Sometimes I am the most illiterate English major you are ever likely to meet. Okay, really none of that sentence is correct, but it’s dramatic, don’t you think? The fact that I am typing these entries (and relying far more heavily on spell-check than the old days), suggests I am not illiterate. But I am sometimes not well-read. Well, that’s not correct, either. Let’s just say that for an English major, there are many classics I have yet to set eyeballs on.
At the University of Colorado in the early ’80s, an English major could steer into one of three tracks, and I went with Track C, which focused on creative writing over literary reading. And for my reading classes, I took the roads less traveled: folklore, where I read Zora Neale Hurston, and women writers, with exposure to Kate Chopin and her radical feminist notions. Women might be happier without husbands? Ha!
[As an adjunct at Western Then State, I used to assign her “Story of an Hour,” less than three pages long. About half of each of my basic writing classes misread it completely and told me how happy the woman was that her husband hadn’t died after all. Sigh.]
I did take one class, from a rather arrogant graduate student who was as full of Thoreau as he was of himself, on the American masters. He didn’t like any of the insights I offered in any of my papers, and he completely missed the dripping sarcasm in my paper on Thoreau, which was the only ‘A’ he gave me. Thoreau may have said brilliant things, but I have a lot of trouble with his hypocrisy. It’s very easy to say one should be civilly disobedient when your friend Ralph Waldo is going to bail you out after a single night in jail, and to live “simply” when your friends and wealthy father are picking up the tab.
In a different class, I read The Great Gatsby. Without having watched the Leonardo DiCpario movie, and not having picked it up since college, here is what I remember of this American classic:
The pages of the books in Gatsby’s library were not cut. Apparently in the ’20s, the publisher didn’t bother to cut the signatures open — the reader had to do that him or herself. Since none of Gatsby’s books had pages that opened, it was clear he bought them just for show. It was emblematic of the shallowness of his existence, I was told by my teacher. But that still seems like a lot of work, to have to read with a box cutter in hand.
There’s a character named T.J. Ecklenburg in the book. That’s all I remember about him. For the class, I had to read a certain number of literary criticism essays, and I selected one on Gatsby. The critic (Kenneth Tynan: “A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car”) maintained that T.J. Ecklenburg represented Thomas Jefferson. It was clear, he wrote, because of the “T.J.” — get it? — and because Eck-len-burg has the same number of syllables and cadence as Jeff-er-son. “So does Liv-er-more,” I pointed out in my critique of the critic, but this was the teacher who never read any of the papers he assigned, so I doubt he witnessed my wit.
And I remember the last line. If you asked me, as you might at some random point, “TL, what it the best last line in literature?” I would tell you it comes from Gatsby: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
It’s very lyrical, isn’t it? And eloquent. And mysterious. I still feel a tug of hidden meaning, asking more of me than just a surface reading.
In Sunday’s Washington Post, “Book World” critic Ron Charles took it upon himself to present the 23 best ending lines in fiction, and yes, Gatsby made the cut (even if he wasn’t cutting the pages in his books). It’s a well-done article, with just the right amount of information about each book (because 23 can be long, and I’m still reading my way through the list).
Mr. Charles does mention that Gatsby was not well-received in its time, and hundreds of copies of the second printing languished in the publisher’s warehouse. This seems to happen: Herman Melville was frustrated (or so I was told by Laura Anderson, the Crested Butte reporter with whom I shared many nights at school board meetings) by the success in his day of popular women writers; he didn’t gain any traction until well after his death. (And we ultimately dispensed so thoroughly with those women that we probably can’t recall a single name.)
I personally didn’t receive The Great Gatsby well: I’ve never felt compelled to re-read it, nor am I sad I can’t remember much of it. But that lovely, rather mournful last line has always stuck with me (and me barely able to memorize any passages).
The one sport I ever showed any proficiency in, or particularly enjoyed, was rafting, and maybe that’s why F. Scott’s (we’re on a first-initial basis) line speaks so loudly to me. Rivers, and water, make for great metaphors, but the river in and of itself is a mighty force, and paddling against the current is seriously hard work (although I always imagine a rowboat when visualizing that last line).
I don’t know how hard I’m beating against the current these days, but it feels like in these posts that I am, ceaselessly, borne back into the past. (Maybe it feels that way to you, too.) If you’d like me to quote another favorite, from the pen of J. Michael Straczynski (I only report on people with initials for first names): “The future isn’t what it used to be.”
Some of you have already found your way to the “comments” section of this blog; this is my invite to all of you today: If you have a favorite literary line, end of a book or not, you ought to share it with the rest of us. Then, even if we haven’t read the rest of the book, we can casually drop these lines at all our cocktail parties, and everyone will assume we are far more versed in the literary arts than we might really be. It’s worked for this illiterate English major for years. ; )