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Teaching ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the Age of Trump

How do we talk to students about the American Dream in 2017?

I started teaching The Great Gatsby this week. I live in Singapore, and my students are teenagers from India, Bangladesh, Australia, Estonia, Russia, Bosnia, China, and France. When I asked them why Americans love The Great Gatsby, someone said, “Because it’s so short?”

My students are so beautiful it hurt when they laughed in my face. “Nothing personal,” they seemed to say, “we know you’re American, and we know you love The Great Gatsby, but the idea of an American Dream? That’s just funny.”

I told them optimism was essential to the American character. We watched the Obama “Yes We Can” music video, and one bright young woman from India said Obama was a total babe.

The French student beside her rolled his eyes. “The biggest arms dealer in history?” he said.

A photograph of Jack Kerouac hangs in my classroom. I pointed to On the Road and told my students that Americans were explorers. I had a slide of Neil Armstrong planting a bright flag in the lunar night. A student winced, as if to say: “That’s not exploring — that’s just greedy.”

“Look,” I said, “on one hand, Gatsby is a love story. On the other, it’s a bromance. But really, it’s all about the conflict between a dream and reality — and that’s America.”

“I know you don’t care about the NFL,” I said, but I showed them the 2013 Beats ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, adding: “Before you say it: yes, it’s a commercial. It’s fiction. It’s made by a corporation to sell headphones.”

The French student laughed.

“But this guy, Kaepernick? He’s mixed race, like me,” I said. “He’s adopted. Like my son. Two years after this commercial, he refused to stand for the national anthem because he says America isn’t protecting people like him. And it has cost him his career, his best playing years. He’s the Muhammad Ali of this generation.”

That’s America, too.

“Of course, then our vice president spends a quarter million dollars of taxpayer money to walk out of a football game, to protest black men protesting. That drives me crazy. You think it doesn’t?”

I ached to say: “None of you can possibly hate America like I hate America, and on the whole, I don’t.”

Today I read the news about Washington like Nick Carraway, furious with Gatsby for being such a fool, but desperate for him to pick up the phone.

At the end of The Great Gatsby, Nick moves back to the Midwest. He’s sick of hypocrisy and evasion. He knows Gatsby was a homewrecker and a criminal. He knows Daisy didn’t deserve all the attention. He calls them “careless people.”

They’re so American.

But Daisy suffers, too. She weeps on her wedding night and tries so hard to be something she’s not. Tom Buchanan might be a monster, but he cries for that little dog. And Jay Gatsby really does make something of himself through sheer willpower. He really does believe in people.

I want to tell my students: you know all the lyrics to Hamilton. You want to drive Highway One to Big Sur someday. You like a Chicago-style pizza. But don’t be one of those people who gets drunk at Gatsby’s parties and then refuses to come to the funeral. Don’t turn your back on America. Come and stay. Figure it out. Write The Great Gatsby for your generation. If anyone can make America great again, it’s you.

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