The Classic Is Dead, Long Live Gatsby

He is American, old-school American, cut from the cloth of the robber barons and cutthroat captains of industry, the gamblers and the sometimes killers who did more than beg, borrow and steal to get ahead and who weren’t losing any sleep over their actio

It has likely been close to 30 years since I first read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and I was immediately taken with the story. 

I think, back then, I was intrigued right away with the reference by the golfer Jordan Baker to her time in Asheville, N.C. Outside of hometown novelist Thomas Wolfe, I hadn’t really heard anyone in literature or film mention Asheville, so there was that mix of pride and prejudice that only someone from a place like that can have. At the time, Asheville wasn’t much to speak of beyond its allure as a seasonal tourist spot.

But there it was in The Great Gatsby. Asheville provided an opening for me to slip inside the story, to wander around amongst all of the empty glitz and glamour, the flash and fanfare of the Jazz Age, the moralizing and mortality. I wonder about the state of movies and television today, with so many remakes and reboots of classic tales, all so eager to modernize what, in most cases, was already a universal theme or idea. 

Dressing things up in pristinely digitized zeroes and contemporary beats and measures only ends up dropping an anchor on these current iterations, marking them as artifacts from this day and age, thus guaranteeing that another version will have to be made some time in the future, for that generation.

Why the need to erase the very notion of “the classic” from our culture and vocabulary?

This is not the question I’m interested in answering here. I didn’t even mean to pose it, not exactly. I suppose I couldn’t resist the rising force of the argument as it took form and shape. Ignore it, please.

I want instead to focus on what we have before us, Baz Luhrmann’s new take on The Great Gatsby, for our focus is not to wonder why. Let’s just do some critical thinking about this project. Do or die. Ride or die, you know how it is.

I have spent the last few years facilitating classes at Lighthouse Youth Crisis Center (along with Riverview East Academy from time to time), discussing my favorites with high school students. 

I tell them about the music, books and films that have inspired me, taught me important lessons about myself and the world, led me down the path that landed me before them. I can recite, like chapter and verse from the Gospel According to tt, the names of those significant works that expanded my critical consciousness and/or the teachers that guided me, indulging my flights of fancy. These sessions that I teach now are my way of paying it forward.

I see students who, for a variety of reasons, are less engaged and motivated maybe than I was at their ages, but no less able to be tuned in and turned on by “the classics.” We just need to know how to make them relevant, to help modern readers to see themselves and their world in those words. 

So, who is Jay Gatsby and why should a kid today care about him?

I tell my classes that Gatsby is the quintessential poor kid, the striver on skid row who dreams of having money and influence, enough to woo his long-lost love, the girl he couldn’t have because he didn’t have … and Gatsby is willing to do whatever it takes to make it. He’s a “G” (that sounds so old school, but it is what it is). 

He is American, old-school American, cut from the cloth of the robber barons and cutthroat captains of industry, the gamblers and the sometimes killers who did more than beg, borrow and steal to get ahead and who weren’t losing any sleep over their actions — nobody’s sleepless in the great American past.

“Sound familiar?” I ask them. And, usually, there’s a flicker or two of recognition in their eyes. This old American myth sounds like a ghetto epic, a Hip-Hop myth in which they can plug the name of their favorite rapper or producer. Luhrmann makes it even easier with his 3D orgiastic extravaganza, having hooked up with Jay-Z, the modern maestro of the Gatsbian ghetto myth. Who else can claim so much of the greatness of Fitzgerald’s fiction as fact?

It will be quite an experience for me to attend the preview screening of The Great Gatsby with a group from Lighthouse (part of my Watch Write Now after school program). I’m not sure how attentive I will be to the film as a critic/audience member. It strikes me that my focus will be on those students and questions about what they will take away from the film. Will they end up reading and writing their own American stories based on the blueprint laid down by Luhrmann and Shawn Carter?   

Fitzgerald somehow (however imperfectly) gave us more than that, don’t you think?

CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: [email protected]

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