Friday, April 22, 2011

Kiss the Green Light Goodbye

The 20,000 square foot mansion said to be F. Scott Fitzgerald's inspiration for Tom and Daisy Buchanan's opulent East Egg home is no more.  Carolyn Kellogg of the L.A. Times reports that the 1902 home was demolished this week to make way for five custom homes to be sold at roughly ten million dollars apiece. (Click here for photos of the place before its demise.). 

Supposedly, this house is where Fitzgerald attended parties hosted by the mansion's owner, renowned journalist Herbert Bayard Swope.

Fitzgerald drew heavily on his own life when he wrote The Great GatsbyDaisy Buchanan herself bears a rather interesting resemblance to Fitzgerald's wife Zelda, who came from a prominent Montgomery, Alabama family just as Daisy herself is a wealthy Southern Belle.  His experiences with the "idle rich" in New York shape those of Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby in the novel.

After the start of the Great Depression, Fitzgerald's novel lost popularity for a time, as the difficult economy seemed to make it less relevant. It was rediscovered, strangely enough, after the United States began to regain its prosperity, and the "American Dream" once again seemed attainable.

The novel seems more relevant than ever today, even with the so-called "Great Recession" dominating our headlines.  The American Dream, though continually changing with the times, still holds sway over the way we raise our children. On top of this, the culture of entitlement, decadence, carelessness, and conspicuous consumerism that dominates the fictionalized West and East Egg, and bleeds even into the impoverished recesses of the Valley of Ashes bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the world we live in today.

Perhaps this is why, when I taught this novel, I thought it so important to encourage my students to think critically about the culture they live in, and to examine their own goals for their lives as they read. Adolescence is a period of time in which many young people face the tension between what others think and expect, and their own individual needs and ideals. It is a time when they crave freedom, often without fully understanding what that means, or what relationship freedom has to responsibility.  Reading Gatsby gives them an opportunity to look at what they want, and decide what is worth the effort in the end: to realize that "it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world", much less for Wales. Or Daisy.

The American Dream, once a simple little house and picket fence, a mild feeling of contentment, a decent job, and a life in which we are free to do what we ought, has given way to something more complicated, less attainable, and a touch more sinister.  A mixture of wealth, fame, power, and a life in which we are free, like Tom and Daisy, to do whatever we want, regardless of who or what is damaged in the process, is now the American Dream of too many.  Like Gatsby, we pour our whole selves into ambitious pursuits, or like Myrtle Wilson with her apartment cluttered with oversized furniture and her borrowed lover, we fill our lives with out of place surface details that we think will impress others.  From reality show stars, to teenagers posting what they ate for lunch on Twitter, we all have our own ways of trying to be important in the eyes of the world. Some people give their lives and their sanity to this end. Others, with an excessive sense of entitlement,  waste their lives waiting for "success" to be handed to them.

Jay Gatsby spends his life chasing a dream version of himself in order to make himself worthy of that to which his ambition leads: Daisy, a shadow from his past; the woman whose alluring voice is "full of money".  What makes Gatsby "great" is his "heightened sensitivity to the promises of life": his capacity to dream and pursue his dream with his whole heart. His tragedy is "what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams" and the great waste of his "romantic readiness". Deluded by his own ideals, he pursues an object that is hollow, unreachable, and without lasting significance.  American Reality got in the way of Gatsby's American Dream.  The "fresh, green breast of the new world" which nurtured the dreams of our country's founders, had given way by Fitzgerald's time to mansions, skyscrapers, and the Valley of Ashes.

It is funny, then, that the demise of a home like that in which Tom and Daisy lived is going to make way for five more that can only be afforded by the stupendously wealthy.  Five more Tom and Daisy Buchanans?  Possibly.  But even though carelessness and corruption still permeate the world, idealism still has its place.  Let us hope--and work--for something better.

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