On Gatsby and dream crushing teenagers

I don’t think this means what you think it means.

It is spring and spring always reminds me of reading The Great Gatsby with my 11th graders. It helps now that Baz Luhrmann’s movie is coming out soon and I imagine that if I still were reading it with 11th graders we would rendezvous at the theater dressed in flapper costumes (of course I have a flapper costume!).

I have an ambivalence towards F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel that I never quite reconciled in my days of teaching teenagers. I never had to read the book in High School and the first I time I did it was in order to develop a teaching unit for my student teaching days. The Great Gatsby inspired really great lunchtime conversations among the faculty, I remember, with a particularly vicious argument about Daisy’s nature. It amused me then because I didn’t quite understand the passions involved.  The strongest I can say about the book is that I liked it, I enjoyed it, but I don’t love it. It has it’s moments. But I had, and continue to have, some trepidation about teaching it.

In the weeks leading up to what is/was inevitably termed “THE AMERICAN DREAM UNIT,” I felt a crushing sense of guilt for what I was about to do these bright young things on the cusp of launching into adulthood. Read any curriculum guide that includes Gatsby and you’ll see they do horrible things. They ask the kids to write about what their “green light” is, what their “dream” is, with no regard for how it will turn out for Gatsby. We get them hooked on this American Dream stuff and then spend weeks or more reading a book that deconstructs the lie. Ouch. I’m not even sure we explain very well what the American Dream is, in fact, and tend toward eliding the mythology.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the shared experience of reading this book with my students. The book, and I suppose some of the texts we paired with it (including the New York Times “Class Matters” series, which would be even more compelling today considering current rates of income inequality), sparked generative conversations. I agree with Kathryn Schulz that Fitzgerald’s characters are lack dimension, but this made for great fun in creating projects about the characters. Each spring my classroom would explode with amusement parks with each character symbolized by some crazy ride. I miss hearing all the creative ways the students would make that work.

I’m not sure how many dreams I crushed in framing Gatsby in terms of the myth of the American Dream. I remain ambivalent about the place of the the American Dream, what it is, and how important it is anymore. I know that I have a nostalgia for the experiences I’ve had around Gatsby: the explorations with my students, their brilliant insights, deep conversations with colleagues, Robert Redford, and now I can add Leonardo Dicaprio. I will go see the movie and groan at the Brooks Brother’s ads along with everyone else. In the end, I’m willing to just go along with it all, to get swept up in all of it: the decadence and the tragedy.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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