Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Talk on Bonfires of the American Dream, part 2

 As I noted in the prior blog post, yesterday, at an NYU Law and Culture Colloquium, I discussed the Great Gatsby chapter from my recent book, Bonfires of the American Dream. That post offered broader background concerning the project; this one will briefly discuss the Gatsby chapter.

Again as personal background, I have always liked The Great Gatsby (which I first read in high school, but I think on my own rather than for class), but I don't quite love it. It's obviously well-written, and I like its darkness, unhappiness, sense of estrangement, noir elements, and use of a very passive, and possibly quite unreliable, narrator. But I have never personally resonated enormously either to its poetry (e.g., the famous closing paragraph about boats beating against the current), or to the somewhat heavy-handed use of symbolism that makes high school English teachers so happy (e.g., Dr. T.J. Eckleberg).

Obviously, Gatsby has been written about a lot. In finding my own discussion space for it, I was interested in its changing cultural reception over time. As the chapter discusses, it was a flop when it came out, forgotten and seemingly buried by the time F. Scott Fitzgerald died. Then it rose from the dead, starting in about 1945, becoming perhaps the Great American Novel for a while, although more recently its star has dimmed, at least among elite literary critics. It may be modernist, but it isn't very post-modern.

In the 1950s, the literary critics who embraced it appeared to be especially entranced by its arguably supporting what I call a hipster critique of American culture - suggesting that, while upward mobility and social / economic success might be within reach for the aspiring, the pursuit thereof was empty, alienating, and unsatisfying. Many regarded it as a devastating indictment, the grounds for which weren't entirely clear, of the American Dream. Given underlying elements of social and self-satisfaction among these critics, it functioned as pessimism for optimists.

In today's much angrier and more pessimistic era, that has become pretty thin gruel as a critique of American culture. Hence my suggestion that Gatsby now operates more as voyeurism for pessimists than as pessimism for optimists - as in the Baz Luhrmann movie version.

The underlying ambiguity between those two responses is baked in the novel itself. But rather than more fully review my Gatsby chapter here, I'll just mention a couple of related themes. The first is the relationship between conscious authorial intent and what we might learn for sociological purposes from reading literature. The second is whether what we might choose to call "great" literature offers deeper or different insights than, say, really bad literature.

On conscious authorial intent, Gatsby offers an interesting picture. There is something intentionally didactic going on, relating to Fitzgerald's autobiographically rooted anxieties about the contemporary American upper class. That's probably why Tom Buchanan is the least nuanced of the major characters in the book. (Daisy Buchanan is a bit more nuanced, in relation to her travails as a woman.) We also get Fitzgerald's personal pet theory about why high-end inequality matters, which is that, unless you are born rich, you will lack self-confidence. This theory falls fairly far short in illuminating all of the issues that are raised by modern high-end inequality. Especially, since we are now past the era of the leisure class and of status's primary reliance on birth, and living in an era where even the dynastically wealthy claim to be self-made.

But the book is at its best when it gets away from Fitzgerald the would-be social thinker, and isn't just reflecting the beliefs that he could have put into an op-ed (had these existed at the time). An example is the Gatsby parties, which Gatsby says are full of "interesting people ... who do interesting things." Fitzgerald is showing us the rise of celebrity culture alongside the old hierarchy of birth and inherited wealth.

The book is also great on consumerism and ennui. Plus, its disturbing elements of racism (along with mockery of overly intense racism) and of anti-Semitism make for interesting, if unsettling, reading today.

If you wanted to defend the proposition that great literature has more to offer sociologically than bad literature, Gatsby arguably suggests that the former, by escaping in interesting ways the author's conscious or didactic beliefs, can become especially revelatory.

But I'm not sure that I would defend the proposition that you learn more sociologically from great than bad literature.

I do mainly focus my writing in this area on great and very good works (by my estimation) - although the John Galt speech in Atlas Shrugged is an exception, and possibly the single worst thing that I have ever read. (Although, I haven't read Mein Kampf and don't plan to.) But my main reason for doing so is simply that it's more enjoyable to spend your time in good company than bad.


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