Thursday, August 05, 2004

Barack Obama as a modern-day but optimistic F. Scott Fitzgerald

Reading over the transcript of U.S. Senate candiate Barack Obama's keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, I noticed one particular line that seemed remniscent of one of the main themes of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic--and in my opinion quite possibly the best novel ever written--The Great Gatsby. Here is the excerpt from Obama's speech:

Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope! In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.

Now here is an excerpt from the ending of The Great Gatsby (I have emphasized the parts of this excerpt most relevant to my point here in bold, although the entire passage is brilliant and must be included for full understanding and effect):

And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further…And on fine morning --So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Obama in his keynote speech entertains and subscribes to an idea, "the audacity of hope," that the beauty of what we call the American Dream is that it is not unrealistic to plan for a better day because this day can be achieved.

Barack Obama
Fitzgerald's narrator Nick Carraway somberly resigns himself to the belief that the American Dream is audacious and nothing else, that it survives on a myth, that it is built on an history of elusive progress. For Nick (and persumably for Fitzgerald), the tragedy of Jay Gatsby is proof that the dream of a better future, a theme that has persisted through the history of this country, died the moment it was born, or perhaps it never even materialized in the first place.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Who is right about the American Dream? I think both views can actually be reconciled. Obama also says in his keynote address,

But [people] sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all.

He acknowledges that the opportunities are not being provided for people who want to realize the American Dream. Nick Carraway expresses too that the dream has been denied of those who have tried to achieve it, represented in Gatsby by Jay Gatsby.

To Nick and Fitzgerald, the American Dream is untenable because of the carelessness of those who occupy the image of the dream realized:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…

In fact, Tom and Daisy have not achieved, they have merely been born into. Permit me to compare Tom and Daisy and their like with the current leaders of our nation, people who inflict their vast carelessness on the rest of the country and deny us of opportunities as a result. For Barack Obama's vision of a nation where individuals can achieve what they dream, the careless people of this world must be displaced. For Nick Carraway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, such a wish is futile; hopefully for Obama it will not be.

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