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. 

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