The election has left very few of us in a state we can call deeply satisfying. Seventy-four million Americans saw their preferred candidate defeated, with 50 million of them believing it was done illegally; and nearly 80 million got to say they won behind a candidate whose most appealing virtue seems to be that he’s not the other guy. I have detected no sense of true optimism or hope that happy days are here again. I’ll bet you haven’t either.
Whenever I sense America going off the rails, when I see gaping holes in our national character and begin to lose faith in our goodness and capacity for great deeds, I find myself turning to one book, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”. In its final page, Fitzgerald composed the most beautiful paragraph I have ever read in tribute to this country. I would like to share it with you. But first some context.
In Fitzgerald’s imagination, Jay Gatsby is the personification of our national myth – our faith in possibility, in imagination, in America as a new Eden. Narrator Nick Carraway says “there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life… it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” Gatsby is a national symbol – a single man, but writ large against the American sky.
And like America, Gatsby is flawed. He is not immoral, but he lacks moral judgment. He mistakes the superficial for the substantial, the material for the transcendent, perception for reality. Fitzgerald writes, “He was a son of God … and he must be about His Father’s Business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.” Meretricious is perfectly apt. America’s fascination with the ostentatious, the garish, began in the Gilded Age, flourished in Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age, and survives wherever the nouveau riche congregate to congratulate themselves on their importance.
Gatsby’s holy grail takes the form of the beautiful but vacuous Daisy, the “Golden Girl” who had once rejected him, a poor soldier with limited prospects, for Tom Buchanan, a Yale-bred Neanderthal of immense wealth. Undeterred, Gatsby built a financial empire as well as a mansion styled after “some Hotel de Ville in Normandy” across the bay from Daisy so that he could win her back with his success. Tragically, he can ultimately get no further than staring at the green light at the end of her dock. The quest for his misbegotten dream costs him his life, but it is his capacity for hope that we ought to admire.
I return to “The Great Gatsby” for Fitzgerald’s understanding of American mythology and character, a mythology rooted in possibility, and for the extraordinary beauty of his prose, both are never more evident than on the final page. Gatsby has been buried, a funeral which only two people attend. Nick stands alone on Gatsby’s lawn and stares out at Long Island Sound.
“As the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
The last and greatest of all human dreams. That’s how I want to think of America.