Monday, May 8, 2000

Babylon Revisited

The first time I read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was for my 12th grade American Literature class at Frank B. Kellogg High School. By that time I had been accepted at Macalester College so my attitude was even more "I don't give a damn I just want out of here" than it had been at the start of the shattered soul year.

I chose Gatsby because I had heard it was a classic- described by some as the greatest American novel ever. I was looking forward to reading the book having not read any Fitzgerald before. His poetic prose impressed me immediately. But the book did not. In my book report (which I believe got a B+) I called it the most overrated piece of writing/crap that had ever seen the light of day. I knew I was sticking my neck on the line by not joining in on all the literary praise for the book but I truly didn't give a damn. To me the unwavering weakness of the book was that Fitzgerald seemed to be celebrating the very lifestyle he was attempting to scorn.

The shallow and empty existence of the upper class elite characters was offset by the writer's obvious affection for the partying and high times he was writing about. The story seemed to be about self pity and Gatsby was anything but great. To be a prisoner to one's past meant very little especially to one who just wanted to graduate and start all over again somewhere (anywhere) else. My teacher, the weary Mr. Houts, wrote few comments on my paper. He did suggest that I may want to re-read the book at a later date and give it another chance. Fat chance.

Lo and behold come my sophomore semester at good old f%$king Mac, I took an English class and one of the books on our reading list was The Great Gatsby. Being one who has always been more than willing to admit he is wrong from time to time I cheerfully gave the book another chance. And it changed my life.

This time the story was oddly moving. Gatsby's stubborn obduracy in his pursuit of a dream long since gone by did seem uniquely heroic. To not give up on one's dream even after it has defeated you inexplicably seemed most noble. At the time I read the book I had just gotten an internship with my hometown local newspaper which I calculatingly applied for in hopes that the young lass from my high school who I thought had stopped believing in me would see my work and have second thoughts about my abilities.

Given another chance I wrote a glowing review of the novel. Fitzgerald's life has to be taken into account when reading the book. His was a meteoric rise bolstered by an undying love for his eccentric wife Zelda, followed by a breakdown of both the couple and both partners of the couple, leading to a premature death of the artist both in his career and his life. The shadows of his own impolitic personal tragedy echo strongly within the foreshadowing words of The Great Gatsby.

I re-read the book again the year following my graduation from Macalester. This time it worked its way into my heart as my all time favorite piece of writing. It really knocked me out how effective Fitzgerald the writer could capture what Fitzgerald the person was feeling personally and universally at the same time. The book is about following one's dreams/demons to their fulfilling/inevitable conclusion. It convinced me there is no more noble path we can walk upon.

I have read The Great Gatsby every year since. Each time I read the book I learn a little more about myself. It is the rare piece of artisanship that somehow changes depending on where you are in your own life. Fitzgerald's splendid guile of walking the thin line that separates feeling from thought is without peer. Consider the exquisite final words of the novel: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." It's perfect writing in a perfect book.

This week an early version of The Great Gatsby with a working title of the book, Trimlachio was released. Like CDs that contain extra tracks and earlier versions of songs than their LP counterparts, this book promises to give fans of the now 75 year old work a fresh perspective of what the author was thinking about when he sat down with pen in hand. It is a most wondrous opportunity to get a glimpse of the artistic process at work. The book delineates the galley proofs of what became the finished novel. Fitzgerald made several changes that didn't change the plot but changed the perception of the characters- in some cases adding to what we know, and in other instances subtracting. Though the changes are purportedly minor it does give us the rare chance to see an artist's love in action. Just when does one let go of one's work and let other people in?

First impressions can be so misleading. I'm glad I gave the novel another chance before I dismissed it out of sight. It is a stimulating piece of literature that reminds us the rapture in trying to strive to fulfill our own dreams while at the same time the danger in believing in them to their bitter end. The great Gatsby is great no matter the title.

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