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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Gatsby turned out all right in the end...

One of my greatest fears and insecurities when teaching the "Survey of Classic American Literature" course is always the persistent worry that students will not appreciate the exquisite languor and perfection of "The Great Gatsby." I insist from the very beginning that we take out time and read slowly. Perhaps it is because the book itself has become a rite of passage of sort, that the expectations are, no pun intended, great. The students of today have little intention of putting up with a book they "dislike from the start." So it is with a heavy burden that I begin introducing this classic of American literature hoping that, as the narrator concludes, the book--as the main character--"turn out all right in the end." This semester it did. I know that I have written on this blog about reading and writing, but it feels I have neglected teaching as a central idea and experience. I am glad to be correcting that lack today.

What I try to emphasize at the start of the instruction period about this great book is how much F. Scott Fitzgerald put into it. The book itself is slightly over 50,000 words. I consider it the great miracle of literature because for a writer to put so much into a book, a transfixing and complicated plot, deeply fleshed characters, and above all the poetic and lyrical language used, is to me the most amazing and outstanding artistry of this book. It was a relief when I started to realize the students' appreciation. Some of them read ahead because they "couldn't wait for the next reading assignment." They singled out entire passages and read them out loud, appreciating the taste as if the words were fine cheese or some other delicacy. In a world that has become too dependent on technology, too fast for people to notice beauty, it is a relief that all (and I mean ALL) of these students enjoyed this book so tremendously. I think one of the passages that moved the students the most, (and I am being partially biased here), is when Nick Carraway, the narrator states:

"It was seven o'clock when we got into the coupe with him and started for Long Island. Tom talked incessantly, exulting and laughing, but his voice was as remote from Jordan and me as the foreign clamor on the sidewalk or the tumult of the elevated overhead. Human sympathy has its limits and we were content to let all their tragic arguments fade with the city lights behind. Thirty--the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair. But there was Jordan beside me who, unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age. As we passed over the dark bridge her wan face fell lazily against my coat's shoulder and the formidable stroke of thirty died away with the reassuring pressure of her hand."

Amazingly, students took Nick's relationship with Jordan a bit more serious that I had anticipated. Their break-up (as subtle as it was) had to be pointed out to those incredulous students who didn't want to believe the story was coming to an end, and that whatever relationship Nick and Jordan had in chapter nine needed to be salvaged and carried forward. This and all the other enjoyable memories from these last two weeks will definitely carry me over to the next term. This is teaching the way it should be... free thinking and exploration, drinking the sweet meaning of literature, breathing it like fine dust into our lungs until we are about to explode with enjoyment.

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At 7:50 AM, Blogger Suzan Abrams said...

Thanks for dropping by, JCR and I would love to know your reading plans in detail for the new year. Here's wishing you and yours, a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.
I bet there's a book-gift for you, somewhere in Santa's sack. :-)

At 11:50 AM, Blogger Suzan Abrams said...

Hi once more JCR. It's after Christmas & I've returned to wish you & yours, a Happy New Year.
I'm especially enthusiastic about your reading list for 2008. Please tell us about it. :-)


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