"And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." I believe this final line from F. Scott Fitzgerald's legacy novel, The Great Gatsby, might be the single finest sentence in all of American literature, in the single finest novel in all of American literature.
So, now that you know where I stand, I’ll offer some thoughts as to why this definitely belongs on the “high school books that you should read this again later in life” list.
I don't know if any author since Fitzgerald has achieved quite the same magical literary balance: He wrote lyrical, poetic prose equally rich in emotive quality and metaphor that sustains a surprisingly straightforward readability. I know this is what impressed me most about Gatsby the first time I read it in eleventh grade; however, I also know I couldn't have pinned it down back then. I've only found the right words to express my admiration for the book after many subsequent readings and, more importantly, trying (with comparatively meager results) to write a uniquely American story myself. Of course, my book doesn’t hold a candle to Gatsby, but the process of having written my own novel has only deepened my awe of Fitzgerald's accomplishment.
I recently listened to an unabridged audiobook of Gatsby during a long drive to a former student’s wedding. This added to its significance. I’m thirty-six, and I’ve been married five years. My newly married former student and his wife are in their mid-twenties. Take the average of our ages and you get thirty—the same age Nick turns midway through the novel. And it occurred to me, as a five-years-married man now firmly planted in the domestic landscape of middle America, that it was probably impossible for me to fully appreciate this novel until now. What's "now?" Now is a stable, happy time and place from which I can look back upon my twenties—with sympathy—at the terrible, beautiful, mixed up mess of blended success and failure that they were.
Fitzgerald managed, in a relatively short book, to get to the heart of the American Dream's biggest danger: the way our pursuit of it tempts us to work tirelessly—ceaselessly, one might say—at becoming someone other than the man or woman who we truly are. It isn't that the American way of life innately encourages falsehood; rather, it facilitates it just as readily as it facilitates authentic, genuine happiness. The "x" factor that determines which course we follow is, more than likely then, rooted in two things. First, it depends largely on our level of self-knowledge. And second, I would argue it has much to do with our willingness to balance ambition with humility. When those two qualities become unbalanced—as they undeniably do for James Gatz when he redefines himself—the American Dream risks becoming the American Nightmare. This is just as true today as it was in the "Jazz Age."
I taught Gatsby for several years to eleventh graders, which is to say I invited kids to read it, assessed them on their objective knowledge of the plot, and then attempted to delve into its meanings. I always enjoyed doing so, because there's nothing like discussing a novel about the quintessential narcissist with teenagers, because, well, they so readily embrace their own. Gatsby, decadent in his expensive suits and expansive hope, opens his arms and heart to them year after year, and without fail, they embrace him. Oh, sure, some are critical—in fact most are—but rarely does anyone completely despise him. In my experience, no other novel invites as much introspection or fuels as much debate, at least not among kids of a certain age. It's always as simple as asking them the fundamental question: "Was Gatsby great?" There's never been consensus. Maybe that's because we've rarely gotten anywhere near an answer, because defining the meaning of the question is one hell of a task in itself. Ask a room full of teenagers to define greatness and you're in for an interesting ride.
I often leave my students with what I hope is a lingering question: Is “greatness” really all that important, or should we be more focused and determined to live out goodness? Granted, The Good Gatsby would not have the same sort of jazz to the title, but I wonder if the good Gatz, if he were just to have been himself instead of trying to be someone else, would have been a greater man than...well, the “great” Gatsby.
So…if it’s been a while, maybe since high school, since you read Fitzgerald’s lyrical, iridescent, uniquely American work of tragic beauty, I encourage you to pick it up again. And maybe, when you finish it, ponder over that question: Forget the greatness. Instead, where’s our inherent goodness? What brings it out? What gets in the way?