I read The Great Gatsby in high school. I wish I could remember what I thought about it; what I wrote about it. The only thing I can remember is how the teacher made a point of The Green Light. There are many books which I read in high school that I have since utterly forgotten. Two weeks ago, I could not have told you two sentences about The Great Gatsby. However, I have re-read The Great Gatsby through Ed Nerd eyes.
Between reading Mayflower and, ahem, other matters, I noticed an article about a recently-published research review which says that wide social networks are the key to good health. The study, done by Brigham Young University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was a meta-analysis of hundreds of other studies which looked at primarily quantitative criteria for describing a “wide social network”—i.e. looking at the number of people “in network” instead of the quality of friendship. The findings showed the difference in mortality rates between groups with poor social connections and good social connections was equal to the difference between smokers and non-smokers.
So, to make a long story short, I joined a book club! And, as luck would have it, they were reading The Great Gatsby. I found the text of the book online and plowed through it in three days on my iPhone. The Great Gatsby is a story told by an unreliable narrator named Nick whose second cousin, once removed—The Green Light—just so happens to be an old love of Nick’s new neighbor, one Jay Gatsby. Gatsby knew her as Daisy and she knew him as Jay Gatz, but he went off to war, reinvented himself, and then made enough dough to settle across the bay from Daisy, her philandering husband Tom, and a green light at the end of their dock. Eventually, tragedy strikes.
But that is not before Gatsby throws lavish parties in the hope that Daisy might appear at one. When that does not work, he asks around and, lo, his next door neighbor is related. Lucky! Anyway, Gatsby and Daisy rekindle their romance. For Gatsby, it is love. He pined for Daisy over five years. He built her up in his mind—an idealized woman. The Green Light became another symbol for that idealized woman and all Jay Gatsby could see was what he wanted to. He thought Daisy would leave Tom for him; she loved him. He was mistaken.
Here is my glib, three word review: seductive; vapid; pointless. That is not to say I did not like the book. I enjoyed reading it. However, I could not relate to any of the characters. I have to imagine I liked Jay Gatsby when I was in high school. The fact he was a soldier would not have appealed to me, but everything else did—like a rock star. Now, however, I understand how military service has served—generation after generation—as a way to rise above the reality of a mundane existence. (Have you seen ‘Mad Men?’ A man strives for an idealized life after switching identities in World War II.)
The idealized romance, I am sure, had a lot of pull in high school. I could over-idealize almost any girl. How could I not? Movies and television were my guides. I was supposed to meet a girl and we were supposed to fall madly in love and then get married. I would have felt weird approaching the girl that caught me picking my nose in fifth grade or, really, any girl that had known me during the awkward phase—i.e. since birth. So, ideally, this dream girl would move from out-of-town; right next door to me. But she never showed up. And I still kick myself for the girls next door—living within blocks—that I never did or will know.
I once heard someone say that the motto of the cared-for child is “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” The motto of the un-cared-for child is “nothing ventured, nothing lost.” That has always been me. Hence, many of my relationships have suffered. And I analyze myself and I analyze others and I am uncertain. I am also poor. I am a professional now, but I do not come from old money and I do not come from new money, either. My mom was sixteen when I was conceived. My biological father was a drug dealer. Neither became a working class hero. That is the story of my life. So, why should I care about these characters again? I do not.
What I mean to say, and what I think Fitzgerald could be saying, is that there is no substitute for good breeding. Or, put differently, a wolf, raised by sheep, stands little chance amongst the wolves raised by wolves. Imagine they are sent to school. The sheep go to the sheep school and the wolves go to the wolf school. I assume the curriculum is going to be different. Day one at the wolf school might consist of a lesson on killing sheep. Day one at the sheep school might be about the importance of humans for sustenance and haircuts. They are taught very similar lessons again and again, year after year after year after year. And then they are released into the wild.
Fitzgerald was a Princeton man from Minnesota. I imagine that has had something to do with the success of The Great Gatsby—that Fitzgerald was a Princeton man, not that he was from Minnesota. I also imagine that I could have made it, academically, at an Ivy League school. However, the social relationships would have been something else entirely.
Walter Kirn was a Princeton man from Minnesota. Before he wrote a book of the same name, he published an article entitled ‘Lost in the Meritocracy.’ He begins with a bus trip to take the SAT. His buddies are opening up a bottle of schnapps. He refuses. He knows where his destiny lies. Flash forward four years and Walter is “waiting to feel the effects of a black capsule that someone said would help me finish writing my overdue application for a Rhodes scholarship.” His friend Adam sits nearby, trying to smoke smashed up Percocets with a bong. Welcome to Princeton!
Kirn says he “lived for prizes, praise, distinctions, and I gave no thought to any goal higher or broader than my next report card.” I think this description sounds like me in high school. I just do not think I was as ambitious. Plus, I did relatively poorly on the standardized tests—not the top 1% that Ivy League schools are looking for. Thank goodness for Kirn’s account.
Walter had never read “the classics.” He did not read The New York Times at breakfast. He did not read “the classics” at Princeton, either. His professors focused on theory and “we skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we’d never constructed in the first place.” It was a façade of knowledge—a seductive, vapid, pointless exercise in parroting convention and gaining acceptance. At least that is how I see it.
Walter found that there was another social stratum that even the meritocracy had trouble infiltrating—young men and women with the last names of Robber Barons; sending for limousines; rubbing elbows with celebrities. As Kirn says, “[Princeton] can confer success but can’t grant knighthood.”
As I understand it, Princeton began life as a training ground for Presbyterian clergy. And I think most of the other Colonial Colleges had some religious affiliation as well. The Plymouth and Massachussetts Bay Colonies were founded by so-called Puritans. “So-called” because they were protestants within the Church of England. The Church of England was the crown’s right hand when it came to controlling England. Considerable power was consolidated under Queen Elizabeth I and her bishops. “Puritan” was not a common name; considered derogatory, even. If anything, the congregants might have referred to themselves as “Precisionists,” but I will say Puritan for the sake of convenience.
Open hostility to the church was tantamount to treason and could lead to persecution. However, the split with Catholicism left many feeling like too many of the Catholic vestments and ceremonies remained. Add to that a fixation with martyrdom derived from a book called The Book of Martyrs by John Foxe published five years after Elizabeth I took power. No good Puritan was without one even though it cost three weeks’ pay. The point is that Puritans were a feisty bunch and the movement grew to the point where exile made more sense than mass execution.
The Mayflower pilgrims had already been exiled in Holland before making the journey to New England, however still professed a desire to proselytize the locals as in Virginia. Apparently, the first seal designed for the Massachusetts colony depicted a Native in the New World saying “Come over and help us.” Natives were also amongst the first graduates of Harvard. Harvard was established 16 years after the Puritans landed because the colony—a theocracy, by the way—had a law about having educated leadership.
Something else I know about Puritans is that they wore black. This may seem like a minor point, but black was a reserved color. Only members of the church or aristocrats could wear black. Only royalty could wear purple. People could be arrested for wearing the wrong color in Elizabethan England. Even so, many Puritans would have been used to some degree of affluence. I have heard them referred to like hippies in the 1960s. It makes sense to me. After all, it is hard to protest when you have to put food on the table.
Death, too, was a constant companion. Plague was rampant. Half the Mayflower pilgrims died in the first year. The survivors encountered a desolate New England coast, decimated by plague brought from the east. Some Native tribes experienced as much as 90% mortality rates. The pilgrims encountered areas where skulls and bones were visible above ground—the Natives had not even been able to bury all the dead.
I mention this because the doctrine of Determinism ran rampant through the instruction of the Church of England and the Puritans—everything in its right place because that is the way God wants it. Puritans were God’s chosen people. They deserved their spoils. The poor or the Natives, conversely, deserved their lot because that was the way God wanted it. Determinism works great for a Theocratic Monarchy where a wretched existence is par for the course. It explains a lot.
But America is not like that—oh, no, not when we have The Great Gatsby. In this piece—titled “Gatsby’s Green Light Beckons a New Set of Strivers”—one teacher, who adds a cautionary note, says that students find Jay Gatsby compelling because he’s “out of nowhere in this mansion, having these lavish parties and really and truly fulfilling the American dream.” The cautionary note is that “culture [emphasis added] sells the American dream so hard and so relentlessly,” but the kids should be wary. The Great Gatsby is an honest story that balances “what is otherwise presented as this shining possibility for everyone.”
We are told of immigrant urban adolescents who are inspired by Gastby. The star of the piece, Jinzhao Wang, says that Harvard is her green light. And after Harvard, Jinzhao wants to go back to China “where she hopes to use a Harvard education to help the country develop even faster.” And there is no reason to think she will not accomplish her goals, given the determinism of a Harvard education. According to the part of her facebook profile she shares with everyone, Jinzhao writes “Harvard ’14.” And with over 600 “friends,” she should be able to enjoy the benefits of Harvard that much longer.
Wait, kids, no! Did the teacher say anything about how Gatsby’s Green Light turned out to be a woman who killed her husband’s mistress and then left the scene of the crime? And then she abandoned him. Did they say that the romance was an illusion, even if Jay Gatsby and his friend Nick believed it? But who am I to disabuse anyone of their dreams of green lights? Nor do I wish to be labeled a heretic. Knowledge is suffering. I wish the kids success.
By the way, the article also states The Great Gatsby “had fallen into near obscurity by the time Fitzgerald died in 1940.” However, it was revived when Charles Scribner Jr. began publishing a paperback for colleges and high schools in the 1950s and 1960s. Charles Scribner Jr. was a Princeton man from New York.
Tom Buchanan talks about a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires by “this man Goddard.” The book does not exist, however there is a book called The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy by Lothrop Stoddard. Stoddard was a Harvard man and he believed, as his Wikipedia page puts it, that “the elimination or absorption of the ‘white’ race by ‘colored’ races would result in the destruction of Western civilization.” As Tom says, “It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.” Later, when the man in the library—one of the only people to attend Gatsby’s funeral—goes to fetch a book, he returns with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”