Why reviewing "the classics" matters in this day and age

May 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

This past Friday saw the release of the 2013 cinema version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby.  Doubtless in the days to come, there will be several articles, online and print alike, comparing the novel with the cinematic adaptation.  Almost as likely will be comments, some of them wistful and others less charitable, about the novel’s plot, characterizations, and prose.  After all, The Great Gatsby is one of the leading exemplars for both the perceived pros and cons of having required literature reads in school.  Tens of millions, if not hundreds, of Americans are at least casually aware of the title, regardless of their actual engagement level when they encountered the story.

With this near-universal exposure, not to mention the countless hours devoted by literature teachers to explaining the novel’s core elements, many might question the need to write anything new on the book; after all, the book has been covered from all sorts of angles over the past nine decades.  Yes, for some it might make more sense to just accept what the previous generations have said about a classic such as The Great Gatsby and use that as a starting point for one’s own exploration of the story.  However, I believe this would be a grievous mistake, one that possibly could further the perceived divorcing of a literary work from the latest generations of readers.

So-called “classics,” whether they be from Sumeria or the end of the 20th century, have at some point or another engaged a critical mass of readers.  The forms vary widely (Hemingway and Dickens could hardly be more divergent in narrative style), yet there is something that captivates a regional, national, and/or global audience.  For some works, such as the aforementioned The Great Gatsby, they encapsulate the espirit du temps so well that they become emblematic works.  It is difficult to conceive of a Jazz Age or Roaring ’20s without a Jay Gatsby fictitiously inhabiting it.  Yet generational differences color the understanding.  Contemporary readers gushed over its capturing of the present spirit; today, Fitzgerald’s book is held up as a commentary on a time just before the deluge of the Great Depression.  For these sorts of works, each succeeding historical generation will reinterpret the work to fit within their own fears and desires.

When I was a cultural history grad student, I had a professor who convinced me that my 1990s understanding of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was flawed due to my unwillingness to mine the depths of his work when I was 17.  All too often we are exposed to a work when we ourselves are too underdeveloped to have the critical tools necessary to assess the work at hand.  If we ourselves change so much from say 15 to 40 (and of course beyond to advanced age), then would it not make sense to reassess those literary “classics” that we may or may not have loved in our youth?  Furthermore, if there is indeed a paradigm shift in literary valuation as we age, then would it not be best to record our own reinterpretations of those works that constitute touchstones of regional/national/global cultures?

I would argue that times such as this cinematic adaptation of Fitzgerald’s most famous work are a perfect time for readers to not just (re)read such a classic, but also to record their thoughts.  Not only will this have the benefit of (re)connecting readers to a famous work of a previous generation, but our own reviews and critiques can further add to the layers of commentaries.  Things do fall out of favor; sometimes this begins with appreciative readers failing to express their appreciations for posterity.  Better to contribute to the lengthy conversation between Text and Reader than to let it wither away to the mumblings of a few specialists who grumble about there being so few to talk with about a wondrous work.

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