Pretty Good Gatsby

by Robert Pondiscio
July 15th, 2011

Film critic Roger Ebert is spitting mad at a “retelling” of The Great Gatsby that scrubs away the novel’s poetry and lyricism to produce a simplified version for “intermediate level” readers.  Here’s the conclusion of F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s novel:

“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until 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 æsthetic 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–tomorrow 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.

And here, per Ebert, is what students encounter in a “retold” version published by Macmillan:

“Gatsby had believed in his dream. He had followed it and nearly made it come true.

“Everybody has a dream. And, like Gatsby, we must all follow our dream wherever it takes us.

“Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby’s dream. But he cannot be blamed for that. Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn’t he?”

This is wince-worthy stuff, and Ebert is justified in his full-throated denunciation.  “There is no purpose in “reading” The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it,” he writes.

“Fitzgerald’s novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby’s lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style–in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.”

Over at Flypaper, Fordham’s Kathleen Porter-Magee seconds Ebert’s take, but observes that giving students ”bastardized translations” in place of the original is “common practice in far too many classrooms.”  Particularly, she notes, ”in places where standards and curricula are focused more on teaching abstract reading ‘skills’ than on ensuring that all students read and understand rich literature.”  But Porter-Magee holds out hope that the advent of Common Core State Standards should make classrooms less safe for ham-handed abridgements of  literature.   The new standards, she says, require us to “refocus our time and attention on the importance of reading sufficiently complex texts and using evidence from those texts to guide discussion, writing, activities, etc.”

“To my eye, that is among the most significant take-aways from David Coleman’s and Sue Pimentel’s publishers’ criteria.  That we need to stop feeding our struggling readers dumbed-down versions of complex texts. That we need to stop focusing on empty skills like making “text to self” or “text to world” connections. And we need to stop organizing our curricula around broad and empty themes that may only be tangentially related to the texts students are reading.

“That is to say: we need to refocus literature class on actually reading literature.”

I hope Porter-Magee is right.  But I’m certain Ebert is, even though saying so puts me in an awkward position.  It was just a few months ago that I opined in this space in favor of a sanitized version of Huckleberry Finn that changed 200 uses of the racial epithet “nigger” to slave, and “injun” to Indian.  If softening the language for modern ears means a foundational book, commonly banned, will now be taught and embraced again then (I said at the time) that seems not too high a price to pay  Now I’m no longer so sure.  I still see much value in educated people reading deeply some great works of literature while being at least familiar with the characters, plots and themes of many more.  But Ebert’s denunciation is powerful and persuasive.

“You can’t become literate by being taught illiteracy,” he writes, ”and you can’t read The Great Gatsby without reading it.”

8 Comments »

  1. The state tests don’t care about the beauty of writing. Reading for pleasure and appreciation is gone. No longer will you find conversations about the lyricism of Fitzgrld, or Hemingway’s process in a classroom. Main idea, compare and contrast, fact or opinion, etc. That’s what you’ll find on a test and that’s what we teach.

    Comment by On a clear day — July 15, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

  2. It’s funny, because I read somewhere that Fitzgerald himself said that a writer who aspires to writing something enduring should consider that in future his book would be taught.

    At the same time, I’m not totally against abridgments or adaptations if their purpose includes providing a bridge to the real thing at some future point.

    Comment by Harold — July 15, 2011 @ 11:38 pm

  3. This “easier” version is vile–not only the bland language but the banal conclusions about “success” and “following a dream.”

    Supposedly it is for English language learners–all the worse. Give them this sort of thing, and they will have no idea there’s anything else. They’ll start spouting stuff about “success” and “following a dream” (which are themes of many passages on standardized tests).

    Yes, it can be difficult for English language learners to read novels like The Great Gatsby. There are several ways to work around this. One is to wait until their English is almost up to it (find something easier for beginners). Another is to demand that they take on the challenge (oh, horrors! To have them do something difficult!) Another is to focus on select passages. Another is to use editions (for instance, of Shakespeare plays) that provide ample explanation and definitions–and to take time with difficult passages in class.

    Ebert is right. What matters is how the story is told. Take that away, and you don’t have the literature any more. Yes, you can know “of” works that you haven’t read. But unless you read them, you don’t know them.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 16, 2011 @ 7:09 am

  4. This is just like the NYTimes article from a few years back reviewing an emerging curriculum for Gatsby misrepresenting the novel as a full-throated paean to meritocratic free market enterprise.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/17/education/17gatsby.html

    Fitzgerald’s whole point is that the dream dies, which the translation conveniently omits. Of course it’s important to read Gatsby for lyricism–the source of the pleasure in the skim–but it is arguably even more important to understand that lyricism as a callback to Keats. “Core knowledge” at another level, I suppose. If you make Gatsby into a Horatio Alger parable, and gloss over the sense of loss, you might as well read Franzen’s Freedom, which renders contemporary slang pretty well, instead.

    Can we get this generation on Sister Carrie or Germinal? (I guess English is OK instead of French.)

    Comment by Ms. Miller — July 16, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

  5. Another approach is having students write their own abridgment or paraphrase. In my AP English class, I have students re-write selections from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in an effort to understand McCarthy’s prose style as well as story content. McCarthy, of course, uses deliberate sentence fragments, omits key punctuation marks, etc., for stylistic purposes. What a crime it would be to present an already truncated version of the text to students and deny them the opportunity of struggling with it.

    McCarthy, of course, is still alive, which means he can protect his work from such noxious “retelling.” Perhaps these latter-day Bowdlerizers should try picking on authors who are still around. Funny how they never do.

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — July 16, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

  6. In my years of teaching Gatsby and other classics, I’ve seen a distressing number of English teachers who either don’t like the novel, or don’t understand it’s rhythm and prose, or just “never did get it”. If the teacher doesn’t appreciate the work, nor understand it for what it is, how are they going to teach it to students? (I’ve seen the same reaction to Fahrenheit 451 another, in my opinion, beautifully written book.) It seems the complexity of the language and sentence structure throws a lot of people for a loop, and rather than dig in, re-read, and develop a sense of the rhythm it’s easier to dismiss the book as academically snobbish. (I actually heard another teacher say that once: “Oh, that book is too snobby for me.”)

    Both Gatsby and Fahrenheit are currently assigned as summer reading at my current school because our teachers here are not fans. When I asked them about how they expect the students to get a sense of the beauty of the language and the stunning insights and social commentary in each, they said they just wanted the kids to get the “idea” of the story.

    I can’t do anything about Gatsby (it’s in 11th grade), but I make sure my freshmen read Fahrenheit in class, with me, and with an eye to the language as well as the story.

    Comment by redkudu — July 16, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

  7. There’s a difference between sanitizing certain offensive words and completely rewriting the language of the book. My high school English class read a sanitized version of Huck Finn where the word was written as n—-. Twain’s language was otherwise left unchanged. My teacher gave a spiel at the beginning of the unit about the word being a product of the author’s time and that we didn’t need to see such an ugly & offensive word repeated over and over. I agree with her reasoning.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — July 17, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

  8. What is the point of teaching The Great Gatsby if you’re going to butcher it to the point where its unrecognizable and has been drained of all its magic and poetry? The basic plot isn’t what makes this book a work of art; it’s the language, the lyricism, the metaphors and the portrayal of the characters. If this book is too hard for the students, they should be encouraged to use a resource like Shmoop to make sense of the text or be taught a book that is appropriate for their reading level.

    Comment by Sophia Jackson — September 22, 2011 @ 4:34 am

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