- Carraway’s Complaint
In one of the most familiar passages in twentieth-century literature, Nick Carraway thinks back on the late Jay Gatsby, who had suffered so grievously from the hard malice of the Buchanans and their like in the inhospitable East. It begins as an elegy but turns into a lament for humankind’s capacity for wonder and awe in the face of the hard truths of history. Disillusioned, sad, sentimental, this child of the Midwest looks out, through the mind’s eye, across Long Island Sound and re-imagines the “old island” as it must have looked four centuries earlier to the Western sailors who were but the advance guard of the adventurers, immigrants, and settlers to come. Like the psalmist who sits by the rivers of Babylon, lamenting the lost Zion, he, too, weeps for what is past and will not return. It bears repeating.
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes-a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. . . . Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. 1 [End Page 161]
These final sentences of The Great Gatsby take on a strange and surprising significance when they are read against Fitzgerald’s immediate sources for them in the literature about Columbus and the New World. Behind Nick’s words and sentiments lies a vast body of Western literature on notions of a terrestrial paradise. Since Fitzgerald ties this “fresh, green breast of the new world” to a New York island that “flowered once,” as Carraway imagined, for “Dutch sailors’ eyes,” it is possible to pin down his principal if not sole source for Nick’s last rueful vision.
Washington Irving’s A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, first published in 1809 and attributed to the fictional persona of “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” is a problem for the genre purist. While the book often mocks history and historical writing, it otherwise suits perfectly Fitzgerald’s fictional imagination. For among other matters, it demonstrates how one fabulating writer confronts the stuff of history, drawing on his considerable folkloristic ability to turn historic materials into the romanticized stuff of national legend and Western myth. Irving’s history describes the first look which those “honest Dutch tars” had of the New World when their ships “entered that majestic bay which at this day expands its ample bosom before the city of New York, and which had never before been visited by any European.”
The island of Manna-hata spread wide before them, like some sweet vision of fancy or some fair creation of industrious magic. Its hills of smiling green swelled gently one above another, crowned with lofty trees of luxuriant growth, some pointing their tapering foliage towards the clouds, which were gloriously transparent, and others loaded with a verdant burden of clambering vines, bowing their branches to the earth, that was covered with flowers. 2
Irving’s description echoes earlier accounts of what the so-called “terrestrial paradise” might look like. In Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus (1828), Irving places Columbus’ considerations of this theme within a greater tradition of such speculation, beginning with the “Grand Oasis...