Tuesday, October 28, 2008

F. Scott Fitzgerald's (formerly?) fresh, green breast of the new world

The (Formerly?) Fresh,  Green Breast of the New World
. . . 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.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

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—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

-- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Good endings are rare, and this is one of the best. An ending is a small death, and so it's not surprising that novelists sometimes conclude on a note of elegy. It doesn't always work, but Fitzgerald's elegiac final lines of The Great Gatsby were a masterful evocation of the entire history of the American Dream in the context of one man's broken dreams, symbolized by that unattainable green light.

It's hard not to think of Gatsby these days, when so many people pursued shortcuts toward their own version of the American Dream, only to find the pursuit end in disaster. I'm also reminded of Fitzgerald because Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, which deals with similar themes in a very different setting -- the immigrant community in post-9/11 New York City -- was one of my favorite reads last summer.

(Photograph: Owen Conservation Park, Madison, Wisconsin.)

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