- Reading The Great Gatsby in Uncertain Times
What does it mean for a literature professor to love a novel? The answer may seem self-evident: who more likely than a voracious reader to have a single, touchstone text that brings together pleasure and knowledge, creating a strong affective response that resonates across all the reading over all the years? And who better placed to persuade others of the value of that one novel over all others?
In fact, the question of loving a work of literature leads academics like myself into rather uncomfortable territory. Trained to interrogate our terms, literature professors are squeamish discussing feelings of love toward, or pleasure in, a text—both of which seem like naive responses to the reading process. After all, reading for pleasure seems quite distinct from the professionalized practice of literary analysis or criticism, with its hermeneutics of suspicion, its terminology of skepticism, and its approval of difficulty over accessibility, critical distance over pleasure and identification. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick has recently pointed out, "Reading for pleasure is a mode associated with the amateur, and professionals of all stripes become professionals in no small part by separating themselves from it."1
It was in graduate school, with these newly-minted professional guardrails in place, that I found myself surprisingly transported by a novel I approached as simply one more text to round out my knowledge of the canon. Although I now regularly teach American literature, I had never read much of the modern American canon when I was in high school or college, nor again in graduate school, where I focused my attention on nineteenth-century literature and wrote my Master's thesis on Percy Bysshe Shelley. It wasn't until my first graduate school teaching assignment—a modern lit survey course—that I cracked open a slim volume whose opening lines I now know by heart: "In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my head ever since. 'Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,' he told me, 'just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.'"2
As I consider those lines today, I am struck anew by the first thing that I don't just love, but intensely admire, about F. Scott Fitzgerald's [End Page 162] The Great Gatsby: its utter topicality, its unique relevance to whatever moment I'm currently living in. And how could any text be more relevant than Gatsby to the uncertain times of today? Right now, in 2021, my waking thoughts turn insistently to the price of privilege, to the embedded inequalities in our society, and to social justice. And there it is in the first lines of Gatsby: the particular American upper-class guilt of having more advantages than others in a society that prides itself on equality and democracy, as well as the uncertainty of how to respond to that guilt, how to put it aside instead of "turning [it] over in my head" for years and years. How do we reconcile the gap between principles and reality in this country—and do "we" (the educated, the privileged) really want to reconcile them? After all, ethics, Gatsby reminds us, can easily and profitably be dismissed as so much "provincial squeamishness" (188).
Other contemporary concerns are equally present in the text. White supremacy? The biggest bully and antagonist in the novel is a wealthy, white, Ivy League graduate who spouts the racist nonsense of a man, Lothrop Stoddard, whose book, The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World-Wide Supremacy (1920), has recently come back into favor in right-wing circles.3 Sexual assault and harassment? Tom Buchanan famously breaks the nose of his mistress "with his open hand," but it is the creepy way that Gatsby holds vigil outside Daisy's house after the murder of Myrtle that would resonate with any number of women in the #MeToo era. Transgender identity and the search for nonbinary self-definition? In a world of transactional relationships and rigid gender roles, the feminine Nick and the masculine Jordan Baker...