Saturday, February 26, 2011

Gatsby Gaining Ground

A stout, middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles, was sitting somewhat drunk on the edge of a great table, staring with unsteady concentration at the shelves of books. As we entered he wheeled excitedly around and examined Jordan from head to foot.
“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.
“About what?” He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.
“About that. As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.”
“The books?”
He nodded.
“Absolutely real — have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and — Here! Lemme show you.”
Taking our scepticism for granted, he rushed to the bookcases and returned with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”
“See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too — didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”
He snatched the book from me and replaced it hastily on its shelf, muttering that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse.

--from The Great Gatsby, Chapter 3

Friends and colleagues have grumbled at me over the years, for being openly indifferent about The Great Gatsby.  Thanks to a class discussion about books as physical objects, I discovered a single page in the text (the book) that might be the beginnings of salvaging the whole thing for me. 

Why have I resisted Gatsby for so long?  First, it's all the symbolism!  Crammit down your throat symbolism.  I could forgive that, though, if it weren't for the people of average intelligence for whom the book is a testament to what they think is their own interpretive genius.  The fact that there are so many easy ways into the novel (er, symbols), means it has a following of people who habitually read things that are easy to read, and perhaps are only capable of really getting into reading things that are easy to read.  I've come to realize that this is not a flaw in itself.  No fault of Fitzgerald's that he writes simply and in modern English. So to better put my finger on my distaste, it's one of those not liking the fans situations.  

This in no way means that there are not thousands of well-read, highly intelligent people who love the book.  I think most of them do, actually.  Unfortunately no fellow student of literature has ever presented me with a critical defense of the thing.  Besides the aforementioned causes of my aversion, I am, again, mostly indifferent, and therefore open to argument.  I just don't see what's to get excited about. I welcome any illumination on this topic. As long as you're not going to tell me it's all about the symbolism.

You know, this might just come down to "to each her own," so I hope I can be forgiven.  I study 19th century British novels, I have a newly flourishing fondness for Milton, and I like my 20th century mean and dirty.  Gatsby isn't any of those.  Maybe I'm flawed because I need to read things that contain a certain percentage of either obsolete or offensive vocabulary.

Now that you're cursing me, vile Gatsby-doubting miscreant that I am, I'll tell you why I like this page.  And you can be sure it has nothing to do with the "owl-eyed man" and his likeness to the big dumb eyes on the billboard (although I do like his dialog, and I like that he shows up at the funeral).  I like it because it only made sense to me once I knew what the uncut pages mean.  You see books are put together out of lots of folded up pieces of paper, not one page at a time.  Duh, right?  But we children of industry never really think about how the top fold gets opened up.  So after all this talk of books as things in my bibliography class, we held and molested an old uncut Italian book that the professor had brought in.  Obviously he's never read it, but he keeps it for just such an occasion -- letting graduate students manhandle a book in its pre-20th century pre-machine-cut form, and ruminate on all the implications of page cutting.  What involvement the readers of yesteryear would have had with their books!  A personal, tactile involvement.  Violent even, in a way.  

The fact that Gatsby did not cut the books was actually a testament to his character -- as disingenuous as he may be, as easily as he could have afforded to pay his help to cut all the pages open, as careful pains he took to stock his massive library with real books, "pages and everything," he's not going to pretend he's read them.  That would be going too far.  I love that the man calls it "realism."

This page is also evidence, to me, that books are worth going back to every few years, especially ones you had trouble with.  I've read it three times (in sophomore year of college, last)  and I'm considering another go at it, just to be sure I'm still indifferent.  If I missed this scene, maybe I missed something else -- and it'll be fresh in my mind when the Gatsby defenders attack. It's only nine chapters.  And yeah, it's an easy read.


  1. I will be happy to throw in my palmful of coins (yes - I like making up my own cliches) once I have read it. I think I have rejected reading it for so long for three reasons:

    1) I am extremely particular with fonts and the copies of this book that I have seen all have a font type that is unpleasant to me - too large and unwieldy for my tastes. It comes off as extremely displeasing to the eye and my aesthetic tastes.

    2) I dislike the kind of "I am so wealthy and bored" type of crowd that are the books' protagonists. Although there are some books which are so charming and almost nostalgic that I can overlook the fact that the protagonists are completely stuck up wealthy snobs, ex. all of Jane Austen and A Room with a View, Rebecca (all of which happen to be some of my favorite, curl up with a cup of tea while I'm sick books), this particular book, The Great Gatsby, comes off (having not read it, I may be wrong in this assumption) as displaying this chauvinistic snobbery as if it was something to be admired and worthy of thorough inspection.

    3) I tend to dislike books that are popular simply because liking them attaches to oneself a certain type of status, especially one of financial and intellectual endowment, where in fact, most likely, the individual likely has none, at least of the later.

    None the less, I also enjoyed the reference to old uncut books, and I might be up for a "I hate the holier-than-thou wealthy" fest.


  2. I'm a little surprised by your reaction to Gatsby, and certainly encourage you to read it again. It can be a little off-putting when people tell you that you're supposed to like something, I realize, and tend myself to recoil, instinctively, from things I'm supposed to like, or do. Perhaps I'm fortunate, coming to Fitzgerald when I was a teenager (though it was This Side of Paradise, his uneven and bombastic first novel, which inspired my devotion—I didn't really *get* Gatsby until I was twenty or so).

    I believe the book to be nearly perfect. I believe, also, that the fact that the book's written "simply and in modern English" is a great strength; to say that it is "no fault" of Fitzgerald's sounds like you are mischaracterizing its readability as being some kind of impediment to its literary value—one that you are, for the sake of argument, willing to overlook. It sounds a little snobbish, frankly, as if perhaps you are prevented from enjoying this great novel because others—those of "average intelligence", able to read only that which is accessible by their middling cognitive abilities—enjoy it, too.

    It doesn't require "interpretive genius" to love this book. Obviously. The symbolism is pretty straight-forward, which is only a liability, I think, if one requires the opacity (along with the bloated, often incoherent excesses) of a Pynchon. Fitzgerald's prose is elegant, poetic, and concise; his ideas are not girded by tinny old-world chain-mail, but by the progressive American idea that emerged from the first world war. It is easy enough to sneer at him, from the comfortable distance of eighty-some years, and possessed by the facile brand of cynicism that characterizes this new century; but for many of us this book, and the ideas it represents, is an important connection not only to our past, but to our possibility—on life-support, maybe, but still kicking.

    "...He did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night."

    That is what the book means. It is not a complex idea, but it is nearly unbearably beautiful to me, to many, I expect.

    I come to literature skewed, perhaps, by my love for poetry. In style, Fitzerald is Yeatsian. In temperament, Eliotic. This book is alive with poetry. Once more, I encourage you to follow your instincts, and read it again.

  3. Magda: I too was initially put off (and still bothered) by the book cover. It's those eyes - like, here's the whole point of the book right on the cover! I guess we all have to admit to judging books that way once in a while.

    Nick: Here's Nick to defend Gatsby! I want to address a few of your points.

    First, thanks for understanding why someone would dislike something that they are told they are supposed to like. It's very easy to dismiss the nagging when the thing you don't like is a pop culture phenomenon or a flavor of ice cream, but when you're a literature student who doesn't like a particular work of literature, the "How can you not like that?!" gasps get old.

    I apologize if it seemed I was calling Fitgerald's easy style in Gatsby an "impediment to its literary value." I was really trying to say that it is "no fault" of Fitzerald's and "no fault" of the novel -- as in, the style is not a fault at all. The "fault" is in me I suppose, in that I am resistant to Fitzgerald's style. I did phrase that intentionally to sound like I place (or once placed) blame on Fitzgerald for writing something I thought was less than great, but that I've gotten over that. (Hence, "Gatsby Gaining Ground.") I guess I was trying to be nuanced, but didn't finesse it enough.

    Now the snobbery, that was partly intended, but your paraphrase ("middling cognitive ability" -- ouch!) made it much meaner! In my defense, I think most students of literature have some work or some subject that irks them when it is on the tongues of non-literary folk. I think a bit of feeling the need to set ourselves apart is just a symptom of being academics. If I can make a loose analogy, when non-literary folk go gaga over a work, it's like if you were a real vinyl LP aficionado and you watched all the hipsters come into your record shop and start running at the mouth about some great record that's really a pretty simple piece of work, but you know they know they're supposed to like it to be cool. I first read Gatsby in high school after I'd already developed a taste for 19th century literature, so it seemed simple (again, not that that's an inherent fault). Hearing the other kids rave over it all senior year is probably when I first broke it off with Gatbsy.

    I'm not sure if you were directing your critique of postmodern types at me or just using that as something for comparison with Gatsby, but that "incoherent" stuff is not the kind of writing I was saying I prefer to Fitzgerald. I have a penchant for archaic prose styles, for long and winding sentences. For cognitive reasons I like those styles because I feel like I'm discovering new thoughts along the way instead of being told what to think. And for reasons purely of taste, well, I just happen to like the crusty old stuff better. Some of us have to choose a period or a chunk of literature to focus on, because we just don't have time to focus on all of it. Every student of literature has to come up with some set of criteria (probably somewhat practical, but also certainly based on taste) for what we are going to funnel our critical energies into. I guess Gatsby just didn't fit the bill for me, so because it's not in my top ten or whatever, some will judge me as somehow less qualified to do what I do.

  4. Reading what I initially wrote, my tone is a little more—emphatic—than I intended. You’re quite right in questioning whether all of my diatribe was actually being directed at you. It was not, and is better directed at the MFA-machine subsidized pseudo-literary hipster types who have provoked it. Being a reader of your blog for some little while, I know very well that you are most emphatically *not* one of those.

    My view is that just as none of us have read everything (though a remarkable number would have you believe differently), neither can we all like everything. Some art, even though it was constructed by artists of ability and vision, leaves us cold, for reasons quite beyond our control. Sometimes, it is a little difficult to tell, though usually the passion the art arouses is my guage. For instance, I think I mentioned that poetry is my primary interest, especially poetry of the first half of the last century; yet William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound bore the hell out of me. Certainly, objectively I can tell that they are competent; yet it is the reverence with which they are regarded by others, many of whom I respect, which informs me that in spite of my inability to comprehend their greatness, they are, indeed, great.

    Invariably, at parties or at the schmoozing sessions that bookend readings, I hear emphatic opinions deriding Yeats, or Stevens (as an aside, you mentioned in one of your posts that you were planning to read more of him—you should! I’d be interested to hear what you think), or Dickinson, or Plath, or Hughes, or poor, poor Scott Fitzgerald. While I am protective of all of the writers I love, none invites it more than Scott, so incapable he seemed of protecting himself. When he is attacked, or dismissed, likely as not I envision the smug fat sneer of Hemingway, deriding him from the grave—lol—I am obviously not totally rational on the subject.

    Your analogies explaining MA snobbery are well-taken, and I am sympathetic, having a number of friends who suffer from the same complaint. Having seen it up-close, and being subject to many of those same impulses myself, please accept the following admonition in the spirit it is given: do not become so far removed from the uninitiated impressions of the unwashed masses that you forget what literature is supposed to be about in the first place. As you said, the need to set one’s self apart is only human, and is not in itself a terribly bad thing. If it occurs, though, to the detriment of the work, then the cart becomes inverted with the proverbial horse; sometimes I think deconstruction is the revenge of bad writers with agile minds.

    Regarding the idea of someone—anyone—judging you as being somehow “less qualified to do what (you) do” because of your opinion on Gatsby, or any piece of literature, that is nonsense. In all sincerity, please know that in my opinion, you are qualified, indeed.

    (And speaking of sincerity—I believe you've alluded to your ideas on that subject in a couple of posts, and even promised once a future entry on the idea. Not meaning to be presumptuous, I did an entry about it not long ago, which you might find interesting.

  5. Nick, thanks so much for the words of encouragement. I am off to read your entry on sincerity straight away -- I have indeed promised an entry on that, but every time I turn around I'm reading something new on it, in a new context (from Wilde to Woolf to those old Romantic Germans...) and the subject becomes unmanageably huge! Maybe there's a future dissertation in there somewhere, but blog posts would be a good testing ground to get it going.

    I will take your admonition in a good spirit! I know what you mean about becoming removed from the literature, and that's something I'm actually working on this semester by keeping myself from reading any theory for awhile. Poetry and Miltonic prose are it this spring! Anyway, I think my choice of school speaks to what I want to get out of this whole literary studies thing. My choice was partly based on practical concerns, but also very much based on my wanting to be in a community of learners and teachers -- Northern is one of those state schools where everyone teaches first year composition, everyone really goes "among the masses." I'm not sure if I will apply to state schools like Northern when I continue for the PhD, but wherever I go, the teaching of literature to a wider set (and not just writing about literature for the PMLA audience or some crap) will continue to be one of my main interests.

    Now, for some irony v. sincerity!


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