Tuesday, February 21, 2017

February 21, 2017: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: The Great Gatsby

[It’s back—the very popular annual post-Valentine’s non-favorites series, in which I AmericanStudy some of those things that just don’t quite do it for me. Leading up to what is always my most full and fun crowd-sourced weekend post, so share your own non-favorites in comments, please!]
On the limits of an unquestionably great novel, and how we can complement them.
First things first, both out of respect to the many wonderful teachers and scholars I know who love this book (including two of my favorite people, AmericanStudier pére and the author of my recent Guest Post!) and because I certainly do feel the same way: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) is, indeed, a great American novel. I don’t know if I can entirely agree with Random House’s Modern Library, who put it second on their list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century (it’s the only American novel in the top three); that kind of slight overrating is part of what I’m responding to in this post, I suppose. But there’s no doubt that Fitzgerald’s is that truly rare novel which is both formally and aesthetically perfect (that structure! that lyrical style! Nick’s novelist-narrator narration!) and thematically rich and resonant, both profoundly representative of its particular historical, social, and cultural moment and milieu and yet able to connect with deeply universal human questions and issues. If I were to make a list of 25 novels all Americans should read and then talk about—as part of my idea of a national Big Read, perhaps—The Great Gatsby would definitely be in contention, and would probably make the final list.
So how the heck, you might be wondering, can I start my annual non-favorites series with Fitzgerald’s novel? Well, I will answer, the problem lies in his titular protagonist, Jay Gatsby (neé James Gatz), and more precisely in Gatsby’s motivations as a character. Gatsby has long been linked to the American Dream (to the point where there was an indie rock band named Gatsby’s American Dream), but his version of it seems so superficial: a nouveau rich monstrosity of a mansion, must-attend parties where all the most famous current celebrities can be seen, the adoration of all and sundry, and shady business deals with known gangsters which help fund that lifestyle. And when the curtain is pulled back and we learn the true motivation behind all of that, I don’t know that it’s necessarily any deeper: yes, it’s the love of his life; but a) that love is Daisy Buchanan, a complex character but one who overtly and unquestionably symbolizes extreme wealth and privilege (“her voice is … made of money,” Gatsby realizes at one point in the novel); and b) Gatsby only met and loved and was loved by Daisy once he had already remade himself into an imaginary man of extreme wealth and privilege in his own right, and he consistently pursues her as that faux-person, rather than as James Gatz. You can certainly argue that Fitzgerald wants us to analyze and critique these elements of his title character, but they nonetheless to my mind represent profound limits of Gatsby’s characterization, and especially of our ability to sympathize with him (or, really, with any character in the novel, as all of them are implicated in one way or another in the same issues).
None of that, to be clear and to echo my opening paragraph, would comprise reasons not to read Fitzgerald’s novel. But I would certainly argue that there are any number of early 20th century novels which offer distinct, and to my mind more meaningful and broadly resonant, images and narratives of American Dreams. There’s Janey in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), searching for relationships (including romantic ones to be sure) and communities where she can successfully be the strong black woman she is. Or Irene and Clare in Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), two African American women struggling with the question of whether and how to “pass” for white in a society far too defined by race and color. Or Sara in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925), trying to balance her highly Orthodox Jewish father’s Old World demands with her evolving life and goals as an ambitious young woman in New York City. Or Ántonia in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918), an immigrant woman battling the elements and social prejudices on the Nebraska plains. Obviously it wouldn’t be possible to read all these books in place of (for example) Gatsby’s frequent location on syllabi—although of course groups of students could be assigned different texts and then could come together to talk about similarities and differences. Or even brief excerpts of each could be presented alongside Gatsby, to highlight and discuss the era’s many distinct identities, communities, and dreams. In any case, all of these works and characters importantly complement Fitzgerald’s novel, and could help make our conversations about it more of a favorite for this AmericanStudier.
Next non-favorite tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on this non-favorite or others you’d share?

Monday, February 20, 2017

February 20, 2017: Precedents Day

[A holiday special post, making the case for a different way to celebrate Presidents’ Day. I’d love to hear your thoughts or suggestions in comments!]
On how we can make this national holiday into a more meaningful remembrance of our leaders and histories.

One of the most nonsensical of our current, shared national narratives (emphasis on the “shared national”—the top ten thousand most nonsensical current narratives stem from the general area of one Mr. Trump, but I’m focusing here on narratives that have achieved a pretty broad, bipartisan, and cross-community level of support and buy-in) is the idea that we have lost a certain kind of civility in our public or political discourse, and that one of our main goals should be finding and reemphasizing it. Civility may or may not be a worthy goal in and of itself, but it has most definitely never been central to our public and political cultures; even a few minutes’ reading of the materials related to the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debates over the Constitution, the controversies over the Alien and Sedition Acts, the extremely heated and divisive Adams v. Jefferson election of 1800, and many other foundational and Early Republic moments should be more than enough to make clear how uncivil those public and political cultures have often been from the outset.

That isn’t necessarily a good thing, and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s a historical reality thing, and the goodness or badness of it would have a lot more to do with our own perspectives and agendas in narrating the histories. And the truth of the matter, as it so often is when it comes to our national narratives—hence this blog, at least in significant measure—is that we have precious little interest in understanding or narrating the historical realities, especially since they so often refuse to fit neatly into our simplifying ideas (such as “We used to be one big happy family who were nice to each other, and now we’re so divided and partisan and mean”). A few years back, much was made of a particular line from President Obama’s speech at the Tucson memorial service, when he expressed his hope that the tragedy’s deaths could “help usher in more civility in our public discourse”; but I would contend that the far more significant sentiment came later in the same sentence, when he called instead for “a more civil and honest public discourse.” Again, whether or not civility is a worthwhile pursuit, I believe that honesty is most definitely a more worthwhile and valuable one—and, not unrelatedly, that an honest assessment of our history would force us to admit that we have never been particularly civil.

So on this President’s Day, I’d like to set, in my own small way and space, a precedent for future remembrances of our national leaders: honesty rather than celebration, accuracy to history’s complexities rather than “respect for the office of the president” (which is really just another way of saying civility) and all that. This does not, I hope it goes without saying, mean simply revisionist attacks on our presidents; those are just as simplifying, just as dishonest, as any hagiographies could be. Instead, I mean genuinely complex, honest engagement with the whole pictures; not necessarily of every president (to put it uncivilly, who really gives a fuck about Chester Arthur?), but of the ones we particularly want to remember as prominent parts of our histories and identities. Obviously such honest engagement would require more time and effort than a simple President’s Day remark allows, but still, even in the shortest lines we can work in starting points toward it: Thomas Jefferson, articulate defender of democracy and slaveowner who almost certainly conducted a multi-decade affair with a slave, impassioned opponent of the Alien and Sedition Acts and imperialist who more than doubled the nation’s lands with the likely unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase; Abraham Lincoln, who held a nation together and in the process decimated fundamental civil liberties like habeas corpus, who without question would have been willing to sacrifice any pretense of abolitionism to preserve the union but who once the war had begun was a vocal and steadfast defender of African American rights; Ulysses Grant, who presided over the most corrupt administration of the century but wrote and worked ceaselessly for freedmen’s rights; Teddy Roosevelt, who contributed greatly to negative stereotypes of Native Americans and the Filipino insurgency but helped solidify the National Park System and entrench Progressive reforms; and so on.
None of those get close to capturing the complexities of each man and administration, and the precedent would be most ideal if it just inspired more reading and research, more investigation and analysis of these historical figures and periods and the many issues and questions to which they connect. And if in so doing we got a bit closer to the historical realities of who and what we’ve been, and started to emphasize honesty and accuracy more than either agendas or civility, well, that’d be a day worth celebrating each year. Annual non-favorites series starts tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

Saturday, February 18, 2017

February 18-19, 2017: Crowd-sourced JustifiedStudying

[Last fall, I spent a very happy month or so binge-watching all of FX’s Justified. With main characters based on an Elmore Leonard novella, the show focused on—but was in no way limited to—the exploits of Timothy Olyphant’s federal marshal Raylan Givens. I loved many many things about Justified, so for this year’s Valentine’s series I wanted to highlight and analyze a few of them. Leading up to this crowd-sourced post with responses from a few fellow JustifiedStudiers—add yours in comments, please!]
Two-time Guest Poster and Justified super fan Emily Lauer shared a couple responses:
Responding to the start of the series, she writes, “I love this show too and I'm excited about the week of posts on it! I yearn for a post on Gangstagrass, and one comparing the overall arc of the show to the plot of the first Elmore Leonard story it's based on (that gave its title to the pilot).”
And responding to Tuesday’s post on Raylan and Boyd, she adds, “(Spoilers ahead) On the subject of Boyd and love, I found it fascinating that for a good long while, Boyd and Ava's romantic relationship was the most well-adjusted and communicative one on the show. Neither of them had been depicted as mature open people before that, but their power couple dynamic felt believable and aspirational regardless.”
On Twitter, Shelley Girdner writes, “I just discovered Justified and have been trying to name what I love about it, so I’m happy to read [these posts] heeding the call.”
Megan Fulwiler Tweets, “Loved it almost as much as The Wire too. It’s all about the banter between Raylan & Boyd.”
Vanessa King shares, “My boyfriend was born and raised in Central Va. And I have lived here since high school. We loved both The Wire and Justified. Does Justified take advantage of stereotypes and Southern caricatures? Yes. Do my boyfriend and I think any of them were particularly out of place or incorrect, no.”
Finally, one of my favorite TV writers, Uproxx’s Alan Sepinwall, is as always very worth reading on Justified, such as in this post as the series finale was about to air (also see this concluding interview with series creator Graham Yost).
Next series starts Monday
PS. What do you think? Other responses to Justified you’d share?