A combination of my entry from yesterday, a most excellent commentary by Daniel Schorr last night, the holiday today, a drive to Cincinnati, and a piece on NPR in the car about The Great Gatsby made me realize an important truth about America. No matter how messed up we seem, no matter how insane Wall Street, corporations, major Industry, and all the rest seem to have gotten, what makes us who we are and what makes us strong is the vast majority of the population known as middle America.
Where Gatsby comes into this is in the undercurrent behind the New York glitterati in the novel. What I realized in the car on hearing an extended passage is that the crux of the novel isn’t Gatsby’s death. Nick’s final meeting with his father demonstrates that Gatsby is just a casualty of bigger problem. The crux of the novel comes with Nick’s recollection of heading west from the east coast for the holidays. As he gradually recedes from the insanity that is New York into the small whistle stop towns of the Midwest, he seems to be moving away from the superficiality that defines Daisy and Tom and towards the people who make the country real. Gatsby dies not because he tried to flee his mundane roots for the glamor of the big city– a sort of Icarus story– but because the big city is death. Life comes from the “normal” world of middle America, and that is where our strength lies. Gatsby isn’t an ode to New York of the roaring twenties. It’s a condemnation of it and an effort to show that America is at its best in the heartland.
Immediately following 9/11 that was the first thought that crossed my mind: the terrorists had gotten it wrong. They thought that by destroying a financial and political center they would destroy America. But what they failed to realize is that those things aren’t America. America is in the farmhouses I drove past today flying the flag out front. America is in the trucking distribution hub in the middle of nowhere Ohio. America is in the rusted hulks of industry around Cincinnati where new offices and technology spring up like crocuses out of dead leaves.
Sadly, I think what went wrong post-9/11 was that we turned the World Trade Center into a symbol of more than what it was. We should have acknowledged the loss of those who died and then moved on. There should have been no “Ground Zero.” There should only have been all the rest of America, standing together united and saying “three buildings ain’t gonna take us out.”
What makes us who we are is the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Our narrative since 9/11 has only been about fear and desperation. There is no overcoming. There is no return to greatness. There is only reaction and defense. To my mind, Gatsby is the definitive American novel because it gets it right. We are at our worst when we sacrifice others for personal, immediate gains. We are at our best when we come together to do more than we could by ourselves.