“But then we did not think of ourselves ever as poor. We did not accept it…. We ate well and cheaply and ate well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
“Are you ready?” I ask my Period 3 Honors American Literature class as they file in, many of them from Timmy’s Romans class downstairs.
“Ready for what?” they ask, as usual.
“Oh, that,” is the worn-out response. “I guess.”
I’m excited, even if they aren’t, because it’s the beginning of Semester 2. I love the second semester of American Literature. Even with a research project looming in the third quarter, and a steady stream of essays to grade toward the end of the fourth, this latter half of the year includes some of my all-time favorite books–The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men and A Raisin in the Sun among them–not to mention the best American poetry. Though I love the stirring imagery of Thoreau and the brooding symmetry of Hawthorne’s storytelling, in the end I’m glad to leave behind the blindly optimistic, “Let’s just write better than England, OK?” attitude of the American romantics.
“Well, you should be ready,” I continue as more students file in. “Today is the most depressing class ever.”
“Ever. We’re talking about Naturalism today!”
And we do. For a whole period, we consider literary naturalism, a movement that puts the individual in the hands of factors beyond his or her control, factors like geography, family history, genetics and social class. Naturalists, writing in response to worldview-altering ideas of Darwin and Freud, believed that the fate of every living thing was unalterably determined, far beyond the power of weak mankind to change.
Surprising no one, I tell my students at the end of this dour lecture that there are very few American naturalists, that John Steinbeck was close, but East of Eden undid it at the last minute. Americans don’t want to believe this, do not believe it, by and large. We create ourselves, one person and life at a time, and no obstacle is so large that an American won’t try to surmount it. It’s in our blood, that Romantic desire to, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And then one fine morning–” In that unfinished thought lies all of our dreams, which which we stretch for beyond probability, the hopes that make us hate naturalism.
Still, there was darkness ahead. The stubborn optimism with our nation rejected naturalism accounts, in large part, for the disillusionment of the “Lost Generation,” the famed cadre of American writers and artists who fled the uproarious decade in the United States after the first World War to work in the more muted cities of Europe. We read these modernists, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, with the realization that they were caught between their hopes for what life could have been–what the world could have been–and what it actually turned out to be. Being American, they were unprepared for that heartbreak, making their art more poignant, their own stories more tragic.
My students are often puzzled that this is my favorite period of literature, a time so marked by sadness and loss. I think what makes me love these books is their honesty, their continuing relevance in a world that continues to fall short of our dreams. And while the nostalgic part of me can understand Owen Wilson’s desire, in Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris, to live in these richer moments of the past, really I have all that I desire from that age. A life of simplicity and community, marked by few possessions and many relationships. And, in the end, I don’t place my hope in being published or in living abroad or even in marriage. My hope, in the face of inevitable brokenness, remains firmly rooted in the love of Christ, a hope that never disappoints.
That’s why I can read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his early years in Paris, punctuated by tales of writing, adventure and love, without envy. I have the writing, the adventure, the love and more. I have the hope that these words, this moment, this love isn’t the best I’ll ever know. The best is Christ. And so I’m richer than Hemingway, richer than Fitzgerald, wealthy in the love of Christ that surrounds me every day.