During the one writing class I took as an adult, our professor instructed us to read and analyze The Great Gatsby as if it were a manuscript we had just been handed by our classmates. In other words, take the novel down off the shelf where canonized works are preserved and see it for what it was – a story written by a human being, a professional writer, who did not know at the time he had penned The Great American Novel. That was the plan anyway, but what followed was two weeks of serialized extolling of Fitzgerald’s literary perfection. Admittedly, I wasn’t entirely opposed to this. I quite liked the book on a number of levels, and I found the concept of literary perfection appealing. After all, if the reading world could agree that Fitzgerald had been perfect – for one book at least – why not Kenower? What a tempting destination, Perfection. There and there alone could I stand protected from the arrows of criticism, whose repeated sting, I was certain, had forced me into a bunker of my own design.
This class was my first tentative step out of that bunker. I suppose it was for this reason I found myself bristling during one of our Gatsby sessions. We had come to the scene where Gatsby is showing Daisy and Nick around his mansion and begins showering them with his silken, multi-colored shirts. As the shirts rain down on Daisy, she clutches at one and says breathlessly, “They’re just so beautiful.”
This moment posed a problem for the class. Daisy’s remarks seemed a bit melodramatic and out of sync with the rest of the scene. The instructor and my classmates began floating theories explaining why Daisy’s remarks were as perfect as the rest of the book. It was at this time that I recalled our supposed purpose in reading Gatsby. I raised my hand to join the discussion.
“Maybe,” I offered, “it was a just a choice he made that really didn’t work but that he and Perkins left in because at the time they thought it did work.”
My remark was met with silence from my classmates and a confused stare from my instructor. I let the matter drop. Though I never took a poll, I would have bet we were a devoutly secular bunch in that class. Yet we weren’t. We had traded in one religion and its pantheon of saints for another. It wasn’t until that moment that I understood how accidental and benign heresy was. Sometimes without intending to you slip and perceive your own divinity through the cracks of our necessarily imperfect creations.
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