I teach “The Great Gatsby” every year. There are times when I look at books I teach, the whole English literature canon in general, and wonder if the works are worth teaching. Gatsby passes the test every year. Sometimes, I find the problems and dramas of self-important people 100 years ago to be oddly insightful to my life and the world my students live in now.
Every year around this time, a single line in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic gets stuck in my head: “I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade.”
For those of you who only pretended to read “The Great Gatsby” in high school like most people did, the context of this quote is that the narrator, Nick Carraway, suddenly realizes that it is his 30th birthday. He sees the coming decade as a bad thing. Further, he says, “Thirty--the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair.”
Ever since my 40th birthday, whenever I see that line, I wish Nick hadn’t looked at his third decade with such doom and gloom when he had so many good years ahead of him. I can’t blame him, though. Fitzgerald was around 29 when he wrote “The Great Gatsby,” and he died at 44. He never even finished the portentous, menacing road of his fourth decade, and his third decade was filled with the stress to succeed and the pressure to recreate the magic of that particular tome.
My worldview got pretty bleak in my 30s. Somehow, I think I didn’t enjoy them enough, even though I had so much to enjoy. Looking back, some of the greatest events of my life happened when I was in my 30s. It was the time period when I finally felt like I knew what I was doing. Also, I wish I could go back and tell me on my 30th birthday that I would wish for the energy and strength I had through that decade. It sputters out surprisingly quickly when you get to the end of your 30s. I recently had to fill out a “community survey” from the Census Bureau that was less of a survey and more of a lifetime commitment, and I almost selected “Yes” to the question, “Do you have difficulty going up the stairs?”
No, seriously, that survey was far too invasive for me – and I’m not an overly paranoid, anti-government person! There’s no warning when the official notice comes in the mail that you’ll be filling out that stupid form for so long, answering probing questions about your home, income, work, and education, that you might as well clear your calendar for the evening. It was not a quick form, and I think that should be acknowledged up front with more than a “You are required by law to complete this survey.” Nothing makes you feel like your government doesn’t give a darn about you like forcing you to answer a bajillion questions without acknowledging the inconvenience.
That aside, I got stuck on a question that my knee almost answered for me. Since turning 40, my knee will sometimes be fine going up the stairs, but then decide to lock up randomly to make going up the stairs more of a chore. That question made me feel old.
And this month, I will pass the first mile marker in the portentous, menacing road of my fourth decade.
Last year, when I tried to avoid celebrations for the Big 4-0, I told myself that I would avoid the pessimism and general misery of my 30s. I said that I would end my 40s happier than I was when I ended my 30s.
Calling it a “portentous, menacing road” should tell you how that’s going.
But I’m only a year in. Already, a survey of my columns shows that I have been able to engage more in my life than in the world-at-large. These short windows into my mind have become less of a shouting at the void and more of a reflection on my experiences. Doom-filled columns like that AI one are the exception, not the norm like they used to be.
But pessimism at the future does make sense, unfortunately. Even in 1925, when F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “The Great Gatsby,” everyone was convinced that everything was going to end, and that life was worse than it had ever been. They just came out of World War I, the Spanish Flu had killed so many people, and the economy was changing drastically. Some people, like Tom Buchanan, decided to blame minorities for this impending doom. Other people, like Nick, chose to blame all of humanity and its “abortive sorrows and short-winded elations.”
There were positives, though, 100 years ago. It’s a strange example to pick for my positive, but Gatsby handled the world at the time by choosing to pursue a dream, reinventing himself to become what he thought the ideal man would be. Even though that dream killed him, Nick said that “Gatsby turned out all right at the end.” Many people reinvented themselves during the following Great Depression, and the seeds of what we now think of as America came out of the 1920s. Sure, the Gatsby example is ironic, but there is something to be said for chasing your dreams.
A year into my 40s, I don’t know that I have it in me to reinvent myself if I don’t have to, but if the dream I choose to pursue is to be more positive and focus more on the good in my life, I think I’ll turn out all right at the end.
In nine years, I hope I don’t look back at this column as the stupidly optimistic ravings of a younger man.
My knee, on the other hand, might make me check “Yes” on that Census form in 2033.
Rats. There’s that pessimism again.
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