGill’s ideas about the election, and Shakespeare’s investigation of the discontent among the Roman citizens.

Most compellingly, Sohrawardy writes that the readings “had begun to attune us … to listen” to the “fleeting, fugitive voices in our own time” (66). These are the skills we want to cultivate in the humanities: the ability to find and think through more context, to hear unexpected voices and ideas, and to rethink our preconceptions.

So, the lesson from Sohrawardy is clear: when we seek out a nonfiction reading to pair with a literary text, we need to be careful. Relevance is great for engagement. But we can’t stop there. Our pairings should help our students and ourselves continue to find the unexpected, even in texts like Caesar that we’ve read time and again.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Use our new book to support discussions of timely Gatsby connections

We are thrilled that our volume Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby is now available from Rowman & Littlefield, especially in a week when the Trump administration’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census reminds us how poignantly relevant Fitzgerald’s novel is to the present-day.

In our Using Informational Text to Teach Literature series, we have worked to provide teachers with classroom-ready resources to undertake the necessary, sometimes difficult discussions with students about classic texts like GatsbyTo Kill a Mockingbird, and A Raisin in the Sun.

Discussions of the American Dream feel more relevant than ever today; so too are questions about inequality and socioeconomic mobility. Gatsby remains an important and fascinating literary exercise full of opportunities for students to analyze and evaluate literary devices, structure, and symbolism. The presence of white nationalist, anti-immigrant, racist, and anti-Semitic sentiment in Gatsby, however, calls out for discussion in relation to our contemporary social and political discourse.

Teaching Gatsby now or shortly? Consider connecting your discussion with the debate over the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census and the decision in January not to include “Hispanic” and “Middle Eastern/North African” in the list of races, which, as Alex Wagner argues in the New York Times, likely would have significantly reduced the number of respondents who identified themselves as white.

Who counts as white and the future of white civilization is a recurring question in Gatsby. Tom Buchanan worries that “civilization’s going to pieces.” His references to The Rise of the Colored Empires by “Goddard” is an allusion to the real-life Lothrop Stoddard’s 1920 book, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. In our volume on Gatsby, we include a disturbing and fascinating excerpt from Stoddard along with material by Kenneth L. Roberts that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, a publication read by Jordan to Tom during the novel. Confronting these white nationalist texts in relation to Fitzgerald’s novel can help students critically engage both their meaning within Gatsby and also their continuities with some of the white nationalist rhetoric in the present day.

Though we as teachers may feel inclined to shy away from discussions of such thorny issues, we have a duty to support our students in learning how to engage thoughtfully the issues that shape the world they are about to step into as adults. Our students are ready and capable. Think, for example, of the students from Parkland, Florida, who have so effectively taken on the gun control debate in part because they were taught to think critically and make persuasive arguments in their school’s debate program.

We all deeply hope our students will never have to endure and be motivated by such a terrible experience, but issues like gun violence and immigration policy already affect their lives on a daily basis, so we must equip them as best we can to think, read, write, and speak about them. We hope our resources may be helpful to you in doing so.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

New documentaries connect with Raisin and Mockingbird (Part 2)

The other documentary we recently discovered is the four-part series The Loving Generation, which features interviews with individuals who were born to interracial couples in the 20 years following the 1969 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision, which ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional.

Our unit in Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird features an excerpt from the Loving decision to help students make sense out of the character of Dolphus Raymond in chapter 16. Just as Scout doesn’t understand why Raymond lives the way he does, students today are likely unaware of the Loving decision, the anti-miscegenation laws it overturned, and the effects of both that extend to the present day. Any episode in the series would provide an engaging hook into this unit (perhaps along with a clip from the recent dramatization of the Lovings’ story).

The first episode, “Census,” introduces Loving v. Virginia and focuses on the reflections of members of The Loving Generation on their mixed-race parentage and how that influenced how they identify themselves personally and publicly.

In the second episode, “We Are Family,” the interview subjects speak about how race was dealt with within their immediate family and on their relationships with both sides of their extended families, especially in the era of Trump.

“Coming of Age,” the third episode, captures the interviewees’ thoughts about how being biracial affected them socially during their school years. This episode is particularly promising as a springboard for discussion with students about growing up amid the sociocultural politics of mixed racial heritage in the U.S. today.

The fourth episode, “The Obama Era,” confronts the idea that, with the election of Barack Obama, America entered a post-racial era. It also focuses on what the election of a biracial president meant personally to members of The Loving Generation, especially now that so many of them are parents themselves raising multiracial children of their own.

The 10-12-minute length of each of these episodes makes them easy to incorporate into a class period, and they are enormously timely and relevant subjects of discussion in ELA or social studies classes in their own right. However, we think these episodes have particular value to teachers who are striving to make connections between To Kill a Mockingbird and the present day.

We are always on the lookout for new connections to the books we love to teach not only because it builds timely relevance for our students, but it also reinvigorates our teaching. Furthermore, it models for our students the critical disposition of paying attention to the world and looking for new ideas and connections to help us understand and navigate our everyday lives. And it’s so much fun!

Monday, March 19, 2018

New documentaries connect with Raisin and Mockingbird (Part 1)

Finding engaging multimedia to hook students’ interest is often our favorite part of working with informational texts. And we’re always excited to find a new audio and/or visual clip that offers our students a new way into the informational (and literary) texts we love to teach. So we were very pleased to discover two recent documentary efforts that connect wonderfully with A Raisin in the Sun and To Kill a Mockingbird: a biographical piece on Lorraine Hansberry and a series on The Loving Generation.

Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” is a beautiful tribute to the life, work, and activism of Lorraine Hansberry. The two-hour documentary features an impressive range of evocative still images and film footage of life on the southside of Chicago and in Harlem during the 1930s and 1940s, any part of which could be used to help students contextualize the challenges the Younger family faces in A Raisin in the Sun.

The first part of the film focuses on Hansberry’s father, his rise as a real estate owner on the southside of Chicago, and his attempt to move his family to a white neighborhood, a deliberate challenge to the restrictive covenants that barred African-Americans from purchasing property there. This ultimately thwarted attempt at desegregation and how this defeat affected her father served as the inspiration for Hansberry’s landmark play.

Hansberry’s sister movingly describes the violent intimidation her family faced after moving into the previously all-white neighborhood. Her recollections, accompanied by photographs of the protests outside of and attacks on their home, and voiceover narration from excerpts of Hansberry’s diaries, create a deeply moving depiction of these events. Hansberry’s recollections illustrate the significance, not only for the Hansberry family, of the legally enforced restrictions that circumscribed the socioeconomic opportunities of African-Americans.

This section of the film would serve as a dramatic introduction to a discussion of the violence often associated with housing desegregation. The film clip would dovetail wonderfully with the excerpt of a report by the city of Chicago on the violence that followed the desegregation of a housing development on the far south side in the 1950s, which we feature in our volume Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun. Both underscore the historical context for the housing discrimination that persists today and that make Raisin a continuingly relevant play for our students. (Our volume on Raisin features units on housing discrimination both past and present.)

Also of interest to teachers of Raisin is the documentary’s focus on the difficulties Hansberry and her producers faced in getting A Raisin in the Sun to Broadway and on the impact of its enormous success on African Americans who finally saw their daily lives depicted on stage. The latter is particularly interesting in the context of the present-day, record-breaking box office success of Black Panther and discussions of how long it has taken and how meaningful it is for an African-American superhero to make it to the big screen.

However, while the success of A Raisin in the Sun on stage brought Hansberry a great deal of acclaim, it did not mean the end of her struggles to protect her work. While Hansberry won the battle to write the screenplay for the film version of Raisin, she had to fight continuously against studio efforts to “water down the race material,” and was only moderately pleased with the final result. (See our volume on Raisin for further discussion of Hansberry’s struggles on this front.)

The end of “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” focuses on Hansberry’s life after Raisin, particularly her activism within the Civil Rights movement, which was curtailed, like her creative work, by the extended period of illness preceding her death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 34. It also sensitively addresses the contradiction between Hansberry’s outspoken public presence as an artist and activist and her private life as a closeted lesbian married to a white man who helped maintain her secrecy. While not directly relevant to the teaching of Raisin, the conclusion of the film provides the opportunity for rewarding discussion of the contradictions and conflicts people encounter in their lives and how they choose to face them.

Note: the full-length “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” documentary is available to PBS/Thirteen members for streaming via the American Masters website, but educators can access shorter clips for free via the PBSLearningMedia website.

Check back soon for Part 2 on The Loving Generation ...