I performed an experiment on myself and I do believe I failed.

March 6, 2009, 5:15 pm

A friend sent me the text of a recent WSJ editorial entitled “Will This Crisis Produce a ‘Gatsby’?” I’ll link to it later—for now I want to recreate my bad-faith reading experience in all its glory.  My first reaction was to the title, even though I know authors never write their own titles.  But this one seemed sufficiently troublesome to warrant criticism.  I wrote:

You would think someone at the WSJ would know that enough about literature to know that The Great Gatsby was published in 1925.  If you grant the title its premises, the question should be “Did Someone Write a ‘Gatsby’ in 2004 and If So Who Was He or She and What Was the Title of It?” But that’s not quite right.

The WSJ‘s infuriating decision to publish the titles of books in quotation marks means that we’re not even sure whether the current crisis will be producing a novel affectionately called Gatsby or a fictional Jew with class insecurities who meets an untimely end.  Because we have umpteen examples of the latter—Curb Your Enthusiasm may even be a Gatsby-in-progress.  Tune in next season to find out!

But even that’s not quite right.  Given that The Great Gatsby preceded the financial crisis by more than half a decade, maybe the author wants to claim that Fitzgerald’s slim volume caused the Great Depression.  In which case we must discover and burn all copies of the mysterious 2004 novel or unwrite the fictional Jew.  Obama said we all needed to chip in.  This is how we, as literary scholars, can do our part!

Then I started reading the text itself.  The mention of Louis Adamic seemed promising, and the rest of the article built what I took to be a fairly solid case until the last few paragraphs:

John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath” made the Joad family’s flight from the dust bowl into an emblem of people coming together to remake their world. A similar image was implicit in the very title of Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor’s documentary book “An American Exodus.” Even works of light entertainment like the massively popular “Gone With the Wind” or John Ford’s landmark Western “Stagecoach” were in keeping with the prevailing message of the times. All these works told of epic journeys in which a group of people overcame destructive competition in their discovery of a common destiny. Each called for Americans to act collectively to remake a democratic society where opportunity would be open to all.

In effect, such declarations helped lay the cultural groundwork for the New Deal, providing the ideological infrastructure for the new governmental institutions created during the ‘30s.

My response?

If there’s one thing I learned writing my dissertation, it’s that you can’t throw words like “ideology” around like that—especially not when you’re claiming that a book published in 1939 laid the groundwork for the policies that were curtailed in 1939 by “Dr. Win-the-War.” If I’d tried to end-around history like that I would’ve—I don’t know what would’ve happened to me, actually, because I’d learned early in my graduate career to avoid situations in which I could be browbeaten by “the fact, man, the irrefragable fact!”

I continued blustering on—scrolling back up the article, snipping the bits that confirmed my claim of sloppy historicism and snarking mightily upon them—until I returned to those final paragraphs and hit the byline:

Sean McCann, a professor of English at Wesleyan University, is the author of “A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government.”

At first I thought I’d been pranked.  Then I realized I’d done it to myself: I’d read the article about as uncharitably as it could be read.  I’d clipped the sections suggestive of causality . . . and ignored all those that spoke directly to the notion that the cultural output of the ‘30s reflected a growing disenchantment with the vision of social mobility that’d been aggressively asserted in the ‘20s.  See Sean’s article for all the details.

Me?  I’m off to go where they send half-cocked purveyors of online opinion when they misbehave: to The Corner.  (Dunce cap not optional.)


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