“That’s my middle-west”: Nick Carraway’s Christmas Memories

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One of my all time favorite passages from The Great Gatsby concerns Christmas and the Midwest. The passage comes towards the end of the novel as Nick Carraway is describing the aftermath of Gatsby’s murder and preparing to leave New York. There’s something about this passage that captures that exhilaration of returning home for the holidays: the crisp winter air, the bustling pace of travel, the hurry through train stations or airports to family and friends at the journey’s end.

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Fitzgerald is, understandably, often thought of in connection with the eastern United States. His long association with New York City and surrounding areas, his years at Princeton, and the settings of many of his novels and stories reflect his time in New York and New Jersey. He is also, through his own life and the lives of his characters, associated with Europe, Hollywood, Baltimore, and various parts of the American south—his wife Zelda was an Alabama native. But Fitzgerald was a Midwesterner, born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was at his family home in St. Paul that Fitzgerald composed the novel that propelled him into the spotlight: This Side of Paradise (1920). The Midwest figures in an important symbolic sense in The Great Gatsby as a land of enduring promise, the “dark fields of the republic” that extend the promise of the new green world beheld by the Dutch sailors on the eastern Atlantic coast in the novel’s famous conclusion.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1921.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1921.

The Christmas passage appears after Carraway describes the pathetic visit of Gatsby’s father and Gatsby’s funeral. Shortly after his reminiscence of returning home for Christmas, Carraway describes his breakup with Jordan Baker. As many have noted before, the passage of time and the knowledge that comes with it are central to the novel. The book is rich in physical description, and the seasons are important. Much of the novel occurs during the course of a summer, but it is in the autumn that Gatsby is killed, and the world he created on his estate, which had already begun to collapse in late summer, is gone for good. Carraway and Gatsby’s father rummaging through the house’s empty rooms underscores the theme of death and decay.

This passage about travel at Christmas time took on renewed force for me recently as I  perused a cultural history of A Christmas Carol titled The Lives & Times of Ebenezer Scrooge by a scholar named Paul Davis. At one point Davis mentions an essay Dickens wrote entitled “What Christmas Is As We Grow Older.” According to Davis’ paraphrase of part of Dickens’ essay, “To the child Christmas is immediate and complete, and for the youthful lover it is entwined with visions and hopes for the future. But for the adult at midlife, it becomes a time to remember the dead.”

1920s Christmas card (image credit: ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

1920s Christmas card (image credit: ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

Carraway’s Christmas memories are from his own time of “the youthful lover,” which echoes the broader story here of the two youthful lovers reunited years later: Daisy and Gatsby. But Nick is transitioning towards a midlife stage, if not within the chronological parameters which define midlife today, then at least in the sense of growing into wisdom and being tempered by life’s passages. He is remembering his college days–the days before his service in World War One, which themselves carry the symbolic weight of an earlier America that will vanish forever with war, Prohibition, and Jazz Age excess–and his witnessing of the sad series of events linking his own life with that of Tom, Daisy, Jordan, Gatsby, and George and Myrtle Wilson.

When Carraway parts with Jordan, he tells her, after she mentions the accident that killed Buchanan’s mistress, “I’m thirty. I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.” This isn’t the first time in the novel Carraway mentions turning thirty, which is significant to him. He knows that time is passing. The novel’s events have impressed upon him the ugly turns life can take, and how dreams can die hard. Dickens writes that on Christmas, for the adult at midlife, “Of all the days in the year, we will turn our faces towards that City of the Dead on Christmas Day, and from its silent hosts bring those we loved, among us.”

Robert Redford as The Great Gatsby.

Robert Redford as The Great Gatsby.

In the midst of autumn, as he prepares to return to the Midwest, Carraway calls to mind Christmas past—the time when the world seemed full of promise. Now he will return to the region of his youth, carrying with him the memories of those he knew who bore that promise as well. It seems certain that Christmas times of years to come will evoke the dead, among them Gatsby and George and Myrtle Wilson, as well as the dreams that have died.

The east itself has become a City of the Dead for Nick Carraway. He describes a dream shortly after his Christmas passage that symbolizes the loss and corruption of the world he has inhabited, associated for him with the eastern United States, but representing more broadly those forces in life that strangle dreams and defeat aspirations. He dreams of a group of men carrying a drunken woman’s body on a stretcher. The men are in evening dress, as they might have been at one of Gatsby’s parties. The woman’s hand dangles over the side of the stretcher. The hand “sparkles cold with jewels.” They walk up to a house and knock on a door, but it is not the woman’s house: “Gravely the men turn in at a house—the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.” This is a world where any sense of human community is missing. There is no home for anyone. The implication seems to be that the men will carry the woman in vain for years, knocking at each door only to be turned away.

F. Scott Fitzgerald with his wife Zelda and their daughter Scottie in Paris: Christmas, 1925. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

F. Scott Fitzgerald with his wife Zelda and their daughter Scottie in Paris: Christmas, 1925. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

At the end of his Christmas reflection, Carraway says “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.” This is essentially a roll call of the dead—Gatsby literally so, but the others, with the exception of Nick, spiritually dead, blighted by the world in which they live and the choices they have made. But I find myself wondering what lessons might be in store for Nick Carraway. He is a fictional character, but when a great book like Gatsby gets into our blood and bones we find these people about as alive as any standing next to us in the grocery store check-out line. Carraway is often held up as a classic example of the unreliable narrator, and I find myself wondering if his deepest lessons are yet to come–that this is only the beginning of his wisdom. Gatsby’s corruption began years ago, deep in Carraway’s beloved middle west along the shores of Lake Superior as Gatsby drifted from one woman and one job to another. When Gatsby rows out to Dan Cody’s yacht, he begins his journey on the route that will take him to his lonely death in a swimming pool far from midwestern waters.

Scott Fitzgerald

Scott Fitzgerald

Here is the passage from The Great Gatsby:

“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 gayeties to bid them a hasty goodbye. 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 Hersheys’? 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.

Christmas issue of the old Life Magazine (Image credit: Pinterest)

Christmas issue of the old Life Magazine (Image credit: Pinterest)

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 deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name.”

 

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

The Great Gatsby (The Authorized Text). With notes and preface by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Scribner Paperback Edition, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1925, 1995.

The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge by Paul Davis. Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1990.

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Born on January 6: Wright Morris and Carl Sandburg

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Wright Morris as a young man: "Self-Portrait, The Home Place, Near Norfolk, Nebraska, 1947." Image credit: Museum of Nebraska Art.

Wright Morris as a young man: “Self-Portrait, The Home Place, Near Norfolk, Nebraska, 1947.” Image credit: Museum of Nebraska Art.

Two important writers from the Midwest were born on January 6: Carl Sandburg in 1878 and Wright Morris in 1910. Since Morris is the lesser known of the two, I will start with him.

Wright Morris was born in Central City, Nebraska. His mother died within a week of his birth. His father was a traveling salesman, and the boy was often left in the care of relatives while his father was on the road. Morris spent a number of years in small Nebraska towns, then in Omaha and Chicago. He attended Pomona College in California, than traveled in Europe, and was later a professor at San Francisco State University. In addition to his highly regarded novels, Morris wrote a memoir, Will’s Boy (1981), about life with his father in the nineteen-tens and twenties, along with literary and social criticism and books that were combinations of photos and text. He is  greatly respected as a photographer, famous for his striking black and white photographs, particularly of rural Midwestern scenes in the 1940s. Many of the photos are of objects, rooms, buildings, and landscapes. His second novel, The Home Place (1948) is a novel in photo-text form.

Wright Morris (Image credit: NNDB).

Wright Morris (Image credit: NNDB).

Morris has always been known as a writer’s writer, a novelist whose works never found a wide audience but never lacked admirers. His lack of recognition may stem from the fact that many of his books are light on plot in the conventional sense, and often focus on the interior lives of characters and include meditation on past experiences. Many of them concern people searching for meaning or love, or struggling with the frustrations of modern life. The search for some kind of liberation or transcendence is central to his work, as are separations or reconciliations among people. Some of his early novels concern characters trying to come to terms with the past, and considerable importance is placed in these earlier novels on the power of everyday objects to evoke a bygone world.

"Grain Elevator and Lamp Post, Nebraska, 1940." Photo by Wright Morris. (Image credit: Museum of Nebraska Art).

“Grain Elevator and Lamp Post, Nebraska, 1940.” Photo by Wright Morris. (Image credit: Museum of Nebraska Art).

Seven of Morris’s novels have some kind of connection with the cultural and physical Midwestern landscape. For example, Ceremony In Lone Tree (1960), treats family members assembling in a Nebraska ghost town for a ninetieth birthday celebration and the isolation that separates them from one another. Through examination of the characters and their past and present lives, Morris probes a number of important topics, including America’s mythic view of the west and the violence underlying American life—a local boy goes on a shooting rampage reminiscent of Nebraskan serial killer Charlie Starkweather, and another boy runs over two people with his car.

Some of the characters appeared in an earlier novel, The Field of Vision, which won the National Book Award in 1957. This novel concerns a group of Americans in Mexico who attend a bullfight. The characters reflect on important previous experiences in their lives, and Morris raises questions about Midwestern and American values. Perhaps we could say one overarching theme of Morris’s is the relentless examination of American identity.

Charlie Starkweather

Charlie Starkweather

One of his last and best-known works is Plains Song For Female Voices, which won the National Book Award in 1981. This spare but powerful work tells the story of three generations of Nebraskan women from pioneer times through the late twentieth century.

Morris also wrote a number of novels with settings ranging from California and the eastern U.S. to Europe and Acapulco. His novel One Day concerns the reactions of a group of people in a small town near San Francisco to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In Orbit concerns the effect on a college town’s residents after a young criminal creates mayhem in their community. Man and Boy (1952) deals with the structure of the American family as matriarchy and features one of the most frightening and devouring mothers ever to appear in an American novel. Fire Sermon (1971) examines generational conflict in the story of an elderly man and his nephew traveling in the company of a hippie couple in the America of the late 1960s.

Morris wrote nearly forty books. His work is rich, complex, and subtle. I hope readers may be inspired to take a look at this writer whose work has still not received its due. He died on April 25, 1998.

Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg stands in sharp contrast to Morris. The famous poet and Lincoln biographer was widely celebrated in his lifetime. Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois in 1878, the son of Swedish immigrant parents. He left school at the age of thirteen, held a variety of jobs and wandered America as a hobo before doing a stint in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War. Returning home he entered Lombard College, which he attended for a number of years without taking a degree. He later became a newspaper reporter and also worked for the Social Democratic Party in Milwaukee, including serving for a time as secretary to Milwaukee’s Socialist mayor, Emil Seidel.

Sandburg moved to Chicago in 1912 and worked for several publications in the city, eventually joining the Chicago Daily News in 1917. He served on the paper through 1932. Although Sandburg had published poetry privately in 1904, it was in 1914 in Chicago that Sandburg published work that garnered attention. Harriet Monroe had established Poetry: A Magazine of Verse that year (https://buckeyemuse.wordpress.com/2014/12/23/happy-birthday-to-harriet-monroe-founder-of-poetry-a-magazine-of-verse/), and included among the early groundbreaking verse published in the journal was Sandburg’s famous poem “Chicago.” In 1916, Sandburg published his first volume of poetry: Chicago Poems. This book included famous early poems of his such as “Fog,” “Grass,” and “Nocturne in a Deserted Brickyard.”

Poetry_cover1

Other famous Sandburg volumes followed: Cornhuskers (1918), Smoke and Steel (1920), Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922), Good Morning, America (1928), and The People, Yes (1936). Sandburg also wrote stories for children, a novel called Remembrance Rock (1948), and a volume of autobiography called Always The Young Strangers (1953). Sandburg also played the guitar and liked to perform ballads and folk songs, and published a collection of American ballads and folk songs in 1927 in a book entitled  American Songbag.

"Rootabaga Stories"--Sandburg's stories for children.

“Rootabaga Stories”–Sandburg’s stories for children.

In addition, Sandburg is well known as a biographer of Lincoln. His first two volumes of biography—Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years— were published in 1926. Abraham Lincoln: The War Years was published in four volumes in 1939 and received the Pulitzer Prize for History. Sandburg also received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry  in 1919 for Cornhuskers and in 1951 for his Collected Poems.

Carl Sandburg died on July 22, 1967 in Flat Rock, North Carolina.

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

The Oxford Companion To American Literature, Fifth Edition. James D. Hart. Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford, 1983.

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Volume One: The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Entry on Wright Morris by Joseph J. Wydeven. Entry on Carl Sandburg by Philip A. Greasley.

 

Remembering Thomas Berger

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Thomas Berger (photo credit: wsu-ohioana authors).

Thomas Berger (photo credit: wsu-ohioana authors).

The distinguished postwar American novelist Thomas Berger died on July 13, 2014 in Nyack, New York. As this was a great loss for American letters in the past year, I wanted to post an entry on this very unique and gifted writer, who will be featured more in the future on this blog.

Berger was a native of Lockland, Ohio, an old mill town not far from the city limits of Cincinnati. He was born on July 20, 1924. He attended the Lockland schools and later Miami University in Oxford, Ohio before enlisting in the U.S. Army and serving in the Medical Corps during World War II. Following the war, he attended the University of Cincinnati, graduating with honors, and pursued graduate studies at Columbia. He left grad school and instead took jobs as a librarian, summary writer for the New York Times Index and later as a freelance copy editor while he wrote.

His first novel was Crazy In Berlin, published in 1958, the first of four novels featuring Carlos Reinhart, an Everyman stumbling through the twentieth century. But what eventually put Berger on the map was his 1964 novel Little Big Man, later adapted for the screen in 1970 in a film directed by Arthur Penn and starring Dustin Hoffman. The book had been in a kind of limbo since publication, but the film increased interest in the novel and helped bring greater attention to Berger. It is safe to say this book is a major work of postwar American literature. It’s protagonist, Jack Crabb, is a 111-year old frontiersman telling his story to a “man of letters.” Crabb, who claims to be the only survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, claims all kinds of adventures in the old west, and has crossed paths with or known many of its major figures, such as George Custer and Wild Bill Hickok.

There are questions raised in the book as to whether Crabb’s narrative is genuine, and the book has also been seen as an examination of American myth and history, a commentary of the art of storytelling, and a send-up on American literary treatments of the west. It was followed many years later by a sequel: The Return of Little Big Man (1999).

Image credit: IMDB).

Image credit: IMDB.

Berger wrote a total of twenty-three novels. One of the hallmarks of his work is the use of genre. Many of his novels take the form of a particular genre—the police procedural, private eye pulp fiction, Arthurian legend, survival narrative, science fiction—but often challenge genre conventions as the narrative unfolds and Berger’s unique fictional universe takes shape. Many of his novels concern issues of freedom, authority, morality, and how our use of language shapes our perceptions of reality.

Another concern of Berger’s is the darkness underlying everyday relationships among people. Suburban existence is a hotbed of paranoia, frustration, and anarchy. For example, in his 1980 novel Neighbors, made into a movie with John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, a dull middle class businessman finds his life shaken up with the arrival of new neighbors, and finds himself questioning everything around him, including the behavior of his wife and daughter.

Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi in the 1981 film version of "Neighbors."

Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi in the 1981 film version of “Neighbors.”

Berger wrote two novels set in the Midwest of the 1930s, which show his skill at capturing the vernacular and feel of the times while also exploring his themes of conflict and alienation. An argument over an unlit cigar near a section of varnish in a hardware store sets off conflicts in a community in his novel The Feud (1983). In his 1975 novel Sneaky People, a used car salesman with a mistress hires another man to kill his wife. Although these novels have comic elements, Berger always, with good reason, resisted the label of “comic novelist.” Serious elements and themes, especially moral decisions, run throughout his work.

Berger at age fifty.

Berger at age fifty.

In addition to his novels, Berger wrote four plays, some short fiction, and was for a brief time a film columnist for Esquire in the early 1970s. He is survived by his wife, the artist Jeanne Redpath Berger. The couple had no children.

Some day in the future, when we can get a better handle on the American literary history of the twentieth century, I think we will see more clearly what a lot of writers, critics, and devoted readers have been saying for decades: Berger is one of the towering major novelists of postwar America.

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

Understanding Thomas Berger by Brooks Landon. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 2009.

New York Times obituary for Thomas Berger by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and William McDonald, July 21, 2014.