The Ameri-Con Man: How Harold Hill and Jay Gatsby define America

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“Remember, my friends, listen to me because I pass this way but once.”

From Meredith Wilson’s Tony-winning musical The Music Man and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s perennially high-school required read The Great Gatsby spring two of the cleverest and most dapper American heroes to feature in our star-spangled tradition. Yet, the word “hero” is clearly a troubled one in these works, for both Hill and Gatsby (if we may even refer to them as such since both monikers are pseudonyms) complicate the water of conventional heroics. Undoubtedly, they enthrall their audiences, luring us all in with their smoke-and-mirrors masquerade. They are truly dazzling figures, quick-witted charlatans with magnetic appeal and magical, theatrical aplomb. Their uncanny ability to wink-and-nod through life, to deflect the truth with a carefully-timed joke, to blur unpleasant realities with enough lights and music (indeed with seventy-six trombones) to encourage the fantasy of the American dream – even if the supports have been lamed decades ago – stuns us, leaving us with just enough patriotic paralysis to miss the haunting possibility that behind the American camouflage lies a hollow and corroded void.

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“They’re such beautiful shirts […] It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts before.”

They are American con-men, perhaps the only American identity left for us to believe in, for whether it’s the conductor’s plumed hat or the crisp New York tuxedo, our national heroes may simply be costumes and stage-names, props and scripts. Perhaps they are only, as Daisy painfully sobs, “such beautiful shirts.”

In this post, then, I’d like to introduce a comparison of both Hill and Gatsby as quintessential American figures, earnest and romantic heroes pursuing illusory and counterfeit means of achieving their dreams. They are pied pipers, whistling and parading the nation in an endless and indefinite march toward ever-receding hopes. Yet, they are not cruel, for they are equally caught up in the cavalcade, spirited themselves by the glittering exuberance of the red, white, and blue. In short, they represent the modern American in desperate need of spiritual redemption and salvation from the treadmill of the American dream.

  1. Empty Yesterdays

Much of what motivates both Harold Hill and Jay Gatsby in their construction of false identities and flashy theatrics is a settled fear of the wasted life, a molded leaf-pile of regrets and missed opportunities.

As Hill requests to meet Marian Paroo, the reticent, independent town librarian, at the footbridge for a romantic rendezvous, Marian hesitates, asking to postpone the meeting. Hill’s response reveals his fear of losing time: “Oh, my dear little librarian. You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to make today worth remembering.” Though this romantic gesture may arguably be just an extension of Hill’s crafted persona, I believe this statement embodies Hill’s genuine sentiment, for it arrives at the point in the film where Hill is becoming most vulnerable and most transparent in his affections for Marian. Indeed, he sacrifices his entire industry in falling for her, a choice (or not?) equally true of Gatsby and Daisy.

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“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

For Gatsby, this fear of a lost past is summed up powerfully in one of his most famous lines spoken to the novel’s narrator Nick Carraway. In his attempt to regain Daisy Buchanan, the love of his life, from her husband Tom, Gatsby seeks to go back in time, to undo all of the damage done to their relationship over the last five years. Yet, Nick attempts to halt Gatsby’s efforts, claiming the rationale that one simply cannot repeat the past, to which Gatsby retorts, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” Perhaps nowhere else in American letters is the tormented desire to redeem lost time put more conclusively, for Gatsby’s dream is not Daisy, but an echo of Daisy, a vision of Daisy as she once was, and as she fades further away in time with every passing hour, so must Gatsby’s outstretched hand remain suspended in the air. Hers is the green light always at the other end of the bay, and time, it seems, is the sea upon which we “beat on, boats against the current,” yet are always “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

2. Promising Tomorrows

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“I always think there’s a band, kid.”

The charm and the enduring glory of these characters must arise from their eternal optimism, the genuine hopefulness that lies at the core of their flair and self-confidence. For Harold Hill this attitude is most poignant in his interactions with young Winthrop, Marian’s withdrawn little brother. At one moment, Winthrop, distressed with the revelation that Hill is a fake, asks him if there’s no band either. Hill’s response encapsulates the American notion of tomorrow, that the dreams we believe in are pure even if the steps taken to reach them are faulty. Hill lovingly says, “I always think there’s a band, kid.” This is the distillation of Hill’s entire aim: there is always a noble calling to reach for, some beautiful dream to strive after.

For Gatsby this beautiful dream and his constant expectation of it is described as a gift. Nick says, “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life […] it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” Both Hill and Gatsby epitomize this “heightened sensitivity”; they are cognizant of the greatness and grandeur of life even if they are simultaneously beleaguered by the flawed approaches they take toward realizing it. In this way, they reveal the depths of the American experience, twisted by the corruptness of sin yet, as Loki declares, “burdened with glorious purpose.”

All is not lost, however. The so-called gorgeousness of these characters does bear a mark of truth and hopefulness, for the hollowness at the root of these heroes may be restored. While Gatsby is drowned by the overwhelming impossibility of his dream, we must remember that Hill is redeemed by the truth; exposed as the sinful man he is, Hill ends the musical disgraced, yet redeemed. As he tells Marian, he cannot go on as a con man since, for the first time in his life, he “got his foot caught in the door.”

May all our American performances, our daily struggle to maintain the sparkling masks of success, self-reliance, and selfishness, likewise get caught in the door so we may learn to accept our failures and live sacrificially, loving one another in truth.

May all our veils be abandoned that we may finally be human again.

 

Five Influential Writers in My Life

As I am working to lift Eden.Babel onto its feet, one of my primary concerns and interests is in the field of wordsmithing. Excellent craftsmanship is a noble goal, no matter what the smithy of your particular ilk is filled with; the mason may use bricks, the painter his brushes, the musician his notes. The writer uses words. Since the usage of words is a staple of most people’s daily living, the writer has a peculiarly interesting challenge before him. Not everyone uses paint or notes or bricks in the course of their 24 hours, but we almost all use words. Some may wish others used fewer, but that’s another post. Writers are tasked to take a seemingly mundane feature of our existence (words and their arrangement) and spin them in such a way that they can knock a hearer off his or her feet. As Mary, Queen of Scots once said of John Knox, “I fear his tongue and pen more than the armies of England.”

As I have immersed myself over the years in the world of literature, poetry, and many other forms of the written word as well as committed myself to the weaving of my own words, I have decided to consider five of the most influential writers in my own life. This list, as with most lists of its kind, is written in the current moment, meaning I am quite available to be moved and impacted by other writers than these five in the future just as I certainly have been in the past. Also, this list does not factor in God and His Word, the most influential book ever written. As a Christian, I heartily affirm the influence of the Word of God to be a given.

5. C.S. Lewis

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This choice really stems from how much of Lewis I have read over the past ten or so years. As a child, I was raised on the Narnia stories and have just recently started to go back through them. I was likewise raised on the BBC films of the Narnia books (you know, the Lucy with her wonderful teeth, the giant beavers, the animatronic Aslan. Classics…). As I moved into college, I began to wade through more of Lewis’ work, including The Great Divorce, Till We Have FacesThe Screwtape Letters, and others. During a bleaker period, I picked up A Grief Observed, which was very helpful. Finally, while studying literature in grad school, I took a course on Lewis and Tolkien in London. There, I dove headlong into his space trilogy, The Four LovesThe Weight of Glory, and a great deal of his biography. Since then, I’ve read Surprised by Joy, a number of his poems, and continue to read him more and more. His commitment to both logic and fancy is contagious, and I look to him for an abundance of insight and imagination.

Recommended readingOut of the Silent PlanetThe Voyage of the Dawn TreaderThe Screwtape Letters, “The Future of Forestry”, “Meditation in a Toolshed”

4. Billy Collins

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In compiling this list, I made an effort to select writers that represent different genres and approaches. With this in mind, Collins is certainly my poetic choice. He served as poet laureate for the U.S. in the early 2000s, and I even had the privilege of meeting him at a poetry reading in Nashville. Collins’ poetry is known for its accessibility, humor, and seeming simplicity. For this, he may certainly be termed a poet of the people. Yet, his writing is elusive, deep, biting, startling, and some of the most moving verse I’ve encountered. Collins has the unique ability to take a simple reality (weighing a dog, weaving a lanyard at camp, studying geography) and transform it into a transcendent experience as he observes the fullness of feeling, sensitivity, and power that can exist in any given human moment. He treats love, loss, friendship, fear, and longing as though they are old pals, conversing freely with them over coffee at midnight. He laughs through awkwardness and shudders at morning light. He can turn any event on its head at the start of a single stanza and leave you breathless upon completing it. I cannot speak highly enough of his work, and I have thoroughly enjoyed making my way through his collections.

Recommended reading: “The Lanyard”, “Weighing the Dog”, “Introduction to Poetry”, “Plight of the Troubadour”

3. Ben Gibbard

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Though he is primarily regarded as a musician, Gibbard’s lyric writing ranks right up there with the best of them. He is the frontman for the indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie and has become a respected voice for poetic melancholy in our generation. I caught on to Ben Gibbard’s beautiful writing when I was first introduced to DCFC’s album Transatlanticism by my little brother, Chris. I remember being immediately struck by the quality of their music and Gibbard’s soaring melodies, so I decided to go through the whole album several times over on my own. What I discovered as I walked alongside his verses and choruses, acutely attuned to the narratives he was singing, was simply breathtaking. I was speechless. Gibbard could weave a lyrical phrase unlike anyone I had ever heard, and what had ignited a glimmering flame of attraction and sympathy for him in Transatlanticism was fueled to a wildfire in Plans, their 2005 album. By this time, I had begun playing music myself with a friend of mine and had become interested in lyric writing as a form of expression not dissimilar from poetry. As I delved further into writing music and writing lyrics, Gibbard always served as the standard, the pitch in which all of my own writing was set. To this day, I look to Ben Gibbard’s poetic sensibility, astounding mastery of metaphorical language, and sobering emotional melancholy for a bracing dose of creative power to shock me back into my own love and passion for writing.

Recommended reading/listening: “What Sarah Said”, “Brothers on a Hotel Bed”, “Little Wanderer”, “Transatlanticism”, “We Looked Like Giants”, “Title and Registration”, “Summer Skin”, “No Room in Frame”

2. F. Scott Fitzgerald

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If you are reading this and you are a former/current student of mine, you saw this coming; I tend to reference Fitzgerald all the time in class. Simply put, there will never be another F. Scott Fitzgerald. I dedicated my master’s thesis to the life and work of this marvelous author, so I am quite biased. I do believe, however, that his prophetic understanding of American narcissism, the nature of sin, the transience of happiness, and the ache of unrequited love have cemented him in literary history as a true icon of the highest caliber. He was painfully romantic, given over at once to both the beauty and the hopelessness of his dreams. He desired a greatness that would always be two steps ahead of him, doubting his ability to reach it yet straining forward all his life. He was exuberantly happy and painfully miserable. He rose meteorically and fell disastrously. He fought with God and embraced God. He could dash off a crowd-pleaser in a matter of hours (often hungover) and labor meticulously over a failing novel for years. And his writing is simply magnificent. Every page of his work is filled with both diamonds and dust, champagne and charlatans. He wrote like Mozart, lyrically effusing phrases and sentences that seemed like they had been written ages ago as he simply pulled them out of the air and blotted them on paper. He wrote like most men breathe, pouring forth what was already in there, effortlessly. Much of my love for the imaginative wonder and hope in life is credited to his work. I will read him until I can no longer read.

Recommended readingThe Great GatsbyThis Side of Paradise, “‘The Sensible Thing'”, “Thank You for the Light”, “The Cut-Glass Bowl”, “The Jelly-Bean”

1. Doug Wilson

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Doug Wilson is a theologian, pastor, and highly prolific writer with dozens of books to his name. If there is any writer who has helped shape my thinking, provoke my curiosity, satisfy my imaginative scope, push my pursuit of excellence, hone my understanding of joy, and confirm my desire for the full, abundant, passionate life in Christ, Doug Wilson is that writer. His work ranges greatly, covering such topics as culture, theology, rhetoric, argument, marriage, childrearing, father hunger, eschatology, apologetics, creative writing, Beowulf, wisdom, the Middle Ages, hearty laughter, Calvinism, gratitude, poetry, robust singing, and much more. His writing has led me deeper into the conviction that God is God and God is good. I am so deeply indebted to his writing and his teachings on the Christian life that to remove his influence from my life would be to remove a great deal of who I have become in my faith in Jesus. While the content of his work is overwhelmingly edifying and helpful, his style is simply inimitable. He wields the English language like a battle axe, sharp at the edge and effective in every blow. He is clever, witty, incisive, kind, colorful, lyrical, and quotable. He is memorable, humorous, startling, paradoxical, and charming. He is jolly and forthright. He is happy and rigid. In a word, he is full. My admiration and respect for Wilson’s writing cannot be expressed enough, and I could speak at greater and greater lengths in praise of his command over the written word.

Recommended readingHeaven MisplacedAngels in the ArchitectureRules for ReformersJoy at the End of the TetherWordsmithy, God Is

On Sia’s “Chandelier” with the Rest of the World

6585460jpgIf it’s possible for our culture to sift through the bin of radio flash hits and other current pop-pourri to find the glorious anthem for the millennial generation, we should not be surprised to find Sia’s “Chandelier” in everyone’s hands. With its club-appropriate rhythm and soaring melody line, the song seals itself into the current trend like a wax impress. Yet, it is not for its depiction of the carefree, YOLO-drunk culture that endures the via dolorosa of the work week for the olympic burn of the weekend that makes “Chandelier” such a manifesto. I contend that it is Sia’s painfully bleak and somber delivery of the song’s keynote theme – that, to quote Millay, when the candle burns at both ends, it tends not to last the night – which makes the song such a puncturing truth in the already scabbing wounds of a fallen world.

Sia begins her lyric with a declaration of attempted anhedonia (“Party girls don’t get hurt / Can’t feel anything”), a brandishing of makeshift shields to combat the fierce intensity of loneliness, vulnerability, and pain that tend to accompany the frenetic worldly life. No, Sia says, party girls don’t get hurt; they are too tough for that. Yet, the underlying caution that sits beneath the “tough-girl” image is the temptation to become so tough you become scaly. Like the boy Eustace who has been dragoned in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there is a toughness that is fearfully impenetrable; the bars of a prison door are tough and the bricks of Helm’s Deep are tough, but they are tough in such a way as to cage and to enclose. The human frame was not built for such safeguarding. Sia’s party girl tries to claim a toughness that is unfit for human living. Typically, when nothing can get in, nothing can get out. When a party girl “can’t feel anything,” she may be saving herself from false hope, rejection, or emotional distress, but the odds are that she is equally hiding herself from the sacrificial nature of true love, trust, joy, and other pleasures that require a deal of risk. As C.S. Lewis remarked concerning the nature of love:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

And yet, when faced with trial, fear, rejection, abuse, we “push it down.”

This tale of the “good time” girl is further poured over in irony as Sia claims to “feel the love” of all those committed Christian knights of chivalry who noticed her cries of need and distress inked on the tile of a restroom wall. What a sadness when the damsel appropriately located at a great height (a dual image meant to highlight the lady’s dignity, worthiness, and elevated status of respect and courtship on the one hand along with the gentleman’s need to prove his worth in bridging the distance through strength, perseverance, and courage) has taken the elevator to the basement to scrape out any breathing male with the right jeans and beard to go home with.

The countdown (“1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, drink”) intensifies the frantic blur of our culture’s worldview, namely that our lives are ceaseless shot clocks, and the only way to beat the buzzer is to get buzzed. We all drink, on three. Then, press repeat. Drink, sleep, repeat. I am reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s warning: “First, you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”

As a lead into the chorus, we are collectively baptized into the river of wine, begging for it to be changed into Lethean waters (“Throw ’em back ’til I lose count”). Perhaps forgetfulness and oblivion are the answers to our struggles, we believe. It would seem our culture wishes to counteract the crystal clear Word of the Lord with an indiscriminate blare of a trumpet in which no one is called to arms (I Cor. 14:8). Be gone with the precision of orbiting planets, the order of the stars, we raise high the banner of Haze and Ambiguity (kind of…I think…I don’t really remember, you know?)!

In the crescendo, we are called to swing on the chandeliers, to adventure ourselves to death. While there is certainly an allure to wildness and celebrations of life (carpe diem), this Gatsby-ing is halted by the second line: “I want to live like tomorrow doesn’t exist.” While the sentiment of living-this-day-like-it’s-your-last is not new by any means, this statement hearkens back to the drink-til-I-fade-out of the pre-chorus. If tomorrow doesn’t exist, neither will I. Yet, such a reality does not lend a heavy emphasis to making today count (without a tomorrow, whatever is done today doesn’t really count. I’ve seen Groundhog Day, too.). If tomorrow doesn’t exist, we cease to exist, which may be the point. If this is life – the numb, lonely party girl – maybe cessation is a blessing…

However, Sia clings to the promise of glory and hope, picturing the inebriated chandelier-swinger releasing her grip and becoming a bird in flight (“I’m gonna fly like a bird in the night, feel my tears as they dry”). Here we have the mythic phoenix, rising from ashes. Perhaps if I burn out, I can be reborn. Yet, the chorus concludes with our bird-in-flight re-caged and re-perched on her glowing pendulum, clipped wings and all. “Here comes the shame, here comes the shame…”

The mantra of the song is Sia’s devastatingly desperate “holding on for dear life,” a powerful phrase to describe the plight of our current generation. We are not living for dear life; we are just trying to hold on as it soars along.

Holding on to a glass of vodka like your frail fingers are pinched around the rubber grip of a handlebar as the motorcycle of your weekends rockets at a hundred down the freeway.

Holding on to your high school years like sleeping in pajamas and a letter jacket.

Holding on to an unrequited love like a businessman jabbering away on a call that was dropped three tunnels ago.

This is the sad reality and potency of “Chandelier.” Our culture is longing for meaning, purpose, wild beauty, and eternally-secure and satisfying truth, only to howl in one accord of dismay when the places they look seem only to offer cigarette butts, drops of gin, and phone numbers in Sharpie.