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.”