My younger daughter had a concert at her elementary school tonight, and I made the older daughter attend, too, which made her complain, as she has pages upon pages of The Great Gatsby to read. How could I argue against reading Gatsby, one of my most favorite books (and hers, too), and yet I insisted. Music and literature, I argued in one of my most annoying mother versions.
I’m reading Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to be and Why It Endures. (Yes, it’s true, I confess I hear Maureen Corrigan’s NPR voice as I read this book. You will, too.) She writes: “… during the years he was living in Hollywood, Fitzgerald would try to buy it (Gatsby) as a gift for friends, but when he went into bookstores and asked for The Great Gatsby, he’d be greeted by blank looks.” Imagine that, a novel now ubiquitous in American literature courses — if you’ve read nothing else, you’ve likely read The Great Gatsby — and yet the author in his own lifetime often couldn’t purchase his own novel.
Which leads me back again to all that we see is but a portion of our reality. What is inherently true and fine in Fitzgerald’s book was lost for a bit in the shuffling scrim of a society plummeting from the Jazz Age into the dusty Depression, and yet this book, American to the core, devoid of sentimentality, surfaced.
I first read Gatsby at the same adolescent age, and what fun it is to talk with my daughter about that novel, the green light, and Daisy — whom my daughter has far more sympathy for than I do — and the watchful eyes of Dr. Eckleburg. As a teenager, I read this book more as a puzzle, how to fit images with characters, match them up with themes, and write an essay. As an adult, I love the language’s beauty; I’m mystified by its marvelous craft; and yet I read a genuine ugliness in Fitzgerald’s American landscape I wholly missed as a teenager. These layers upon layers: writing reflecting life. Parenting a teenager pushes you into those depths, makes you head out into the cooler part of the lake, and give what you thought was solid ground a second, third, even a fourth look. Socrates, after all, wouldn’t have abided with the status quo.
And yet…. our world really is often a mystifying realm. Think of Fitzgerald and the booksellers’ blank looks. This book, so labored upon, came upward again. In contrast, my younger daughter, after she read a chapter in Charlotte’s Web tonight, leaned her cheek on the book and remarked, I hope this isn’t a sad book. I like that pig. To this, at least, I could honestly say, I think the pig’s going to be just fine. Gatsby’s green light will forever hover terribly out of reach, but Wilbur at least will still be standing by his trough, nose up to the wind, happy.