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The Usable Past Reading Within and Without The Great Gatsby
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Published by The British Library, ISBN 0 7123 4477 2. Copyright 2016 The British Library Board, The Usable Past. Reading Within, and Without, The Great Gatsby, By Sarah Churchwell. The Eccles Centre for, American Studies, The Twelfth Annual Eccles. Centre for American Studies, Plenary Lecture given at.
the British Association for, American Studies Annual. Conference 2015, www bl uk ecclescentre, SARAH CHURCHWELL is Chair of Public Understanding of the. Humanities and a professorial fellow in American literature at the School of. Advanced Study University of London She is the author of Careless People. Murder Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby Penguin Press. 2014 The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe Metropolitan Books 2005. and many scholarly articles Her literary journalism has appeared in the. Guardian New York Times Book Review Independent Times Sunday. Times Telegraph Financial Times New Statesman TLS Prospect and the. Spectator among many others She comments regularly on arts culture and. politics for UK television and radio where appearances include Question. Time Review Show and Newsnight and has judged the Bailey s Orange. Prize for Fiction and the 2014 Man Booker Prize among other literary prizes. She was a co recipient of the 2015 Eccles Centre Writer in Residence award. at the British Library and is currently writing a book about Henry James. The Usable Past, Reading Within and Without The Great Gatsby. Thank you Philip Davies and the Eccles Centre for the invitation to speak. here today and for the support you ve shown for my work and thanks too. to Joe Street for all your hard work and special thanks for not making. me get you a title in time for the program In one sense I ve always known. what I would like to talk to you about tonight because it is the project I ve. been working on since 2009 at least understanding The Great Gatsby in. its cultural and historical contexts, For the fun of it I looked up plenary thinking it had probably accrued more. meanings beyond the familiar ones of an assembly or a speech given to a full. assembly and discovered to my dismay that the first definition the primary. definition given by the OED is A adj 1 Full complete or perfect not. deficient in any element or respect absolute So that was horrifying And then. I realized something else that I would be delivering my full complete perfect. and absolute remarks about The Great Gatsby on the exact 90th anniversary. of its publication It was 10 April 1925 precisely 90 years ago today. In November 1924 as he was completing The Great Gatsby Scott Fitzgerald. wrote to his editor Max Perkins commenting I am confused at what you. say about Gertrude Stein I thought it was one purpose of critics publishers. to educate the public up to original work The first people who risked Conrad. certainly didn t do it as a commercial venture Did the evolution of startling. work into accepted work cease twenty years ago 1 Twelve years later at what. would prove the nadir of his life and career Fitzgerald wrote to a reader I. trust you ll understand that I don t mind criticism a bit the critics are always. wrong including you but they are always right in the sense that they make. one re examine one s artistic conscience 2, What are critics for As far as Fitzgerald was concerned critics are meant.
to be advocates for originality and they should help clarify a writer s. F itzgerald F Scott A Life in Letters Ed Matthew J Bruccoli New York Scribner. Life in Letters 301, 2 The Usable Past Reading Within and Without The Great Gatsby. artistic conscience but they are inevitably wrong This may seem a. bit harsh but to be fair to him he had good reason to think so It is a. chastening experience to be a literary critic and read what most writers. have to say about us Fitzgerald certainly had plenty to say about the boob. critics as he called them in another letter following Mencken but he. also knew perfectly well how much he learned from critics and that is the. subject of my talk today 3 It turns out that being a critic may not be quite. as useless an occupation as we are so frequently told. Thinking about Fitzgerald s relation to the critics for reasons that will become. clear has prompted me to ask what would happen if we tried to restore. pleasure or even beauty to literary criticism As I have written elsewhere. argument and analysis are not coterminous and criticism can employ the. techniques and forms of literature not only narrative but also figuration. implication mimesis trope Such a project would imagine a critical form. that is sympathetic to the art it explores and can still be original rigorous. and scrupulous One version of the attempt to forge a more aesthetically. and formally adventurous kind of literary criticism to expand it beyond the. bounds of argumentation is certainly what I tried to do in my book about. Gatsby and so today I thought it might be worthwhile to explore the further. contexts that informed my book as background and bring them at last poor. belated ghosts to the foreground, After Gatsby came out Fitzgerald wrote to Edmund Wilson complaining that. none of the novel s initial readers not even the most enthusiastic had any idea. what the book was about But we know now it s the Great American novel. it s about the American dream it s about the roaring twenties And then if. we re careful we explain that the phrase American Dream wasn t coined until. 1931 but still especially for students we recycle a few stock examples to stand. in synecdochally for the 1920s Green lights Fast cars Flapper dresses The. Charleston, The Great Gatsby is set in 1922 Fitzgerald began thinking seriously about. it in the summer of 1923 he wrote it across most of 1924 and finished it. that October it was published as I said in April 1925 Cultural contexts. become pertinent to the novel only within a very specific two year window. Life in Letters 108, The Usable Past Reading Within and Without The Great Gatsby 3. anything that came after 1925 has to make a different kind of argument for. its relevance For my research I was asking what meanings were available to. Fitzgerald as he wrote the novel in 1924 and reimagined the very recent past. To take just one example the symbolic meanings of the novel s iconic green. light have become an American clich green for hope spring envy the. colour of money But would a green light have meant go to Fitzgerald and his. audience would it have meant go to Jay Gatsby or is that a later meaning. that has been anachronistically projected back on to the novel In 1922. New York traffic lights were in fact brand new The Fitzgeralds arrived. in Manhattan September 1922 and moved to Great Neck which inspired. West Egg that October two months later in December 1922 23 foot high. ornamental bronze traffic signal towers opened on Fifth Avenue They did not. use electricity each tower was topped by a small room in which a policeman. sat using a lever to open and close glass windows on all sides displaying. different colored signals red yellow green But the lights were confusing. Although the railroads had long used signal colors consistently and everyone. knew the code red for stop yellow for caution green for proceed the Fifth. Avenue traffic lights used the same colors but differently and the signals were. In the autumn of 1922 a letter was sent to the New York Times complaining. that on the new signal towers the green light seemed to indicate a cross. movement or a side shoot of some kind while yellow seemed to mean. proceed 4 Things only got worse By 1924 New Yorkers were demanding. traffic signal uniformity At Broadway there was a green light on the. tower and for once I remembered that green in this city when displayed on. a tower means stop so I stopped only to find that when green is displayed. to the east and west it means go Another letter writer interpreted the. signals differently our signal system provides an orange light for go a. green signal really for stop and a red signal which may mean stop but is. actually taken as a getaway signal 5 Accidents were the inevitable result. The symbolic import of the accident that culminates the plot of Gatsby is. neither an anachronism nor Fitzgerald s pure invention it was rather the. obvious conclusion that an impressionistic imagination drew when looking. New York Times November 8 1922, New York Times September 1 1924.
4 The Usable Past Reading Within and Without The Great Gatsby. at a symbolically rich jazz age world Gatsby s confusion is the confusion of. the world the question what does the green light mean is not a question. reflecting our anachronistic ignorance but rather one indicating the. uncertainty of new modern systems of meaning to jazz age Americans The. green light thus becomes a symbol for Gatsby s difficulty in navigating his. world his uncertainty about where he is being given permission to go. Green lights are just one example of iconic aspects of the text that prove to. have different historical meanings in 1922 from the ones we think we know. Similarly American women like Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker were. not wearing knee length dresses in 1922 women s hemlines were nearly to. the ankle that year Nor were they dancing the Charleston which was not a. dance craze until the summer of 1925 months after the novel was published. Instead the big dance of 1922 was the shimmy made famous by Gilda Gray. whose understudy one of the girls dancing at Gatsby s first party is rumoured. incorrectly to be 6, My point is that all of these meanings were still primary when Fitzgerald. wrote the novel and when it was received and they had no way of knowing. where history was going In Gatsby of course the past is irrecoverable. But we are trying to discover what James called a visitable past In his. 1918 essay On Creating a Usable Past Van Wyck Brooks argued that. we should approach our literature from the point of view not of the. successful fact but of the creative impulse to throw it into an entirely new. focus What emerges then is the desire the aspiration the struggle the. tentative endeavor and the appalling obstacles our life has placed before. them Which immediately casts over the spiritual history of America a. significance that for us it has never had before 7 A usable criticism. Brooks argued would discover invent a usable past 8. For Brooks and his colleagues in the Seven Arts movement including a critic. called Paul Rosenfeld to whom I ll return this was a specifically American. project a nationalist encounter with our spiritual heritage Jay Gatsby s. fundamental belief is that history doesn t matter The Great Gatsby is a novel. or further discussion of green lights women s fashion and the Charleston in 1922 see. Sarah Churchwell Careless People Murder Mayhem and the Invention of The Great. Gatsby London Virago 2013, Van Wyck Brooks On Creating A Usable Past The Dial April 11 1918 340. Brooks 339, The Usable Past Reading Within and Without The Great Gatsby 5. dedicated to the proposition that he is wrong that history is determinative. Gatsby will not be brought to believe that his dream might be dead but we. could put it more bluntly Gatsby seems quite incapable of changing his mind. The novel is in one sense about the failure of the education of Gatsby s. imaginative life his imaginative life is not susceptible to education This. makes him admirable and monstrous an arrested adolescent It also makes. him stupid which nobody likes to talk about But from what little direct. experience we have of him Jay Gatsby comes across as distinctly humorless. not to mention quite obsessive I ve said before that in a different kind of. story Jay Gatsby would be a stalker complete with his unsettling collection of. photographs and cuttings about the ex girlfriend whose loss he will not accept. Usually this annoys several people in the audience quite a bit but it s true. Another way of saying this is that critical thinking is not Gatsby s strong. suit And this is precisely what Scott Fitzgerald had been accused of by every. critic he respected in the four years between his arrival upon the literary scene. with the publication of This Side of Paradise in March 1920 and his settling. down to serious work on The Great Gatsby in May 1924 To offer one. familiar example now I ll offer several more much less familiar examples in. a moment in 1922 Edmund Wilson published an essay about Fitzgerald in. which he famously wrote Nor is he in the least stupid but on the contrary. exhilaratingly clever Yet there is a symbolic truth in the idea that. Fitzgerald has been left with a jewel which he doesn t know quite what to do. with For he has been given imagination without intellectual control of it he. has been given the desire for beauty without an aesthetic ideal and he has been. given a gift of expression without very many ideas to express 9 Fitzgerald later. called Wilson his intellectual conscience if so in this review his intellectual. conscience was giving him homework Fitzgerald had three tasks according to. Wilson he needed to demonstrate intellectual control locate an aesthetic ideal. and get some more ideas And if there is any critical consensus today about. what The Great Gatsby demonstrates surely it is its near perfect marriage. of control aesthetics and ideas Less noticed I think is that those ideas are.

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