Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Great Books, Great History: The Great Gatsby

If you want to understand a culture, you often try to get a good grasp of some of their stories and myths. When I was growing up, for example, I remember reading myths as we progressed through history. I think the same is true for getting a good grasp of historical context of an era. Some of the literature you read may be nonfiction (for example, Frederick Douglass' autobiography).

The Great Gatsby is probably one of the best examples of American fiction that ties perfectly into what is supposed to be this blog's driving theme: the marriage of literature, myth and history. Gatsby is an enigma; he captures not just Nick's imagination, but the spirit of what we've come to associate with the 1920s. Like Paul Revere's poetic ride, the myth is different than the actual history, but the story itself informs us in ways that a straight history does not.

Part of why I majored in history and English (which was really more of a literature degree) is that to understand history, one needs to understand the culture of the group's history you are trying to study. You wouldn't try and understand Athens and Sparta without reading the mythologized history of Thucydides; the myth version of the Trojan War is just as important as what little we know about Ancient Greece.

Modern history should be approached the same way. "The Great Gatsby" contains bits and pieces about the world that Fitzgerald lived in. Little things that were off handed references, such as the racist book Tom reads or fixing baseball, become an anachronism that puts you in a place and time. They also give us a fiction operating within Fitzgerald's understanding of the world. Let's not be confused: Nick does not, and did not, really exist. But, his opinions and experiences are part of the world of the 1920s, a part that we have direct access to that puts us into the mind and spirit of the age.

World War I is fresh on people's minds (even little Montenegro!); Nick's job is hardly central to the story, but it gives us a flavor of the time. Even little things, like the music, the mint juleps, the auto shop and the mention of the Holy Grail, help put us in a frame of mind of the time. Granted, not everyone shared the same view, and it's probably wrong to claim Fitzgerald was being prophetic, but "The Great Gatsby," as literature, tells the story of America. Not just at the time, either. Look at how we have reacted to the story over the decades. That's good literature; and good literature makes a great companion to understanding history.

Think about what people even 80 years from now would think reading modern fiction. What bits of historical lore,. for example, does Stephen King's "It" have? What about "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay?" With my primary training in history, reading fiction from the pastis sort of a window into the then, much like a diary or journal (or, in 80 years, a blog!)



As an aside, it is a shame that "The Great Gatsby" is usually the only Fitzgerald work people are given to read. I read some of his short stories; not as good, but they help paint a picture of the romanticization of the time. I don't think that's a real word, now that I type it.

Write d20 Ideas
1. Escalating challenges to keep adventures interesting.
2. Why writing comic books is hard
3. Why comedy is harder than drama
4. Making magic magical
5. Post a link to a short story; describe the writing and editing process
6. Playing ethical villains
7. Play a random song on Pandora; write a short fiction piece using lyrics from the song.
8. Making fantasy travel fantastic
9. Unity of purpose (in writing fiction)
10. Unity of purpose (in designing table top adventures)
11. Applying history to your table top adventures
12. Popular history is still history
13. History, as events and actions
14. History, as people and interactions
15. History, as movements and reactions
16. Living History: What Our Memoirs May Look Like
17. Why modern politics is not history (Yet!)
18. Historical perspective: the Internet
19. Why I studied history: True stories are important
20. Why I studied history: Case studies in success and failure

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