Category: Literature

The Great Gatsby: A Secular Saint?

by Zach Meckley

“We can die by it, if not live by love

…And by these hymns, all shall approve

Us Canoniz’d for Love:”

– John Donne

The Great Gatsby is indubitably a work indispensable in a full experience of American literature. Well established as a stylistic masterpiece, a rich portrayal of the Roaring ‘20s, and a dramatically magnificent story, this work is stolidly shelved among the foremost writings in our national heritage. Its beautiful prose, historical vividness, and emotional poignancy entitle F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus to the highest ranks of literary genius our nation can lay claim to.

Such an evaluation is no petty encomium; nevertheless it is not enough. This masterpiece, though perhaps not entitled to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dante’s Inferno or Homer’s epics, is worthy of some place among the Great Books. Obviously, this audacious classification must be justified by the discernible presence of the qualities which all truly great works of literature possess in some eminent way. In this essay, two essential properties of the most significant books mankind has to treasure will admit The Great Gatsby into the canon of Great Books. These are firstly: the presence in a work of themes or questions universal to human experience, transcending particular political, social, and economic boundaries as well as the confines of any particular time, and secondly: a portrayal of these themes and questions that adds something to the continuous human conversation about them (referred to as the “Great Conversation” by Mortimer J. Adler).

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The Salvation of Faust

by Monica Montanaro

Goethe’s Faust, the original story of a man’s wager with Hell, ends surprisingly.  The circumstances of Faust’s death near the end of the play are such that the devil seems to have won his soul, even in the devil’s own estimation; yet Faust is incontestably saved.  Either Heaven intervenes to save Faust against the terms of his own wager, then, or else he truly wins the wager.  A careful reading of the play shows that Faust does win his wager most spectacularly.  Through the story of Faust’s life, moreover, Goethe expresses an unusual idea about the fulfillment of man’s life on earth, which is in a certain way the fulfillment of his purpose as a man.  Goethe objects to the idea that man, a partially material creature who lives out his existence in material creation, must seek happiness and the fulfillment of his life in something sterile and distinct from material creation.  He cannot be satisfied with worldly things, but neither will he ever be able to rest, during this life, in something that causes him to ignore his earthly existence.  Rather, man’s fulfillment in this life consists of actions of a man as man, a creature essentially both soul and body.  This is not an absolute rest, but a resting sort of striving, which, in Goethe’s mind, corresponds more to the nature of man as he exists in this life than the absolute rest of a spirit does.  While Goethe’s idea of the end of man does not entirely correspond to the classical or to the Christian idea, it brings to light certain little-noticed aspects of that idea with extraordinary force.  Nevertheless, it must be qualified carefully.

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Battle Cry

by Julia Kraus

I began reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother with more trepidation than real interest. Published in early 2011 by Amy Chua, the eponymous mother of the title, the book is a terrifyingly non-fictional account of Chua’s experiences raising her American daughters in the traditional Chinese manner. The book garnered reams of shocked press, some boldly complementary, others tearfully indignant that such a woman be allowed to continue in existence.

To clarify, the “traditional Chinese manner” of which Chua speaks is summed up nicely within the first two pages:

Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do: attend a sleepover, have a playdate, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than piano or violin, and not play the piano or violin.

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