• Gail Wilson Kenna

Nick Carraway's First Line Hooked Me

"In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since."

My own father gave me advice that January of 1963, as the second semester began. Start getting better grades. C's don't cut it. Father had no idea how lucky I was to have C's after the first semester of my sophomore year at USC. But okay, time to get serious. On my new schedule was my first "major" course. The textbook (which I located this morning) measures 10 by 7 inches with 994 thin pages: Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Milton, Dryden, Swift, Pope, Johnson, and Blake. By Blake's name, sadly, is "skip, omit."

The semester had no sooner begun than the USC women's tennis team (Linda Lee Crosby and Gail Wilson) headed to U of Arizona in Tucson for a tournament. Did I take the fat hardcover Masters of British Literature with me? No, I had The Great Gatsby in hand as I boarded a plane at LAX. My literate Occidental College boyfriend had given me the paperback. I look at its cheesy cover now, see a man in the foreground, a 1920s car behind him, the title in bright yellow. Beside my original copy is one I found recently at a used bookstore. This one, "The authorized text," of The Great Gatsby, has the famous Francis Cugat cover. This Spanish artist gave Daisy celestial eyes (reclining nudes in them), red lips below the eyes, and a streaming green tear. Which suggests the green light that burns all night at the end of the Buckanan's East End dock, reflected in the water separating Daisy from Gatsby in the West End.

That early February in Tucson, I could not put the novel down. My housing assignment was in a sorority. Who else was housed there? L.A. State's Billy Jean Moffit (think King) who had been to Wimbledon, already. Her determined dream, to be the best female player in the world, was acutely alive. My dream of tennis fame was in ashes, like the cigarettes that Franny Glass and I smoked that year (see last week's blog on J.D. Salinger). At breakfast that morning in the sorority house, seated across from Billy, I read Gatsby. I took it to the courts and read instead of paying attention to matches. Fitzgerald's novel is all I remember from the tournament.

Thirteen years later I would read a statement from Flannery O'Connor, which helped me see why Gatsby hooked me when Milton, Pope, and other "masters" didn't. O'Connor said to analyze with any discrimination, a reader needs to have enjoyed already. At the tournament in Arizona, I reached page 182 of Gatsby and began again on page one. And back at USC, when I reached the ending a second time, I copied it, word for word. My hand, moving with Fitzgerald's words, might mold his language in me, his prose flowing into my sophomoric mind.

The ending of four paragraphs and 273 words, has Nick Carraway, the narrator, gazing out at the water of Long Island Sound. Here are the three shorter concluding paragraphs:

"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.

In April 1925, the novel was not well-received; and the first printing of 20,00 copies sold slowly. In August of that year, a second printing of 3,000. But when Fitzgerald died fifteen years later, there were unsold copies in the Scribner warehouse. Eventually The Great Gatsby sold in the millions and has never been out of print.

I await the 100th anniversary of this American classic and will read Fitzgerald's novel again. Perhaps Maureen Corrigan, the NPR book critic, will read it in 2025. She once admitted on air that she had given The Great Gatsby fifty readings. At USC in 1963, I gave it three, when I should have been reading Alexander Pope and other famous male British writers. And in a literature major's first course, what grade did I receive? Not one that pleased Father.

Next week: The Quiet Genius of Penelope Fitzgerald

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