Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
Scene4 Magazine: Life Among The Heffalumps with Kathi Wolfe

Gatsby Lives: Green Light Dreams

When I was six years old in the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey, Manhattan, with its big buildings, bright lights and crowded streets, seemed as far away as the moon.  “New York is the city of champagne and dreams,” my mother would say, and then tell me to talk to my father, when I’d ask what she meant.

One day, my Mom told me, that her dream had come true: she and my Dad were going to New York.  They were going to be contestants on a TV quiz show called “Who Do You Trust?”. 

This was in the 1950's when TV was young–long before children were media-savvy tots, and I wasn’t a sophisticated child. Instead of being excited that my parents would be on TV, I feared that they would get stuck in the box.  (Our TV at the time was black and white with a small screen.)

My folks, they told me later, worried that they would look like country hicks more than they did about giving the right answers.

I’m told that they came across as witty and charming.  My parents, when young, before the onset of illness and other troubles, were a bit like Laura and Rob in the “Dick Van Dyke” show.  They chatted easily with Johnny Carson, the program’s host.

But, charm didn’t fetch them any prizes.

On the show, husbands trusted their wives to correctly answer the quiz questions.  My father wasn’t worried when Carson asked my mother who wrote “The Great Gatsby,” he said years later.  “Your mother loved to read and I was sure she had that one in the bag,” he told me.

Except she didn’t.  Nervous before the cameras, my mom said that Ernest Hemingway wrote “The Great Gatsby.”  (F. Scott Fitzgerald was the author of the novel.)

That wrong answer haunted her for the rest of her life.  “Of course, I’d read it.  Who doesn’t love that book?” she’d say, “if only I could go back and do it over again.”

“The Great Gatsby” is a seminal American novel -- brimming with romance, charm, menace and melancholy -- and every reader has his or her own personal connection with Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.

From April 24 to May 24, Washington, D.C. will be agog in Gatsby.

City residents from public school students to boomers to retirees will be encouraged to read “The Great Gatsby” as part of The Big Read – DC.

The month-long event promoting the citywide read of Fitzgerald’s classic is part of The Big Read, a national initiative of the National Endowment of the Arts.  First Lady Laura Bush is the honorary chair. 

The aim of the Big Read is to restore reading to the center of American culture.  The NEA presents The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and in cooperation with Arts Midwest.

The program was created in response to a 2004 NEA report “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.”  Many government reports have the emotional impact of Velveeta–browsing through them cures insomnia.  (No offense NEA.) 

But “Reading at Risk” was a scary wake-up call for Gutenberg moment freaks.

Among its findings:

. Less than half of the American population now read literature.  This includes novels, short stories, poetry, or drama–of any quality.

. The percentage of the U.S. adult population reading any book has declined by seven percent over the past decade.

. Literary reading is declining among all age groups, but the steepest decline is in the youngest age groups.

Whoa!  What a hit in the solar plexus for us book lovers!

To jump start reading (in this age of the Blackberry, when no one “reads” anything but “information”), the NEA launched The Big Read.

Under this initiative, people in selected communities nationwide gather and discuss one book.  By, 2009 approximately 400 towns and cities throughout the country will have hosted a Big Read program.

The Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities are presenting The Big Read–DC.

Other local DC groups, including D.C. Public Schools, D.C. Public Library, Busboys & Poets, D.C. Writers Corps, Pen Faulkner Writers in Schools Program and Literacy Volunteers and Advocates, are joining in this effort.

This is the 2nd Big Read in Washington, D.C.  Last year, DC read “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston.

Why is DC reading “The Great Gatsby” this year? I asked Michon Boston, Project Director of The Big Read–DC in a telephone interview.

A list of books–both classics and contemporary works–is provided by the NEA, Boston said.  Cities staging local Big Read programs, choose the book they’re going to read, from this list, she added.

The local DC groups met and looked at the list, Boston said. “We tried to hit certain criteria,” she said.

We wanted a book that would be good for DC public schools students to read, Boston explained, “it’s good for them to be working on a book...which the rest of the city is also reading.”

This makes homework (for parents and their kids) “a little more interesting,” Boston said, “and some of it doesn’t have to be homework.”

Gatsby, filled with romance, jazz, dancing, cars, booze, elegance and money, is fun to read.

I have the attention span of an ameba in heat.  Yet, I gulped the book down in one sitting the other day.

If I, a reader with the patience of a flea, thought the novel was dessert, not spinach–there’s hope that DC’s students will enjoy the classic. Even if they don’t want to admit this to adults.

“We wanted a book with a local connection,” Boston said, “we were lucky this year that F. Scott Fitzgerald does have Washington, D.C. connections.”  His parents were married here, she added, “they lived here, his grandparents lived here {and} his daughter Scottie lived here.”

One of Fitzgerald’s relatives, Mary Surratt, had a boarding house in Washington, D.C.  She was hanged as a conspirator in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Boston said. 

One aim of The Big Read–DC is to “bring out DC stories” that tie-in to the life of the author or the theme of the book (“or both if you’re lucky”), Boston noted.

Gatsby is one of those books that seems to have a lot of popularity among people, Boston said.  “It’s an American classic,” she added, “a book that everyone should read –and a work everyone may enjoy reading.”

Thematically, Gatsby “offers an opportunity” to discuss some timely issues such as financial literacy, Boston said.  “We’re experimenting with this. We feel Gatsby is a good book to start this off.”

Using Fitzgerald’s novel to talk about finances might help both youth and adults learn to manage their money better, she added.

As I write this, the stock market has just gone down over 200 points and the Federal Reserve has rushed to bail-out Bear Sterns.  Baseball is rife with steroids and a governor has been brought down by a sex scandal.

Wealth, corruption and downfall dominate Gatsby.  Gatsby's "business" dealings were at best vague and at worst shady.  The novel implies that one of his buddies was involved in fixing the 1919 World Series.

“We’re trying to appeal to male readers,” Boston said, noting that according to the NEA  Reading at Risk survey, there’s been a “huge drop” in readership among men.

“We want to see if we can bring the numbers for male readers–younger readers {up},” she said.  Reading Is Fundamental has bought copies of Gatsby for all 12th graders in DC, Boston added.

DC will be a whirl of Gatsby related activities during the Big Read–DC from Charleston classes to marathon readings to walking tours.  For more information, go to

Gatsby, published in 1925, came out in the midst of what we now call the Roaring Twenties.  With its flamboyance, creativity, excess, dreams and about-to-burst bubbles, this time seems eerily familiar today.

As part of the Big Read–DC, Kim Roberts, editor of the fab on-line literary journal “Beltway Poetry Quarterly,” will conduct a walking tour of Washington’s Dupont Circle and Kalorama neighborhoods.  Roberts will give the tour called “Jazz Age Stories of the Rich and Scandalous!” on April 26 and on May 10.  A self-guided version of the tour will be published by the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. in April.  For more information, go to

The 1920's was a fascinating period, Roberts said in a telephone interview. “Women got the vote.  There was Prohibition and the Red Scare,” she added, “and political scandal.”

The 20's came after a brief respite from economic depression, Roberts said, “there was a lot of money and experimentation.  The bubble burst and things became tight again.  People got more conservative.”

It’s a lot like the recent “tech bubble (and bust) of the 1990's,” Roberts added.

The 1920's was the “beginning of modernism in art and architecture,” she said.  It’s when we started to look at our place in the world in a new way, Roberts added.

Much of this change was focused in DC because it was the nation’s capital, noted Roberts, a long-time DC resident and expert on cultural history in Washington. D.C.

The decade was the genesis of pop culture, Roberts said, “for the first time there were radio programs, movies, sport heroes.”  For the first time, pop culture bound us together, she added.

It was the beginning of consumer culture, Roberts said. “You now had installment plans.  Even people of modest incomes could buy radios and cars.”

Gatsby is rife with riches and sated with scandal.  It’s as if Fitzgerald could see how history would view the exaltation and despair of his time, while living through it.

“It {the 1920's} was an age of miracles. It was an age of art,” Fitzgerald wrote in an essay called “The Jazz Age” in 1931, “It was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire.”

Even if you don’t live in DC, whether you’re bubble’s burst or not, read Gatsby.

Keep looking for the green light on the deck.  That’s why we read.

Kathi Wolfe was a finalist in the 2007 Pudding House Press Chapbook competition with Helen Takes the Stage: The Helen Keller Poems.
It is published by Pudding House Press and is available at:


©2008 Kathi Wolfe
©2008 Scene4 Magazine

Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet and a columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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april 2008

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