Well, there’s a ton of them, frankly. But this one in particular.
Gatsby is a book filled to bursting with phrases and images that make your heart stop, that force you to pause, close your eyes, and breathe for a few seconds before you can carry on with the story. Bits and pieces of prose that are wondrous in their perfection.
And lots of the people I’ve talked to about it tell me about how it’s a book about extravagance, about the excesses of the Jazz Age, about the inevitable fall from grace of a wild, reckless generation.
Other, equally thoughtful readers point out its insistence on the tragic importance of first love, of dreams, fantasies, and grasping after something ideal and impossible.
And before I reread it last Thursday night, I might have agreed with them all.
But I had forgotten this one bit, towards the end, that crystallizes for me what the whole, remarkable story is really all about. At least, for me. Right now.
One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o’clock of a December evening, with a few Chicago friends, already caught up into their own holiday gaieties, to bid them a hasty good-by. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-That’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations: Are you going to the Ordways’? the Herseys’? the Schultzes’? and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.
When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner though the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.
For me, Gatsby’s not about a girl, or about a mysterious, vaguely sinister parvenu who dreams of possessing her. It’s not even about the incredible carelessness of the rich, those charming creatures who are able to retreat into their money and let other people clean up their messes.
Of course it is about those things. It’s a book that is about a lot of important things, which is why it’s been considered the epitome of the great American novel by so many, and for so long.
So like any great work, it calls out in each reader something important about themselves. Something that they knew about their own hearts, but hadn’t quite yet been able to articulate. Or even understand.
I read that passage and I realized that that sense of belonging to a particular place, of having an origin and a sense of home in a place that the world doesn’t credit much, is really what I’m trying to get at in a lot of my writing. It’s why so many of my own stories are set in the past, occasionally in my past, taking as their theme some meaningless event in my youth or in the overlooked and obscure history of my own personal real or imagined half-acre of this world.
It’s why so many of my posts begin, or could begin, with some variation on the words, In my younger and more vulnerable years…
And yeah, part of it is because we’re all of us, inevitably, borne ceaselessly into the past.
But part of it also is that there’s real meaning to be found there, that the forms and patterns of the past — our own personal pasts and the wider historical canvas — give form and pattern to our lives today.
Because everybody knows what the home of their childhood smells like, what unique blend of scent and association will greet them with either delight or dismay when they first roll down the car window back in their old hometown. That the snow that falls in whatever glittering city or grungy town they now call home is somehow different than the snow they grew up with. That this snow is indescribably less than the Platonic ideal of snow, which is only to be found within a certain set of county lines.
For those of you who grew up outside of the frozen north, I have no doubts that there is an equivalent. The shape of the trees. The shadow of the leaves. Even the rain falls differently in your own home town.
And I realize that I am an outlier. That most people don’t set out for college and then professional life, only to return home after little more than a decade. A decade of both successes and failures, but one that cascaded in increasing insistence on the wrongness of the snow in that other town in which we lived, and on the limited number of winters we would be granted to raise our heads to the sky and let the right kind of snowflakes dissolve silently on our lips.
But I did come back, and I found myself waiting for me here. As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s unnerving to come back to your old hometown and realize that earlier versions of you are lurking around every corner, waiting breathlessly behind each bush, ready to ambush you with all the old stories that you’d thought you’d left behind.
Like Easter eggs, I pick them up and put them in my basket.
I know I will leave some behind. Some will remain too well hidden, or will be stolen by birds.
But on the whole, this has been the most rewarding experience of my life. Coming home. Finding myself in curious corners. Crooning softly to younger versions of me who have lain crouching, hidden, neglected and ashamed while I went off to my own West Egg and ran with the fast crowd.
I read that passage and realized that’s what I’ve been doing. And then finally, a part of me that has been struggling hard with what kind of writing I really want to do in this world relaxed.
Flexed its fingers. Nodded. And got back to work.
Image by Chicago Rail Head