Journal of Modern Literature 24.2 (2000/2001) 309-319
Writing the Long Desire: The Function of Sehnsucht in The Great Gatsby and Look Homeward, Angel
Arizona State University
A pervasive quality of modern American literature, but one which has received hardly a critical nod, is longing, homesickness, nostalgia. "Our literature is stamped with a quality of longing and unrest," Carson McCullers wrote in 1940, 1 referring specifically to Thomas Wolfe as being "maddened by unfocused longing." 2 More than simple longing or nostalgia, however, and lacking a sufficiently expressive English term, this quality can best be characterized by the German term Sehnsucht (a compound of the verb sehnen, "to long for," and the noun sucht, "addiction"), an intense addiction of and to longing. Deeply rooted in German Romanticism(note, for example, Goethe's "Selige Sehnsucht," Schiller's "Sehnsucht," Eichendorff's "Sehnsucht," and Novalis' Hymns to the Night), it cuts across literary movements, geographical regions, ethnicity, and gender. Sehnsucht plays a major role in modern American fiction, ranging from the work of Kate Chopin, at the cusp of the twentieth century, to that of contemporary writers, such as Marge Piercy, Gail Godwin, Anne Tyler, and Ann Beattie, and from Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis to Vladimir Nabokov, Walker Percy, and Saul Bellow. 3 One of few critics to discuss nostalgia, Wright Morris, in his essay on Scott Fitzgerald, entitled "The Function of Nostalgia," concludes that the "subject" of Wolfe, Hemingway, and Faulkner, however diverse their backgrounds and styles, is nostalgia, but that it was left to Fitzgerald to carry the subject to its logical conclusion and become "the aesthete of nostalgia." 4 Further, in his essay on Wolfe, entitled "the Function of Appetite," Morris concludes, without qualification, and erroneously, I believe, that "an insatiable hunger, [End Page 309] like an insatiable desire, is not the sign of life, but of impotence," 5 "impotence [being], indeed, . . . part of the romantic agony." 6 What has not been recognized is that neither in the case of Fitzgerald nor in the case of Wolfe is this simply nostalgia, desire, or hunger but something much deeper and more significant: Sehnsucht.
Some have considered this quality to be endemic in American culture. This "curious emotion," McCullers writes, "[is w]ith Americans . . . a national trait, as native to us as the roller coaster or the jukebox. . . . It is no simple longing for the home town or the country of our birth. . . . As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known." McCullers further ties homesickness to loneliness as a peculiarly American quality: "All men are lonely. But sometimes it seems to me that we Americans are the loneliest of all. Our hunger for foreign places and new ways has been with us almost like a national disease." 7
Nine years later, in her essay "Loneliness . . . An American Malady," McCullers further argues that "the aloneness of many Americans who live in cities is an involuntary and fearful thing. It has been said that loneliness is the great American malady." 8 Wolfe himself makes much the same comment when, in a 1930 letter to Maxwell Perkins, he reports on his first visit with Fitzgerald in Paris: "I said we were a homesick people, and belong to the earth and land we came from. . . ." 9
Perhaps a variety of factors in confluence have made Sehnsucht seem most pronounced in American culture. One such factor is the pluralism and cultural diversity created by immigration, often resulting in emotional incertitude, isolation, and homesickness for the old country. "The European, secure in his family ties and rigid class loyalties," McCullers argues, "knows little of the moral loneliness that is native to us Americans." 10 This loneliness, she suggested, is essentially "a quest for identity," 11 that is, a consciousness of self keenly and realistically aware of the relation between oneself and one's environment. Further, the dominant American individualism often tends to create the isolation and loneliness that foster Sehnsucht. American restlessness and nervous energy, leading to mobilityand uprootedness, if...