May 15, 2007

ENGL 222
Professor Bonca
Sam Lively
18 May 2007
The American Man-Eater
The seductress weaves a fatal web of enchantment for her victims, but for the unravaged onlooker her illusionary powers are pleasantly intoxicating. In The Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman the seductress is the “American Dream,” and even as she robs her victims of life and fortune, their commitment to her is undying. Though her wake is cluttered with their broken hearts, many of the survivors gladly carry her train in spellbound reverence. The secret to her reason-defying success lies in her victims and her audience’s capacity to dream. For Jay Gatsby and Willy Loman, Nick Carraway and Linda Loman, the victims and their audience respectively, the greatness of their improbable dreams far outweighs the opposing facts of reality.
The American Dream is a loaded and a little misleading name. Dream is a collective term in her case: she welcomes all dreams, so long as they are attached to dreaming men. No dream is too grand or subtle for her if it is fervently wished for. Yet Dream is a misnomer for her; it does not express her complete nature. A mere body of wishes, however vast and beautiful, does not move men as dramatically as she does.
The promise of fulfillment animates her body, and flaunts it before the lusting eyes of men, like the naked blonde in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. American Promise fits her better than American Dream. Men are drawn to her not just as a representation of their desires, but because she appears to be an extravagantly generous benefactor.
The promise of so many dreams demands an impressive substantiation to win the skeptical hearts of men. America fits the bill. When Nick Carraway views New York through the imagined eyes of its first settlers he sees a “fresh, green breast” (Fitzgerald 180). America’s breast drips promise that triggers the voracious appetites of ambitious dreamers.
Carraway goes on to describe the full effect of beholding the American Dream, the American Promise for the first time: “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” (…).
Jay Gatsby and Willy Loman have an immense capacity for wonder. Neither restrains their hopes to the stuff of earth, nor lies content in abstract contemplation; both desire physical, financial, emotional and spiritual satisfaction within the time frame of their stay on earth. Gatsby expects to be able to “repeat the past.” When Carraway gently reminds of the impossibility of that hope, Gatsby responds, incredulously, “Can’t repeat the past! Why of course you can!” (Fitzgerald 110). Loman thinks he can be well-liked, rich, enjoy a Hollywood-style funeral upon his death and have his glorious legacy extended and expanded by his sons.
This shared characteristic draws them both to the “fresh, green breast.” For each, the unveiling of that sight is a powerful moment, akin to the settler’s first view of the new world, though the sight comes in remarkably different manifestations. Gatsby sees “out of the corner of his eye… that the blocks of sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees- he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the comparable milk of wonder” (…). Gatsby would never shake this image from his brain. When he pours this euphoria into his relationship with Daisy, that relationship becomes his life.
Loman’s experience lacks such a cosmic scale of description, but it pulls with equal gravity on his life. He tells the inspirational story of super-salesman Dave Singleman: “Old Dave, he’d go up to his room, y’understand, put on his velvet green slippers and- I’ll never forget- pick up his phone and call his buyers, and without ever leaving his room, at the age of eighty-four, he made his living. And when I saw that, I realized selling was the greatest career a man could want” (Miller 81). Singleman is a shriveled form of the breast, but those velvet slippers are more than green and inviting enough to become Loman’s most sought-after prize.
Sadly for these two men, the ladder of Gatsby’ dream is not as concrete as the sidewalk and salesman career produced only street-worn leather for Loman’s velvet appetite. Gatsby’s fantasy of marriage of Daisy collides with the too-solid frame of Tom Buchanan, her husband. Though he invades Daisy’s life bearing the spoils of financial conquest she had demanded of him, he can not drive the love of Tom from her heart.
Loman fails even to approximate Singleman’s success. His sales fall short of paying even the mortgage. As he ages, his boss refuses to free him from the taxing roads to work from the cushy confines of his own neighborhood, effectively exiling him from the comfort he worked his entire life to achieve. His fallback plan of raising a Singleman from his sons burns from flames ignited by his chosen prospect, Biff. Biff urges his father to join him in the arson: “Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” (Miller 133).
Gatsby and Loman are not willing to acknowledge or escape their escalating funeral pyres. Both aid the seductress by accepting hallucinogenic reproductions of her promises when reality has rejected her originals as counterfeits. The grim specter of Death cannot break the spell she has bound them within. Gatsby waits stubbornly in his pool for Daisy’s phone call, even as she and Tom set events in motion that bring about his death. Loman one-ups Gatsby by killing himself in a sort of desperate Plan C, hoping that his life insurance money will propel the downward spiraling Biff to glorious heights.
In perhaps an even greater feat than her destruction of Gatsby and Loman, the great seductress charms two individuals who would have the greatest reason to denounce her as a tramp. Nick Carraway and Loman’s wife Linda rarely find fault with their companions’ infatuations with unattainable goals, before or after their tragic deaths. On the contrary, they often applaud their willingness to attempt impossible ventures. Carraway gushes of Gatsby’s greatness, his “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” and the “romantic readiness” (Fitzgerald 2); never mind that these fine qualities helped condemn him to a grisly murder.
Linda never faults her husband for his failure; she only faults her sons’ failure to acknowledge the greatness of their father. When they jointly question him, she berates them. She asks, “And you tell me he has no character? The man who never worked a day but for your benefit? When does he get a medal for that? Is this his reward- to turn around at the age of sixty-three and find his sons, who he loved better than life” questioning him (Miller 57)? For a mother to turn on her own sons rather than acknowledge the error of her husband’s actions testifies to the extent of the seductress’ entrapment.
Carraway and Linda Loman have a fervent appreciation for their grandiose dreamers. They do not separate their loyalty to the man from their loyalty to his dreams. They do not want one without the other. If death comes, let him take the whole package, and not leave an empty husk of a man. Carraway says that “Gatsby turned out all right at the end” (Fitzgerald 2). He blames the unpleasantness on the “foul dust,” i.e. the friends who did not appreciate him, that “floated in the wake of his dreams” (…). Linda doesn’t mind the grave if it is not left unattended. Her prominent desire is that respectful attention “be finally paid to such a man” (Miller 56).
Out of the wake of inattentive and indifferent dust emerges the form of the seductress, the American Dream, the American Promise, the American Man-Eater. Amidst the ruin and heartbreak, her illusions vividly depict the ached-for desires of a man’s heart. Her call inspired men to accomplish deed mighty enough to leave a wake, foul or otherwise. These are the attributes of the sly snake and the majestic lioness that whisper for humans to stretch trusting hands into the beautiful asps’ den or lie beside the gently heaving side of the lion. Jay Gatsby and Willy Loman, and their ardent devotees, prefer the fatal kisses of the snake and lion to the calloused lifestyle that ignored such delightful whispers.
Works Cited
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York, NY: Scribner, 2004.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1976.

May 7, 2007

Child Lit

Curious George, by H.A. Rey

The dangerous and often charming allure of childlike mischief lies behind the story and art of Curious George. Rey draws dark curved outlines that give the impression of slyness, and garishly applied watercolors to suggest danger, warmth and fun. This is a book for all mischievous children from 3-7.

Wempires, by Daniel Pinkwater

This is a very strange book, by a very strange author. He draws simply, I believe with just ink. They look very much like scribbles. Despite the crudeness, the art is captivating because it fit the narrator's perspective so well. The story is about a regular little boy who wants to be a vampire, and the smiling, matter-of-fact illustrations leap straight from his words onto the page. Because the pictures are somewhat bizarre, and not much too look at in and of themselves, this book is much for the 6-11 age bracket, and even then, only for kids who can fully immerse themselves in weirdness.

Monsters, by Russel Hoban and Quentin Blake
This is my favorite team of picture book creators. Hoban specializes in telling the stories of little boys making room for their repressed imaginations and Blake gives them life in his messy, junkyard style illustrations. Blake uses ink or pencil outlines and water colors, I believe, cobbling fantasies from all manner of squigglies and doodads. This story makes use of childlike illustration to get directly at the child's imagination, working from scribbles to a "real version" drawn in a more vivid style.

Richard Scarry

Color, variety and constant action characterize Richard Scarry's stories.