Ye Cannot Swerve Me: Moby-Dick and Climate Change

“Come, Ahab’s compliments to ye; come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!”
— Herman Melville (1819-1891), Moby-Dick, Chapter 37.

This is one of many passages, in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby-Dick, describing Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal obsession to hunt down and kill the white bull sperm whale whose name is the novel’s title. (1) Ahab sought vengeance for being scarred — with curved conical teeth up to 20 cm (8 in) long and weighing up to 1 kg (2.2 lb) each — from head to knee and having his leg torn off, against Moby Dick, who had fought off a pursuit by whalers led by Ahab on a previous voyage:

“Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now… Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!… and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.”

But Starbuck, the First Mate aboard their ship, the Pequod, was having none of it. Starbuck was a devout Christian, a Quaker, eschewing all violence except for the hot bloody rush of catching and killing whales to boil their blubber down to the fine oil that would fetch handsome profits at the Nantucket market. Starbuck objects to his commander’s private scheme hijacking the Pequod and her crew from “the business we follow… I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance.” To Starbuck, Ahab’s obsession is not only a derailment of their business but even an affront to God, because Ahab is intent to avenge himself on Nature itself through its organic manifestation as this one mighty white whale:

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” Starbuck replies to Ahab, “that simply smote thee from blind instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

As regards human activity, Starbuck was right, but we now know that sperm whales are intelligent animals, like all cetaceans, and not purely dumb brutes: they have both memory and intent. The sperm whale brain is the largest known of any modern or extinct animal, weighing on average about 7.8 kilograms (17 lb), more than five times heavier than a human’s, and has a volume of about 8,000 cm^3. The sperm whale’s cerebrum is the largest in all mammalia, both in absolute and relative terms. (2)

The story, Moby-Dick, is famous around the world and most people know that Ahab and all his crew except one, Ishmael, perished in a failed attempt to wreak Ahab’s vengeance, which even cost the sinking of the Pequod, stove in by Moby Dick’s ramming. The novel is much much more than merely its sea adventure plot, and description of 19th century whaling. It is a roving philosophical inquiry into the nature of character, faith and perception; as well as a metaphor for Melville’s ruminations on American democracy, which was shifting from a free association of agrarian ruralists to an increasingly industrialized regimentation of expansionist outlook. Melville’s Moby-Dick, along with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1885), are the quintessential American novels (in my opinion, at least).

A key point in Moby-Dick is that the crew willingly joined into Ahab’s scheme, and despite Starbuck’s opposition to it. By rights, and whaling industry regulations and customs, the officers and crew of the Pequod were duty-bound to wrest control of the ship from Ahab because he was usurping the use of the vessel and its personnel for his private ends, and away from its intended purpose. The fully outfitted Pequod, bound on a three year hunting expedition, represented the investments of the owners and many shareholders, including widows and orphans of lost Nantucket whalers, as well the ongoing labor investments of the Pequod’s crew, which were to be paid out of the expected harvest of whale oil.

Maximizing that harvest was the whalers’ business, and it was intended to be pursued as a voluntary association of men into a hierarchical organization glued together by a commonality of personal financial interests. Ahab used his fearsome magnetic personality, like witchcraft, to steal the souls of his men and make them instruments for the implementation of his own personal hatred. Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the great Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, made this exact diagnosis of Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) and the German nation under his dictatorship during 1933 to 1945. (3) That same diagnosis can be applied, in varying degrees, then and now, here and abroad, to many political “leaders.” The eternal question for the many laboring crews of the many workshops of this world — agrarian and industrial — is: do we work dutifully to the death, or till cast adrift as expendable, and do we willingly follow the leader to perdition if he is hellbound and determined for it; or do we rebel, overturn the structure of command, and lead ourselves even if such freedom entails a hard life?

And this brings me to global warming climate change: fossil fuels are the opiates in the addiction to war that would be the death of humanity by Planet Earth’s rejection of it.

Do we work dutifully to the death, or till cast adrift as expendable, and do we willingly follow the leader to perdition if he is hellbound and determined for it; or do we rebel, overturn the structure of command, and lead ourselves even if such freedom entails a hard life? Is humanity as a whole worth our individual pains in this effort? Or, is the idea of restructuring human civilization — and soon — to jettison capitalism, authoritarianism, and their enabling fossil-fueled militarism and marbling corruption, just a chimera that would use up our individual life forces to no avail; is it simply better to accept the inevitability of inequitable finalities and “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” as Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote? (4)

I, personally, rebel at this surrender because I see it as a betrayal of our young people, and an insult to our honor and to our fully liberated frontal lobe intelligence (though much of that is neglected and unused, I’ll grant) and our technical capabilities. But I don’t dismiss the question: I guess I’ve gotten old.

It has been 31 years since climatologist James E. Hansen, in testimony to the U.S. Congress in June 1988, made one of the first assessments that human-caused warming had already measurably affected global climate. Shortly after, a “World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security” gathered hundreds of scientists and others in Toronto. They concluded that the changes in the atmosphere due to human pollution “represent a major threat to international security and are already having harmful consequences over many parts of the globe,” and declared that by 2005 the world should push its emissions some 20% below the 1988 level. (5)

Since then, basically, nothing substantive has been done by our governments to combat this existential threat. And today the reality of global warming climate change — the crisis of continuing existence — is known, viscerally, to everybody (even the liars).

Our geophysical problem is the slowing of the advance of global warming, by drastically reducing the rates of continuing accumulation in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases (like volatile organic compounds, VOCs) whose aggregate heat-trapping mass could push Earth’s climate system past an unknown threshold or “tipping point,” triggering a sudden and catastrophic transition to climatic conditions significantly more hostile to human survival.

What may not be fully appreciated is that our geophysical problem may be far beyond human capabilities to ever be resolved even were humanity to metamorphose itself through a rapid social evolution producing a miraculous reformulation of human civilization into an enlightened temporal Nirvana liberally powered entirely by green energy.

Will climate change drive humanity to extinction? If so, how much time have we got?, and how will it happen? These questions are on the minds of many people today. In this essay, I will follow paleontologists deep into the geological past to see if it can offer any analogs to the evolving climatic conditions of today, and in that way give us a window into our future.

Average Global Surface Temperature History

The trend of average global surface temperature between 1900 and 2100 — relative to the average temperature during 1951 to 1980 (the “datum” for our temperature scales here) — is shown in the following figure (6).

Projections (colored lines), with uncertainty bounds of ±1 standard deviation (shading), for future surface temperature rise from models that use different economic scenarios. Scenario A2 (in red) represents “business as usual” where temperature is projected to rise by the end of the century between 2°C and 5.5°C if no effort is made to constrain the rise of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, which by 2100 could range between 525ppm and 1000ppm (ppm = parts per million of the air volume). The solid bars at right indicate the best estimate (solid line) and possible ranges (grey shading) for each scenario. (6)

A view of this relative temperature history between 1880 and 2016 follows.

Notice that the temperature distance from the 1951-1980 average global surface temperature ranges from -0.8°C (1917) to +1.3°C (February 2016). Planet Earth today is about 1.5°C warmer than it was in the 19th century. What was the global surface temperature at earlier times?

Planet Earth has gone through many cycles of glacial and interglacial intervals over the previous 800,000 years. During those Ice Age climatic oscillations, the concentration of carbon dioxide gas (CO2) in the atmosphere cycled between about 170ppm and 300ppm, and temperature cycled between about +4°C and -10°C about our mean global surface temperature datum. (7)

Climate change during the previous 65 million years has been charted as follows. For the details of this image, see note (8).

The green trace shows oxygen isotope measurements (for the oxygen-18 isotope as a fraction of the oxygen present in the sample) on the stacked layers of carbonate (chalk) deposits down through the seafloor (obtained by core drilling), formed from the compacted shells of ancient foraminifera. Temperatures later than 13Mya (Mya = million years ago) are shown in the box at the lower right of the above image; the dashed horizontal line indicates the datum. Temperatures (relative to the datum) between 65Mya and 35Mya are shown in the box in the upper left of the image. Antarctica was glaciating, thawing and reglaciating between 35Mya and 13 Mya, and science has insufficient data to determine the temperature history for that complicated interval. (8)

Notice the little spike labeled PETM, at 56Mya in the image above. This is the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, a very short-lived (200,000 years) high temperature excursion. The height of this temperature spike is likely underestimated by a factor of 2 to 4 because of the coarse sampling and averaging involved in this record.

At least since 1997, the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum has become a focal point of considerable geoscience research because it probably provides the best past analog by which to understand impacts of global climate warming and of massive carbon input to the ocean and atmosphere, including ocean acidification. Although it is now widely accepted that the PETM represents a “case study” for global warming and massive carbon input to Earth’s surface, the cause, details and overall significance of the event remain perplexing. (9)

Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM)

The paleogeography of 56Mya was not that different from today; there was no ice at the poles, the Atlantic Ocean was not as wide as it is now, and India was only just beginning to collide with the rest of Asia. The climate during the Eocene Epoch (56Mya to 34Mya) was much warmer then today: Redwood trees grew in the Canadian Arctic, and the environment of that polar region looked like Okefenokee Swamp (straddling the state boundaries of present-day Florida and Georgia); mid-latitude continental interiors were warm through the winter, with giant palms growing in Wyoming and crocodiles ranging through the swamps and rivers. The poles remained ice-free during the entire interval spanning the Paleocene Epoch (66Mya to 56Mya) and the Eocene Epoch (56Mya to 34Mya).

The expected rise in average global surface temperature during the 90 years between 2010 and 2100 is like the rise in global temperature, going backwards in time, from ‘now’ to 35Mya: about 4°C to 5°C above the datum. “In just a few human lifetimes we’re going to change conditions in the atmosphere to a state that hasn’t been seen in 35 million years” commented Dr. Scott Wing (Curator of Fossil Plants, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC) in his detailed lecture on the PETM. (10)

During the Paleocene, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (also called “partial pressure”) was estimated to have been at 380ppm to 400ppm, and then rose to 800ppm just prior to the onset of the PETM (56Mya), producing a global temperature about 4°C warmer than our datum. The CO2 concentration then doubled or more to at least 1600ppm to 2000ppm within a few millennia at the start of the PETM, ‘quickly’ (in geological terms) producing an additional temperature rise of 4°C to 8°C.

Between 4,000 and 7,000 billion tons of carbon were injected into the atmosphere within the initial millennia of the PETM; the first (and biggest?) pulse lasting less than 2,000 years, and the emissions ending within 20,000 years. It would take the natural processes of CO2 removal 200,000 years to return the CO2 concentration and the global temperature to their levels prior to the onset of the PETM.

The amount of carbon injected into the atmosphere during the PETM is about the size of the carbon burp that would (will?) be realized by burning the entire fossil fuel reservoir humanity has at its disposal. However, the rate at which atmospheric carbon (CO2 and CH4) was emitted during the PETM is at least 10 times slower than today’s anthropogenic emissions! What may have taken 3,000 years during the PETM, we are accomplishing within 300 years; in fact 200 million years of fossil fuel accumulation has been burned in about 160 years.

The essential point here is that it will take 100,000 to 200,000 years to get back to the “normal” climate we left behind us in the middle of the 20th century. On this, Dr. Scott Wing commented: “The effects last for 200,000 years. So this is a global shift, which to a geologist looks like a transient change, like a perturbation, like a blip, but to any sane human it’s forever.”

Where did PETM carbon emissions come from? Science does not have a definitive answer, but its four estimates, ranked from most likely to least likely are:

— methane bubbling up out of warmed deep ocean methane hydrates (ice-like solids trapping methane, produced by microbes feeding on decaying organic matter, and formed in the cold and high pressure at the bottom of oceans) and then oxidizing in the atmosphere (CH4 combining with oxygen to produce CO2 and water vapor);

— extensive wildfires that included the burning of peat deposits (because the burning of all terrestrial vegetation alone would have produced insufficient carbon, so the burning of peat would also have been necessary);

— volcanic intrusions into organic-rich sediments at the floor of North Atlantic off Scandinavia (a region of very active volcanism at the time) cooking the sediments to release CO2 and methane;

— the warming and oxidation of any permafrost that may have remained, and it giving up lots of carbon.

It is possible that a combination of these four effects may have occurred.

All the soils formed in the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming during the 200,000 years of the PETM have been compacted to stacked layers of sediments 40 meters thick in total. During the PETM that region had a warm dry tropical climate; bean plants proliferated. Before and after the PETM the climate was temperate and bean plants were absent from the Big Horn Basin (at least in the respective fossil records). During the first 150,000 years of the PETM, warm climate plants (like beans) moved north even to the Arctic, and then retreated south during the last 50,000 years of the PETM, with temperate climate plants reappearing.

Plants growing in a high CO2 environment make less green pigment and have lower nutritive value, so plant eaters have to eat more to sustain themselves, or evolve to smaller sizes to reduce their metabolic requirements. Animals and insects did both during the PETM. Ancient horses first appeared in America at the very beginning of the PETM, and they ‘quickly’ shrank in size by about 30% — to the size of domesticated cats today. With the uptake of CO2 at the close of the PETM and the return to ‘normal’ Eocene conditions, this species of tiny horses increased in size by 76%. A similar shrinkage of body size during the PETM occurred for the other mammal species present at the time, including primates.

The four major scientific lessons of the PETM are:

— big emissions of carbon into atmosphere result in warmer climate and more acidic oceans, and that acid seawater dissolves deep marine chalk (and kills marine organisms living in the lower few kilometers of the oceans because dissolved oxygen has been scavenged — hypoxia — and because shell formation, for the protective casings required by many marine organisms, is impossible because of the acidity);

— there are self-reinforcing cycles of carbon release with increased temperature: CO2 and CH4 capture and retain heat and warm the atmosphere; that warms the oceans and results in intermittent rainfall on the continents (heavy rains with long dry spells between); that causes an abundant growth of vegetation, which parches during the droughts and dry spells and feeds wildfires releasing more CO2, heating the atmosphere and oceans further; that leads to the dissociation of marine methane hydrates, which release methane gas and heat the atmosphere and oceans even further; a sequence of vicious cycles;

— rapid global warming changed where plants and animals lived and how they interacted (this is affecting 21st century people, too), and drove rapid evolution in the body sizes (shrinkage) of mammals;

— and the effects last for 200,000 years because it takes Nature that long to clear out the excess CO2 from the atmosphere and oceans.

What brought the CO2 concentrations down and ended the PETM? The process of photosynthesis in growing plants pulled CO2 out of the air and bound it into nutrients (sugars, glucose, plant tissues), which partially migrated into animal tissues as food. CO2 was also absorbed by the surfaces of the oceans, and reacted at depth with carbonate compounds to dissolve the sea floor chalk and acidify the seawater. Over a longer term, 10% to 30% of the excess CO2 was removed by weathering reactions in soils, and the erosion by rain and streams of rocks imprisoning CO2 carried sediments back to the oceans, where they settled out on the sea bottom. Long after the time scale of the PETM, those seafloor sediments would be interred by subduction at tectonic plate boundaries.

Carbon uptake is slow. A computer simulation of the instantaneous dumping of 5,000 billion tons of carbon into atmosphere (producing an atmospheric concentration of 2,500ppm of CO2, by volume) showed that:

— roughly half of the CO2 comes out in first 1,000 years;

— 30% to 40% still remains at 10,000 years;

— and it isn’t all removed until after 100,000 years, so by about 150,000 to 200,000 years as occurred with the PETM.

A visual representation of CO2 uptake follows (11)

For a detailed description of the CO2 uptake processes, see note (11).

Similar computer modeling has been done for our climate future out to year 3000. Assuming that the entire fossil fuel reservoir is burned up by year 2100, injecting 5,000 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, the global temperature will rise to 4.5°C above datum by 2100 and remain there. Among the expected effects are a sea level rise of 1 meter by 2100, and 7.5 meters (25 feet) by year 3000 because the Greenland Ice Cap will have melted.

The major problem of having elevated global temperature for a long time — and it will be long since Nature takes “forever” to reabsorb atmospheric CO2 — is that major melting will eventually occur. As we are learning from direct observation today, that major melting may occur more rapidly than scientists were at first led to believe on the basis of their earlier computer modeling. If the Antarctic Ice Cap were also to entirely melt, sea level would be 66 meters (216 feet) higher in an ice-free world.

Could humanity today go on a furiously massive campaign to plant more trees and vegetation, so as to suck out excess CO2 from the atmosphere and stop global warming? No. We just can’t emplace enough plants to accomplish this, the rate of CO2 removal implied by this question is beyond the capability of Earth’s biosphere however lush. However, increasing the mass and area of vegetation (plants, trees) would slow the rates of CO2 accumulation and temperature increase, and help us lose ground (against the advance of global warming) less rapidly. So yes, plant!; it would also be a relief to wildlife sorely pressed with habitat losses.

Life in the Anthropocene

Geologists have recognized that we are now living in an epoch whose climate is fundamentally affected by human activity. That epoch has been termed the Anthropocene (12), and it was officially designated to have begun in the 4th quarter of 1965. (13)

“We have started the Anthropocene but the things that we think are untrammeled nature are already trammeled by us. There’s no eco-system on this planet that hasn’t had the human fingerprint on it some way or another. And many of the things that we think are beautiful and natural have already been modified by our ancestors, in ways that may not be obvious to us… What the Anthropocene perspective does is it helps us recognize that with [over] 7 billion people on the planet, and thousands of years, tens of thousands of years-long history already of modifying the planet, that it’s really too late to think about putting anything back the way it was,” Dr. Scott Wing.

I can think of 9 possible negative effects (mainly on human civilization) from severe global warming:

— reduced food production on land because of droughts and desertification, and a reduction of the nutritive value of crops because of high CO2 concentration;

— increased scarcity of fresh water, because of hot dry climatic conditions, intermittent rainfall, and huge population;

— the global spread of disease germs and usually tropical parasites, in a hotter world;

— loss of seafood with acidic seas, and increased starvation for animals and people;

— habitat losses for people, given significant coastal inundation and excessive heat and desertification in continental interiors;

— habitat losses for terrestrial wildlife as with humans, but also for marine life because of the reduced dissolved oxygen and increased acidity of the oceans;

— climate disaster-sparked mass migrations, which among humans will undoubtedly lead to clashes and even wars;

— resource scarcity wars (for basics like water, and for rarities like the semiconductor materials and metals essential to high tech electronics, and maybe in the extreme even for uranium deposits);

— increasingly heartless exclusion of the poor by the rich and powerful (a worldwide ‘Gazafication’ of the hapless poor).

We see some of each of these today, but the questions are: how much worse could it get?, and by when?

The development of human civilization over the last 10,000 years or so was aided by the benevolence of a very stable and moderate interglacial climate. In this new Anthropocene Epoch of increasing climate instability, we can anticipate major disruptions in human affairs, and given the socio-economic disparities and hostilities built into our human societies, we can anticipate the burdens of those disruptions to fall inequitably on poorer people. Misery will pushed down the gradient of wealth towards the destitute. In an extreme projection of pessimism, one could imagine conflicts of immiseration avoidance to devolve into extinction events, like a nuclear war.

However, the anticipated climate variations, like those of the PETM, will not in themselves be sufficiently extreme to force the actual physical extinction of humanity. In 7.95 billion years, when the Sun expands into a Red Giant star, then life on Planet Earth will be evaporated. But until such time, the most likely cause of a premature human extinction would be bad human behavior in response to the climate changes confronting humanity, and which we have caused.

It would be good for us to become familiar with how life is distributed in the Anthropocene, the epoch whose gallop we are spurring, so we can lead it more thoughtfully.

Humanity today comprises only 0.01% of all life on Planet Earth, but over the course of human history our species has destroyed 83% of wild mammal species. (14)

“The world’s 7.6 billion people [in May 2018] represent just 0.01% of all living things, according to the study. Yet since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds. The new work is the first comprehensive estimate of the weight of every class of living creature and overturns some long-held assumptions. Bacteria are indeed a major life form – 13% of everything – but plants overshadow everything, representing 82% of all living matter. All other creatures, from insects to fungi, to fish and animals, make up just 5% of the world’s biomass. Farmed poultry today makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% being wild. The picture is even more stark for mammals – 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals.” Where is all that life to be found?: 86% on land, 1% in the oceans, and 13% as deep subsurface bacteria. (14)

One suggested marker for the Anthropocene are the bones of domestic chickens, which are now ubiquitous around the globe. The marker recognized has having achieved complete coverage over the surface of Planet Earth by late 1965 is radioactive fallout from atmospheric atomic and nuclear bomb explosions.

Our Challenge

Remember that the biggest threat to humanity’s survival is anti-social human behavior; climate change alone can’t kill us.

If we choose to experience our present and future of changing climate as a competitive war game — with actual killing and willful destruction — to gain class, factional and ideological advantages in terms of physical security, habitability, food production, natural resource availability, standard of living and social status (ego gratification), then that species-wide dysfunctional response could ultimately lead to a collapse of civilization, and at its worst to a global nuclear war and then actual human extinction.

If we choose to experience our present and future of changing climate as an intellectual challenge to human ingenuity for technical innovation, and as a moral challenge for social organization and for the elimination of socio-economic disparities, then such a species-wide response would improve the human condition regardless of the degree of future climate variability and the geographical distribution of its effects on habitability.

Regardless of what we do or don’t do, the climate will change in ways governed by majestic and interlocking geophysical cycles spanning millennia. Our individual and species-wide experiences of living within this implacable reality will be set by how we choose to interact with each other. Nirvana or perdition are choices entirely within our grasp.

Many will say that obviously climate change as competitive war game is the only realistic alternative because it requires no behavioral changes from our over 10,000 years of “civilized” human history, and because eco-socialism is pure utopianism and thus beyond all realistic actualization. And of course, eco-socialism is impossible in a world of Ahabs and fanatical Ahab followers. But all that is just an excuse to continue with bad behavior. There are no actual physical or biological constraints preventing people from choosing to associate in an eco-socialist manner. The current societal improbability for deeply cooperative behavior does not make future species-wide collective cooperation an impossibility. Responding to climate change could provide a framework on which to build such a species-wide socialist civilization.

So, how would I respond to the Ahabs out there who would tell me: “Everything you say is wrong! God is White! Trump is Christ! Capitalism is Salvation! Ye cannot swerve me!” From me: You can’t accept it because then you wouldn’t be the person you are. You can’t learn if you are unwilling to change. And that, ultimately, is what climate change will be for us: a challenge to learn.

And finally, Nature to Ahab: Ye cannot swerve me! Your world may return in 200,000 years.

Notes

(1) Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or, The Whale, (1851), Penguin Books, 1992.

(2) Sperm Whale,
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sperm_whale

(3) Carl Gustav Jung, C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, Princeton University Press, 21 February 1987, edited by: William McGuire and R. F. C. Hull; “Diagnosing the Dictators” 1938, pages 115-135; “Jung Diagnoses the Dictators” 1939, pages 136-140; (dictators = Hitler, Stalin Mussolini).

(4) “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” (Robert Herrick)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_the_Virgins%2C_to_Make_Much_of_Time

(5) History of climate change science
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_climate_change_science

(6) Global Surface Temperature, 1900-2100
(relative to 1951-1980 average global surface temperature)
National Research Council 2011. Understanding Earth’s Deep Past: Lessons for Our Climate Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Figure 1.1, page 35 of the PDF file, page numbered 20 in the text.
Figure 1.1 SOURCE: IPCC (2007, Figure SPM.5, p. 14).
https://doi.org/10.17226/13111

(7) Global view answers ice age CO2 puzzle
April 4, 2012 — andyextance
https://simpleclimate.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/global-view-answers-ice-age-co2-puzzle/

The 800,000 year record of atmospheric CO2 from Antarctic ice cores, and a reconstruction of temperature based on hydrogen isotopes in the ice. The current [2012] CO2 concentration of 392 parts per million (ppm) is shown by the blue star. Credit: Jeremy Shakun/Harvard University

(8) 65 Million Years of Climate Change
(wikipedia, 13 July 2019)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:65_Myr_Climate_Change.png

This figure shows climate change over the last 65 million years. The data are based on a compilation of oxygen isotope measurements (δ18O) on benthic foraminifera by Zachos et al. (2001) which reflect a combination of local temperature changes in their environment and changes in the isotopic composition of sea water associated with the growth and retreat of continental ice sheets.

Because it is related to both factors, it is not possible to uniquely tie these measurements to temperature without additional constraints. For the most recent data, an approximate relationship to temperature can be made by observing that the oxygen isotope measurements of Lisiecki and Raymo (2005) are tightly correlated to temperature changes at Vostok as established by Petit et al. (1999). Present day is indicated as 0. For the oldest part of the record, when temperatures were much warmer than today, it is possible to estimate temperature changes in the polar oceans (where these measurements were made) based on the observation that no significant ice sheets existed and hence all fluctuation in (δ18O) must result from local temperature changes (as reported by Zachos et al.).

The intermediate portion of the record is dominated by large fluctuations in the mass of the Antarctic ice sheet, which first nucleates approximately 34 million years ago, then partially dissipates around 25 million years ago, before re-expanding towards its present state 13 million years ago. These fluctuations make it impossible to constrain temperature changes without additional controls.

Significant growth of ice sheets did not begin in Greenland and North America until approximately 3 million years ago, following the formation of the Isthmus of Panama by continental drift. This ushered in an era of rapidly cycling glacials and interglacials.

Also appearing on this graph are the Eocene Climatic Optimum, an extended period of very warm temperatures, and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (labeled PETM). The PETM is very short lived high temperature excursion possibly associated with the destabilization of methane clathrates and the rapid buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Due to the coarse sampling and averaging involved in this record, it is likely that the full magnitude of the PETM is underestimated by a factor of 2-4 times its apparent height.

(9) Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleocene%E2%80%93Eocene_Thermal_Maximum

(10) Global Warming 56 Million Years Ago, and What it Means For Us
30 January 2014
Dr. Scott Wing, Curator of Fossil Plants,
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
Washington, DC
[1:44:12]
https://youtu.be/81Zb0pJa3Hg

(11) CO2 “lifetime” in the atmosphere
National Research Council 2011. Understanding Earth’s Deep Past: Lessons for Our Climate Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Figure 3.5, page 93 of the PDF file, page numbered 78 in the text.
https://doi.org/10.17226/13111

CO2 Sweepers and Sinks in the Earth System
The carbon fluxes in and out of the surface and sedimentary reservoirs over geological timescales are finely balanced, providing a planetary thermostat that regulates Earth’s surface temperature. Initially, newly released CO2 (e.g., from the combustion of hydrocarbons) interacts and equilibrates with Earth’s surface reservoirs of carbon on human timescales (decades to centuries). However, natural “sinks” for anthropogenic CO2 exist only on much longer timescales, and it is therefore possible to perturb climate for tens to hundreds of thousands of years (Figure 3.5). Transient (annual to century-scale) uptake by the terrestrial biosphere (including soils) is easily saturated within decades of the CO2 increase, and therefore this component can switch from a sink to a source of atmospheric CO2 (Friedlingstein et al., 2006). Most (60 to 80 percent) CO2 is ultimately absorbed by the surface ocean, because of its efficiency as a sweeper of atmospheric CO2, and is neutralized by reactions with calcium carbonate in the deep sea at timescales of oceanic mixing (1,000 to 1,500 years). The ocean’s ability to sequester CO2 decreases as it is acidified and the oceanic carbon buffer is depleted. The remaining CO2 in the atmosphere is sufficient to impact climate for thousands of years longer while awaiting sweeping by the “ultimate” CO2 sink of the rock weathering cycle at timescales of tens to hundreds of thousands of years (Zeebe and Caldeira, 2008; Archer et al., 2009). Lessons from past hyperthermals suggest that the removal of greenhouse gases by weathering may be intensified in a warmer world but will still take more than 100,000 years to return to background values for an event the size of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM).

In the context of the timescales of interaction with these carbon sinks, the mean lifetime of fossil fuel CO2 in the atmosphere is calculated to be 12,000 to 14,000 years (Archer et al., 1997, 2009), which is in marked contrast to the two to three orders of magnitude shorter lifetimes commonly cited by other studies (e.g., IPCC, 1995, 2001). In addition, the equilibration timescale for a pulse of CO2 emission to the atmosphere, such as the current release by fossil fuel burning, scales up with the magnitude of the CO2 release. “The result has been an erroneous conclusion, throughout much of the popular treatment of the issue of climate change, that global warming will be a century-timescale phenomenon” (Archer et al., 2009, p. 121).

(12) Anthropocene
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropocene

(13) The Anthropocene’s Birthday
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2018/02/23/the-anthropocenes-birthday/

(14) Humans just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals – study
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/21/human-race-just-001-of-all-life-but-has-destroyed-over-80-of-wild-mammals-study

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F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lost American Lyricism

 

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F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lost American Lyricism

For me, the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) was an English Romantic Poet like John Keats (1795-1821), who experienced during his college years — that pivotal time of transition from youth to adulthood — the shock of World War I destroying the Belle Époque and unleashing the blaring, crass, destructive, frenzied and wasteful Youth Quake sociological explosion known as the Roaring Twenties, when the prewar Gilded Age was resuscitated — to eventually reach its apotheosis in Trumpian America — during the postwar prosperity of a hypocritically repressed Prohibition America that was an economic bubble flinging open the starting gates to the modernization of American manners, morals, rhythms, fantasies and expectations, and whose totality we have all experienced as the 20th Century, which we can date as the zeitgeist from 1919 to 2019.

The zeitgeist now is of self-evident global warming climate change, openly acknowledged by all except intransigent ultra wealthy buffoons clinging to their hoards and their pathetically transparent propaganda intended to ward off just taxation.

Fitzgerald was a literary artist, a lyrical romanticist who became the hip young voice of the 1920s outburst because he was able to apply his 19th century mindset and literary facility to articulate — as deep psychological insights of general applicability — his personal youthful experiences and observations of transiting through the World War I cultural shock wave thrusting his generation into the manic modernity of a vastly industrialized, depersonalized and entertainment-obsessed America.

It was because Fitzgerald’s conceptions had been formed in a previous social paradigm that he had a basis from which to objectively evaluate the new psycho-social realities of the 1920s. Younger and less alert people, whose entire awareness of social life awakened during the 1920s, lacked such a contrasting mental framework because they were blindingly immersed in, and distracted and buffeted by their times. Fitzgerald was young enough to be completely hip to and synchronized with the 1920s, but not too young to be unable to understand where the 1920s had emerged from, how they were different from the prewar past, and how they were experienced as matters of personal and societal character.

Fitzgerald, along with his older English contemporary W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), have given me the deepest psychological insights into women as men experience them, and into personal character as it expresses itself through interpersonal relationships, especially between the sexes.

A similar transition of American life occurred forty to fifty years later when the Vietnam War shattered the stability and stasis of 1950s America, from which erupted the cultural efflorescence and political turmoil of the late 1960s, which like the late 1920s burned off the general prosperity that had been accumulated during the economic boom hot-housed during the preceding period of victorious peace.

Culturally alert writers of the 1960s included Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-2007), Joseph Heller (1923-1999), Malcolm X (1925-1965) with Alex Haley (1921-1992), and Tennessee Williams (1911-1983). These writers were as different from F. Scott Fitzgerald as he was from Mark Twain (1835-1910), and none of these others matched Fitzgerald for lyricism, except for a memorable passage in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn — on the Mississippi River in early morning — and the calmly eloquent and reflective moments in Tennessee Williams’ dramas.

Fitzgerald was 14 when Twain died, and when Fitzgerald died at age 44 in 1940: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was 18, Joseph Heller was 17, Malcolm X was 15, Alex Haley was 19, and Tennessee Williams was 29. W. Somerset Maugham was 22 when F. Scott Fitzgerald was born, 36 when Mark Twain died, and 66 when F. Scott Fitzgerald died.

Twain’s war shocks were the American Civil War (1860-1865) and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), while Vonnegut’s and Heller’s were World War II (1941-1945), primarily, and also the Korean War (1950-1953, for the hot war) and the Vietnam War (1954-1975, for the American phase).

Fitzgerald’s life was so timed that during the third decade of his life — and prime adult years — he also experienced the societal shock of the Crash of 1929 and its immediate aftermath, the Great Depression (1929-1942), when the outlandish and dissipative prosperity of 1920s capitalism collapsed into the socio-economic wreckage of the 1930s, with his own personal circumstances tumbling into ruins along with the times.

I find Fitzgerald’s keen insights on personal motivations and character, and on interpersonal relationships, to be far superior to those of both earlier and later American writers because of how his English Romantic Poetic frame of mind processed his experiences with youthful success and the allurements of fame while confronting the postwar shock of the new in the 1920s, followed by the collapse of illusions with the loss of wealth and social status in the 1930s, and all of that filtered through his intense emotions pulsing out of his marriage to and care for Zelda Sayre, his socially advanced and schizophrenic wife, and mother of his only child.

I can see why Fitzgeraldian lyricism was stripped out of American writing in reaction to the serial disappointments of the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the sterility of the Tailfin ’50s, and the Vietnam War, and why Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and imitators of his arid style became popular to this day, given the post World War II re-acceleration of life’s American rhythm, and the relentless commercially driven dumbing down of the American mind.

The loss of lyricism from American literary fiction, since that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, is not a sign of its increased artistry and insight, but of the opposite.

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Appreciating F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Appreciating F. Scott Fitzgerald

After decades of resisting the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), thinking him and them as inconsequential and passé, I finally fell under their spell. He was a literary genius, a great romantic and perceptive and fundamentally tragic writer. His novel, The Great Gatsby, is shimmering, transcendental (beyond the powers of cinema to capture), and – from the perspective of our limited human lifetimes – eternal.

A collection of his short stories compiled in 1960, Babylon Revisited, is fascinating, showing how inventive he was at devising characters and plots detailing the intertwining of the psychologies of those characters. And he would present it all with fluidly lyrical prose of amazing compactness. What has drawn me to his stories is his implicitly deep understanding of the human heart, which he conveys from behind the casual facade of both manic and faded Jazz Age settings.

What I see from his own personal story is that every true artist must constantly struggle to be able to do the work that expresses their art and gives their life meaning, despite the enervating drag of the many demands heaped on one by the needs of economic survival, exhibiting sufficient conformity for social acceptance, and the emotional needs – and illusions – of close family. I think that is the great heroic epic of each artist’s personal life: somehow producing the work held deep in the heart and soul and mind, despite both the intentional and indifferent impediments placed before that artistic drive by life’s banalities. Some succeed better than others, and some are broken and fail in that they themselves are lost to life and their unknown art stillborn.

With all that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, I think that we are only seeing fragments of his potential, even given that he was one of America’s supreme literary artists. I appreciate his decades of struggle to produce those gems. It can be very hard to be an ordinary, imperfect human being gifted to be an instinctive channel to a primordial artistic insight and creative drive. His gift to us is the wider awareness we may gain by reading his stories, and immersing ourselves in his enthralling lyricism. I’ve now (16 March 2019) embarked on Tender Is The Night, which he called “a confession of faith.”

In the last year of his life, F. Scott Fitzgerald earned $13.13 in royalties ($238.44 in 2019 dollars) Since his death in 1940, more than 10 million copies of his books have been sold throughout the world (up to 2001).

An excellent documentary on F. Scott Fitzgerald was produced by PBS and shown in 2001; it includes interviews with people who knew him personally. The documentary on Fitzgerald produced by the BBC and shown in 2013 is an interesting and sympathetic literary criticism.

Winter Dreams: F Scott Fitzgerald’s Life Remembered (PBS, 2001)

https://youtu.be/XnEO8yT_ApM

Sincerely, F. Scott Fitzgerald (BBC, 2013)
https://youtu.be/cCfUsaX5F10

Standing back, looking at the U.S.A. today [16 March 2019], and reading Fitzgerald, one can’t help but remember the old talking point, Fitz or Hem? [Fitzgerald or Hemingway?] Some of us preferred the latter, the new prose style, the correct progressive politics, the lessons in manly courage. But the style has been absorbed, the politics were hardly heroic in the 1940s’ context, and the muscular courage is rather sickening just now as we get news of New Zealand, Paris and Manchester. Fitzgerald’s America, on the other hand, is still with us, money-orientated, cynical, romantic, racist and full of ambition that ends in crime.

— Peter Byrne

It has always been easy for me to see why Hemingway was popular with Americans, but for those very reasons I was not enthralled by him. I have enjoyed some of his prose, but never found a soul there that interested me. Now that I’m older, and have my own memories of being battered around in that money-oriented, cynical, racist and criminally ambitious America, I have found Fitzgerald’s tender heart and withering insights to be just right, both generally and for me. I learn slowly, but I’m glad when I do.

The above comments have already appeared at:
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2019/03/16/i-learn-about-f-scott-fitzgerald/

I finished reading Tender Is The Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, on 7 April 2019. I can’t remember ever being so affected by a novel. Fitzgerald’s amazing insights into human nature, human character, social interactions, and marriage, along with his breathtaking lyricism all just leave me stunned. Perhaps I lack the sophistication to know better, and be less impressed.

Also, there are quite a few parallels between Dick Diver’s (ersatz F.S.F.) story arc (as regards his Sentimental Education — see Flaubert) and my own. For me, were it not for the balm of decades having passed since my “Dick Diver” years, it would be painfully so.

I can see where some of the superficial aspects of the novel, such as the glib sophistication and the not-up-to-modern-day politically-correct standards as regards the mention of Negroes (though I found no actual lack of sympathy here) could put off the “typical” American reader today. But, for me, the power of the core insight, emotion and intelligence of the novel shines through those superficial trivialities, and leaves me in silent awe of the majestically tragic and accurate vision – the life – behind the whole work.

Fitzgerald thought this novel his best; he called The Great Gatsby a “tour de force” (it is superb, I liked it) but viewed Tender Is The Night as “a confession of faith.” Reading Tender Is The Night opened up a great insight into F.S.F., the man, for me because I could connect my inner experiences (on marriage and children, and even some on doing science) with his real and fictionalized lives. I can easily imagine being Dick Diver.

Scott was an incandescent artist, who was trapped by fate: by the emotional and financial entanglements brought on by a decent romantic and fundamentally boyish nature, by public fickleness, by societal shallowness and materialism, by marriage to madness, and by all-too-common-and-human personal weakness. Who doesn’t want to be loved?

My thoughts may not be entirely coherent here, but I am overwhelmed.

By 17 April 2019, I was deep into Love Of The Last Tycoon, A Western (F.S.F.’s final choice of title). He had a sharp eye and a wicked sense of humor. His abilities never diminished, though sadly he did. His prose is smooth and graceful while at the same time being so rich and suggestive.

After finishing this novel I’ll have to decide what to read next: This Side Of Paradise or The Beautiful And The Damned. I’ll probably end up reading both. I also have another collection of his short stories waiting to be read, Six Stories From The Jazz Age, And Other Stories. So far, Tender Is The Night is the one that hit me most forcefully in a personal way.

Your words were not lost on me. They got me thinking about Tender Is The Night that I’d read many years ago. I dug it out and launched into a rereading only finished just now [19 April 2019]. The Great Gatsby had always been my favourite among Fitzgerald’s books. I liked its perfect balance and the way it held the American dream up so we could view it from all sides, light and dark. Tender Is The Night struck me, first time around, as misshapen. I still think it suffered from being worked over for too many years. The author’s focus necessarily shifted. However, reading it again, I find the good parts more deeply felt than anything in The Great Gatsby. That was a younger man’s novel. With the years, Fitzgerald, like you and me, got deeper into himself. I think that’s why it touches us so now. I don’t believe we should impose our standards of political correctness on authors of the past. The very fact that they might be out of line for us today is a valuable lesson. I confess that one little thing does annoy me in Fitzgerald’s thinking. Here Hemingway was right. When his friend F.S.F. told him that the rich were different, i.e., beings on a higher plane, Hem replied, “Of course they’re different. They have more money”.

— Peter Byrne

I’m put off a bit by Hemingway’s treatment of Fitzgerald, the man who recommended him to Max Perkins [the editor of both] at Scribner’s [their publisher], which got Hemingway launched on his celebrated career. Besides publicly disparaging Fitzgerald when he was down (in 1936, with the publication of Fitzgerald’s three-part essay, The Crack-Up, in Esquire Magazine), he didn’t even have the courtesy to attend Fitzgerald’s lonely funeral (in very late December 1940), where only eleven people attended (according to one attendee who described the scene in the documentary Winter Dreams), mostly locals from the family that he had rented a house from in Maryland. I haven’t run across anything negative said about Hemingway by Fitzgerald, but only good things (including in The Crack-Up). I don’t think that responding to Fitzgerald with graciousness instead of pettiness would have hurt Hemingway’s John Wayne style macho man public image, it would probably have burnished it instead. But, writers and artists of all kinds are human, and humans are imperfect, and I may be asking too much of some of the icons.

One thing about Fitzgerald that I now know is that he was really a poet, a prose writer who sought to achieve the artistry of the great romantic English poets: Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth. No wonder he was ground down by the commercialism and shallowness of the make-a-quick-buck magazine trade and movie script writing he was forced to do. Just yesterday [20 April 2019], I finished Fitzgerald’s short story The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. In it I found a line about an August night, so atmospheric, so vivid, so perfect, something the like of which I will never be able to produce, that I copied and saved it:

It was a gorgeous evening. A full moon drenched the road to the lustreless color of platinum, and late-blooming harvest flowers breathed into the motionless air aromas that were like low, half-heard laughter.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, from The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, section V.

It is writing like this that makes capturing a Fitzgerald story on film, beyond a mere mechanical visualization of raw plot, impossible.

I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion.

— F.S.F., The Crack-Up, 1936

As to Fitzgerald’s failure of political consciousness, he is pretty explicit about owning up to in the The Crack-Up, and once having done so openly it is impossible to imagine he did not have a decent political and class consciousness thereafter. He even mentions Lenin and refuses to disparage Marxists in The Crack-Up. The mid to late 1930s were years of revolutionary labor unrest and socialist advances in the United States: the West Coast longshoremen’s and general strike of 1934, the GM Fischer Body Plant sit-in strike of 1935, and the Social Security Act was signed into law that same year. The 40-year-old Fitzgerald was as different from his 20-year-old Princeton college boy self (on the make, like Gatsby), as was the bottom of the Great Depression for the down-and-outers, from the glittering carefree abandon of the leisure class of the 1920s.

I find it very impressive, admirable, that throughout his writer’s career Fitzgerald managed to produce so much inventive and lyrical work despite his personal circumstances, and that his artistry deepened as he soldiered on.

The Crack-Up
F. Scott Fitzgerald
[originally published as a three-part series in the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Esquire.]
https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a4310/the-crack-up/

The Moment F. Scott Fitzgerald Knew He Was a Failure
By Lili Anolik
Sep 22, 2015
https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/a38113/f-scott-fitzgerald-1015/

You’re right about Hemingway’s nastiness to Fitzgerald. He makes him appear a befuddled adolescent in A Moveable Feast, otherwise a little book of great charm. A case of the survivor writing history or anyway having the last word, I suppose.

I’ve gone through The Crack-Up and autobiographical pieces again. To my mind, Echoes of the Jazz Age, My Lost City and Early Success are fine, low-intensity essays full of welcome information. Ring, the piece on [Ring] Lardner is a marvellous bit of lit-crit of the kind that only a writer himself can offer another writer. How different from Hem on Fitz! It convinced me that Ring Lardner is the model for Abe North in Tender Is The Night. The Crack-Up proper simply recalls in a kind of diary note what the author already so powerfully represented in Tender Is The Night, Dick’s personal crisis and downhill slide.

Fitzgerald for me is a novelist of greater scope and emotional depth than Hemingway. One little thing, though, bothers me in his outlook. It’s just a germ, his idea of success. But I can’t see it as not leading to the way our esteemed president [Trump] divides humanity into “winners” and “losers”.

— Peter Byrne

I suspect that one of the causes of Fitzgerald’s great disappointment in later life (besides Zelda’s mental health) was the utter shattering of his idea of “success” as it pertained to his own career: the bitterness of a formerly naïve optimist.

Speaking of ‘success’ and its ‘disappointments’, I’ve seen many people who feel life has cheated them out of the success they felt entitled to in their younger imaginations.

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Sheilah and Scott, and Abe North
2 May 2019

Sheilah Graham (1904-1988), a successful Hollywood gossip columnist, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) saw each other for the first time at a party thrown by the humorist Robert Benchley on 14 July 1937. Sheilah and Scott soon embarked on a live-in romance that would last until Scott’s death on 21 December 1940. Scott died from a heart attack while in Sheilah’s apartment in Hollywood, while they were each reading during the afternoon. Sheilah told the story of her three-and-a-half years with Scott in her autobiographical book Beloved Infidel (1958), whose title was copied from the title of a poem about Sheilah written by Scott as a present to her.

Fitzgerald was quite a character, scintillating, erudite, charming, warm (to intimates like Sheilah) and witty when sober, but unpredictable when inebriated: by turns silly, manic, aggressive, or conked-out (gin was the preferred “stimulant”). Sheilah Graham (and her co-author Gerold Frank) did a very nice job of giving a clear, vivid, honest and sympathetic portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the man, during these last years of his life.

By 1937, Fitzgerald was in debt to about $40,000, according to Graham (which is equivalent to $726,000 in 2019 dollars); his wife Zelda had often been hospitalized for psychiatric problems since 1930 and essentially lived in hospital-sanatoriums from 1934 through 1940; and Scott and Zelda’s daughter, Scottie (1921-1986), was at boarding school and college. To make the money necessary to pay for all this, Fitzgerald accepted work as a screen-writer, from mid 1937 through 1938 (about 78 weeks).

Fitzgerald was paid $1000/week ($18,200/week in 2019 dollars) for the first six months, and $1250/week ($22,700/week in 2019 dollars) for the last twelve months. The estimated gross pay for Fitzgerald (assuming 26 weeks at $1000 and 52 weeks at $1250) was $91,000 ($1.653M in 2019 dollars) — but there were taxes. Despite his lordly income during 1937-1938, Fitzgerald had to live fairly modestly in order to meet all his financial obligations (he drove a used Ford).

Though his attempt to transform himself into a screenwriter and potential movie-maker was a complete flop, and though experiencing serial artistic frustrations and social embarrassments while in late 1930s Hollywood “…the film work was beneficial. It extricated Fitzgerald from a period in which he had been depressed and incapable of writing successfully. It enabled him to repay most of his debts and it gave him the time to start his last novel. It provided him with a plot [for The Love Of The Last Tycoon, A Western]. His unfinished novel captured a unique portrayal of the film industry. He left us with a wonderful work in progress. Undoubtedly, the final version would have been greater.” [Alan, Margolies, Fitzgerald and Hollywood, from The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Ruth Prigozy, 2002].

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Peter Byrne wrote that he saw Abe North, one of the tragic characters in Tender Is The Night, as being inspired by the real Ring Lardner, one of Fitzgerald’s drinking buddy writer friends, whose full potential was squelched by alcoholism.

Milton R. Stern, in his essay Tender Is The Night and American History (in The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Ruth Prigozy, 2002), wrote that “in many details Abe North was in part consciously modeled on Fitzgerald’s friend, Ring Lardner” and that “The corruption of the legacy of Lincoln in the legacy of the Grant administration is encompassed in the devolution from the great Abe of the North to an Abe North whose drunken ruin of his great promise is the debauched national heritage after the war [World War I].”

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From: The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Ruth Prigozy, 2002

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Soon after the publication of The Great Gatsby, John Dewey was to write that “the loyalties which once held individuals, which gave them support, direction, and unity of outlook on life, have well-nigh disappeared.” The world of The Great Gatsby is a version of the new social world feared by the tradition of American moralists from William James to John Dewey. It is a world of broken relationships and false relationships; a world of money and success rather than of social responsibility; a world in which individuals are too free to determine their moral destinies.

Harmony and discord have the same relationship to each other as expectation and reality.

Ronald Berman, The Great Gatsby and the twenties, in The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Ruth Prigozy, 2002

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8 May 2019

Two “F. Scott Fitzgerald” movies:

Last Call is based on the memoirs of Frances Kroll Ring (1916-2015), Fitzgerald’s last secretary, and sounding board, to whom he dictated his last novel The Love Of The Last Tycoon, A Western. Frances Kroll Ring’s book (1985), highly praised by both scholars and Fitzgerald aficionados for its accuracy, detail and sympathy, is about the last two years (1939-1940) of Fitzgerald’s life. Frances Kroll Ring (herself in 2002) appears at the end of the film. A very well made film, as close as we’ll ever get to “being there” with Scott. Jeremy Irons plays Scott, Neve Campbell plays Frances Kroll Ring, both excellently in my opinion. The Cambridge Companion To F. Scott Fitzgerald (2002) is dedicated to Frances Kroll Ring “with affection, gratitude, and respect from everyone who reveres F. Scott Fitzgerald as man and artist.”

Getting Straight is a fun movie of college life and protest in 1970, and centers on a much put upon ex-activist and graduate student of literature (“Harry,” played by Elliot Gould) who ultimately gives it all up (except the girl) in a very spirited defense of the art and spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald. This movie was approvingly pointed out by Ruth Prigozy, the editor of The Cambridge Companion To F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was surprised at how many references Harry makes to characters and incidents in both Fitzgerald’s novels and in his life (with Zelda and then Sheilah Graham). The movie can be fun without having to know all these references, but it is much funnier being in the know. I thought, my god!, this bright, breezy, light-hearted confection from 1970 would be over the heads of the illiterate comic-book-cartoon-movie-consuming popular audiences of today: we’re doomed!

Last Call (2002, trailer)
https://youtu.be/uzxx8C2xWDc

Getting Straight (1970, stills and music)
https://youtu.be/vWER0TLWLuo

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I Learn About F. Scott Fitzgerald

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, with daughter Scottie

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I Learn About F. Scott Fitzgerald

After decades of resisting the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), thinking him and them as inconsequential and passé, I finally fell under their spell. He was a literary genius, a great romantic and perceptive and fundamentally tragic writer. His novel, The Great Gatsby, is shimmering, transcendental (beyond the powers of cinema to capture), and – from the perspective of our limited human lifetimes – eternal. A collection of his short stories compiled in 1960, Babylon Revisited, is fascinating, showing how inventive he was at devising characters and plots detailing the intertwining of the psychologies of those characters. And he would present it all with fluidly lyrical prose of amazing compactness. What has drawn me to his stories is his implicitly deep understanding of the human heart, which he conveys from behind the casual facade of both manic and faded Jazz Age settings. What I see from his own personal story is that every true artist must constantly struggle to be able to do the work that expresses their art and gives their life meaning, despite the enervating drag of the many demands heaped on one by the needs of economic survival, exhibiting sufficient conformity for social acceptance, and the emotional needs – and illusions – of close family. I think that is the great heroic epic of each artist’s personal life: somehow producing the work held deep in the heart and soul and mind, despite both the intentional and indifferent impediments placed before that artistic drive by life’s banalities. Some succeed better than others, and some are broken and fail in that they themselves are lost to life and their unknown art stillborn. With all that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, I think that we are only seeing fragments of his potential, even given that he was one of America’s supreme literary artists. I appreciate his decades of struggle to produce those gems. It can be very hard to be an ordinary, imperfect human being gifted to be an instinctive channel to a primordial artistic insight and creative drive. His gift to us is the wider awareness we may gain by reading his stories, and immersing ourselves in his enthralling lyricism. I’ve now embarked on Tender Is The Night, which he called “a confession of faith.” In the last year of his life, F. Scott Fitzgerald earned $13.13 in royalties. Since his death in 1940, more than 10 million copies of his books have been sold throughout the world.

Winter Dreams: F Scott Fitzgerald’s Life Remembered (PBS, 2001)
https://youtu.be/XnEO8yT_ApM

Sincerely, F. Scott Fitzgerald (BBC, 2013)
https://youtu.be/cCfUsaX5F10

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Climate Crisis, Elite Panic, and Mass Exclusion

John Davis’s interesting article in Counterpunch,

Are We Moderns Or Terrestrials?
7 February 2019
https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/02/07/are-we-moderns-or-terrestrials/

Describes the idea of “social triage” practiced by a global wealth elite, to exclude the mass of Earth’s people from the finite natural bounty our planet can supply to humanity; this drive being accelerated by the obvious threats of the accelerating Climate Crisis. Davis writes:

In [the book] Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, 2018, Bruno Latour, the French philosopher and sociologist, writes, “To the migrants from outside who have to cross borders and leave their countries at the price of immense tragedies, we must, from now on, add the migrants from inside who, while remaining in place, are experiencing the drama of seeing themselves left behind by their own countries”.

Davis’s article reminds me of earlier sallies on this topic.

The most prescient, to my mind, was Tony Judt’s essay The Social Question Redivivus, which appeared in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1997 (and is still behind a paywall) and was reprinted as the last selection in Judt’s book Reappraisals, Reflections On The Forgotten Twentieth Century (Penguin Books, 2008). Except for the mention of Climate Change, Judt’s 1997 article laid out a very detailed exposition of the same form of triage as Davis (and Latour) now describe 22 years later.

I wrote a short gloss on Judt’s books and this topic in particular as

Tony Just, Edward Snowden, And “The Excluded”
1 July 2013
http://swans.com/library/art19/mgarci66.html

Also, on the idea of triage being practiced by the global wealth elite to separate “the excluded” from the finite bounty of the Earth, a very similar idea formed the core of Joseph Heller’s 1994 novel Closing Time (Simon and Schuster, 1994), which is both a reminiscence of their youth by WWII generation Brooklyn NY Jews, and a scathing satire of late 20th century American political attitudes. In the novel, a nitwit President of the U.S. plays a video game called Triage, which is actually a command console connected to an underground technological complex (based on the Reagan Administration idea of an underground mobile MX missile complex) for secretly controlling the day-to-day process of manipulating both selected individuals and the population as a whole, and ultimately of mass exclusion by nuclear war.

Davis notes that the basic practice by wealth elites of working hard to exclude the mass of people from prosperity, and to enslave them, is ancient. His (and Latour’s) point is that climate change is adding pressure to that elite drive for mass immiseration.

The implication of the above is that some form of serious and vigorous populist movement that successfully addresses climate change despite elite opposition (combining geo-technical strategies of direct mitigation, individual and societal adaptation, and — obviously — economic justice, a.k.a. “socialism”) is necessary for an organized human survival with decency.

We all know the problem. Our challenge (which may be tragically beyond us) is to triumph over the Climate Crisis and the elite selfishness driving it.

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The Inner Dimensions of Socialist Revolution

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The Inner Dimensions of Socialist Revolution

The social revolution has to precede the political revolution. Personal self-realization has to precede the social revolution.

Achieving social change in America through political change – legislatively – as for example with the Civil Rights legislation of 1964 to 1968, is too slow a process today for overturning American capitalism to American socialism in time to effectively respond to climate change and global environmental degradation, by shifting American civilian energy production from fossil and nuclear fuels to solar, wind and geothermal sources, and ocean-wave-and-tidal and river hydroelectric sources, accompanied by a wide spectrum of energy conservation strategies and materials recycling and reprocessing methods, instead of indiscriminate and polluting waste disposal.

In fact, the political path to social change may be completely plugged shut today, with the fanatical obstructionism by capital interests who collectively own America’s two major political parties, and whose various outmoded environmentally catastrophic schemes of wealth generation are fossilized in place within an overarching 19th century paradigm of CO2-producing industrialization and labor exploitation, directed by frantic casino-style banking and financial speculation.

So, the timely development of a popular, scientific and effective national response to counteract the global geophysical crisis we call “climate change” must occur outside the arcane political machinery of our money-corrupted representative democracy. Basically, “the people” would have to independently develop a sense of national solidarity, overcoming all regionalisms and bigotries, and independently get organized to shift the ways they live and the ways they earn their keep, from a reliance on “black” versus “green” energy, and from a reliance on adversarial-capitalist economics versus cooperative-socialist economics. Given such a social revolution, it would then be possible to mount a massive campaign to counter climate change.

But, is such a social revolution possible? Can a majority of the national population actually free itself from the many shackles, control methods and seductions of corporate capitalism, by willfully bonding into one massive mutually tolerant and mutually helping cooperative, independent of the existing government: into a self-directed revolutionary socialism? This would require an incredible unanimity of vision and an amazing degree of commitment and discipline among hundreds of millions of people, to independently coalesce into a self-sustaining socialized mass able to overcome the opposition of the intransigent corporate capitalist establishment.

Any clear-thinking person will see that the idea of a spontaneous eruption of popular revolutionary socialism that independently counteracts climate change is impossible, and by chained logic such a clear-thinking person will also realize that we humans will never counteract climate change but instead will be plowed under by it, like the terrain downhill from an advancing glacier, because we are so inattentively self-absorbed and fatally wedded to the preservation of our inequitable and dysfunctional capitalism.

So, is the most intelligent tack then to stop agonizing over climate change and give up wasting time and energy in doomed attempts to put off the geophysical inevitable? Should we all just become Trumps and luxuriate carefree in capitalist mud-wallows for as long as they are available? Why bother trying to change the unchangeable?, sacrificing the good times of today for a restrictive future that will never occur anyway? Why not just keep grabbing for the money and enjoy doing that like we always have?

My answer is: half a loaf is better than none. Even if climate change is an implacable civilization-ending geophysical tsunami, I think we all would have a relatively better collective life for the duration of our species if we could develop even a scattering of minor uncoordinated popular socialist initiatives – anti-capitalist and anti-militarist – that directly confront specific aspects of the multi-faceted colossus of climate change and its social disruptions. These initiatives would include the election into public office of ecological-socialist candidates, like today’s young, enthusiastic Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), even if in small numbers. Why? Because any political efforts by eco-socialist officeholders that reach the public as actionable realities will benefit some fraction of the population, since such efforts would either ameliorate, blunt or end specific sociopathologies of our pure id capitalism.

Why give in to despair, dejection and acquiescence to a capitalist climapocalypse? Why not actualize through our own individual living presences the attitudes and one-to-one human connections that inject intelligent compassion and fulfilling artistry into the society around us, and in that way we become focal points of the socialist revolution we can imagine? How do you think a politically successful socialist revolution could be formed in the first place, if not by the weaving together of masses of one-to-one personal relationships of such self-realized individuals into a vast societal network?

Ultimately, it is not about “being saved” by external agents, like “good politicians” and “good laws” and “good governments,” from victimization by looming climate change disasters; it is about transcending who we are as merely passive fearfully insular consumers, and realizing that we are each, literally, individual expressions of the cosmos, and then operating out of that realization with a self-directed living-out of our socialist visions. Such living is the best that we humans can do, both individually and as socialized clusters, regardless of whether we are eventually plowed under by climapocalypse, or completely overcome it.

As an individual biological organism, you incorporate the formation of the cosmos within you as the subatomic particles, which first erupted out of the Big Bang, that are within the atoms of your materiality. Those atoms are almost entirely empty space, their nuclei (which are clusters of protons and neutrons) occupy only between 10^-14 to 10^-12 of the volume of the atom; that is to say 1 part in a hundred trillion, to 1 part in a trillion of the otherwise empty volume of the atom. The extent of that atomic space is defined by the electrical fields that transmit the forces connecting the nucleus to the point particle electrons flickering (“orbiting”) about it. These atoms are in turn clustered in simple molecules, like water (H2O), oxygen (O2), nitrogen (N2) and glucose (C6H12O6), and in massive and complex molecules like DNA. But even so, our personal matter is made of pinpoints of atomic grit suspended in empty space and meshed together by forces communicated across electrical links called chemical bonds. When you press your palm on a tabletop and feel the firm resistance of that structure, you are actually experiencing a force of electrical repulsion between the electro-chemical integrity of the mostly empty space tabletop, and the electro-chemical integrity of the mostly empty space you! Imagine such an atomic-molecular “net of gems” – as the ancient Buddhists called “the interdependence of all things” – as a metaphor for the revolutionary socialist net-of-gems network we would like to weave ourselves into, and to have a transformative effect on our political economy.

The “chemical bonds” of our wished-for socialist revolution are the one-to-one personal connections we “atoms” of that network fling out like spider silk to weave our self-realized selves into that net of gems. What matters is the sympathy of vision, and the moral character and personal integrity of the people we seek connection with. What does not matter are superficial attributes like their ethnicity, their physical characteristics, their birth language, their “style,” their default and unthinking microscopically sectarian political alignments (please!, forget about these uselessly trivial distractions!).

A friend of mine is a Vietnam War veteran who survived over sixty-four artillery barrages while trapped on a hilltop during the First Battle of Khe Sanh. He crystalized the essential idea here this way: “There are some people you want in your foxhole, and some you don’t.” My goal is to be “foxhole worthy” for people like him, and I judge others by the same criterion. At that high metaphysical level of socialist vision, we are synchronized; at the mundane street level of routine personal interaction, we give each other spontaneous rides when our cars unexpectedly break down on the road and we call for help, and when either of our cars are in the shop and we need to make a doctor’s appointment. We also share lunch breaks and stories. If and when it comes to serious action – foxhole time – we know we can count on each other. There are other men and women I share a similar connection with, people who are aware of the realities of our times, and have a compassionate intelligence about the direction of their lives, which goes beyond the effort to physically and economically sustain themselves, to also inject some goodness and humane connection – socialism – into the public sphere they are immersed in. It is with such people that I am associated with – “socialized” – in voting for our “progressive candidates,” and advocating – each in our own way – for an anti-capitalist and anti-militarist social transformation; and it is with such people that I can imagine being next to during any sudden eruption of a volcanic socialist revolution.

The Trumpians and their ilk are empty people. They need all that money, glittery stuff and power, to encrust their lonely hollowness with, so as to give them the illusion of actually being somebody and having actually accomplished something with their profiteering, exploitation and hoarding. But, sadly, they are human failures: they either deny or have no realization of their fundamental reality as expressions of Nature, nor of their potential for experiencing true fulfillment as individuals consciously interconnected in a humane socialist net-of-gems.

Don’t get distracted from the fundamentals by trivial details. Everything you need to know about self-realization – the atomic cores of our socialist revolution – was set down in the Upanishads, 2800 years ago. Everything you need to know about self-directed living, whether for meshing amicably with society or slicing through it for just cause – the electro-chemical bonds of integrity, and the forces of material opposition for our socialist revolution – was set down in the Bhagavad Gita, 2300 years ago. Everything you need to know about politics at the street level of pure, hard materialism – the movement-wide actions of our desired socialist revolution in opposition to dictatorial and enslaving moneyed power – was set down by Thucydides 2400 years ago. Everything written since is at best a gloss on the fundamentals already given, encrusted with elaborations on details about the cultures and times those later writings came out of; or they are at worst a complete diversion into varieties of ignorance, whether presented as texts of religious revelation, or advances of political theory. Read the originals and see for yourself.

In summary: each human being is something Nature is doing; realize and celebrate this, and from such realization free your mind from passivating confinement by corporate capitalist infotainment, herding by fear, and want-inducing indoctrination; from that personal mental liberation, direct yourself toward perfecting your character and achieving your full human potential (an endless endeavor); from such self-focused mental independence and moral drive, exercise the bravery of tolerance by seeking to make connections with other people of similar vision and moral drive; and then from your network of such personal connections try to weave yourself into a grander socialist net-of-gems that may in time capture and transform the nation, and perhaps even someday the world.

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The Ultimate Great American Novel

“The Great American Novel” is an idea difficult to define yet clear in every American mind, or at least in the minds of some of America’s readers. It is that ideal book that captures some universal quality of American life and popular aspiration, and especially of quintessential patterns of American thought and speech at a particular time and place during the nation’s history. For a truly timeless work, it would give an insight into enduring universalities of Americanness as perceived through a compelling story cast in idiomatic and ephemeral particulars.

It is impossible for any one novel to achieve this ideal for any length of time, or even at all. But, a few do ascend artistically far above the accumulated mass of published and unpublished American novels. Here are eight that I think qualify as being contenders for the unattainable title of “The Great American Novel.”

First, they are listed by publication date:

Moby-Dick
(Herman Melville, 1851)
(1820s-1840s New England whalers at sea)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
(Mark Twain, 1884)
(1830s-1840s, rafting down the Mississippi River)

The Great Gatsby
(F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925)
(1922, love longing, triangles and betrayal in wealthy suburban New York)

The Grapes of Wrath
(John Steinbeck, 1939)
(1930s homeless Oklahoma farmers on the road in California)

The Catcher In The Rye
(J. D. Salinger, 1951)
(1950, a prep school boy’s New York City)

To Kill A Mockingbird
(Harper Lee, 1960)
(1933-1935, in a rural Southern town)

Catch-22
(Joseph Heller, 1961)
(1942-1944, US Army Air Force men in Italy)

Slaughterhouse-Five
(Kurt Vonnegut, 1969)
(1944-1945, 1968, 1976, US Army survivor of the Dresden fire-bombing).

Secondly, they are listed by the time periods of their stories:

Moby-Dick
(1820s-1840s)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
(1830s-1840s)

The Great Gatsby
(1922)

The Grapes of Wrath
(1930s)

To Kill A Mockingbird
(1933-1935)

Catch-22
(1942-1944)

Slaughterhouse-Five
(1944-1945, 1968, 1976)

The Catcher In The Rye
(1950).

Thirdly, they are listed in my rank order:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Moby-Dick

The Great Gatsby

The Grapes of Wrath

The Catcher In The Rye

Catch-22

Slaughterhouse-Five

To Kill A Mockingbird.

I would group the eight novels thematically as follows:

Moral defiance versus obedience to the avaricious and vengefully obsessed, before the Civil War:
– The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
– Moby-Dick

The soulful poets among the materialistic urban elite, as social failures by definition:
– The Great Gatsby
– The Catcher In The Rye

Prejudice against the wretched dispossessed in a time of economic depression:
– The Grapes of Wrath
– To Kill A Mockingbird

The sanity of being creatively insane to try surviving the random heartless cruelties of war, and of life:
– Catch-22
– Slaughterhouse-Five

So, perhaps an Ultimate Great American Novel would offer us the compelling attraction of seeing strong individual moral character successfully defy the social strictures that direct people into lives of soulless materialistic gain and obsessive and even vengeful ambition; and, by artful indirection rather than polemics, it would lead us to condemn those aspects of our society by which the most wretched and dispossessed are inflicted with the cruelest forms of exclusion, exploitation and persecution; and it would show us how to recognize those morally insightful and artistically apt observers of our unappealing and often denied social realities, despite the casting off of such poets by materialism’s powerful. Finally, such a novel would delight us with a realization of good triumphing over monolithic indifference, by showing how its good-hearted empathetic poet-observers and realists, who captivate our attention, escape monstrous injustices and random fatal cruelties by their own artful nonconformities. Seeing such escapes would give us a lightening hope: perhaps we could do it too.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910) wrote that “a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,” and Huckleberry Finn is “a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.” Because of his innate good character and his beneficial friendship with Jim, an escaped slave, the adolescent Huckleberry Finn comes to see black slavery and its enabling racism as morally wrong despite their being treated as upright and legally essential to American society, by the white adults of his time. It is important to note that Jim, the runaway black slave, is the noblest adult in this story. This is the quintessential American novel, scintillating and funny, still fresh, still relevant, still controversial.

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

Herman Melville (1819-1891) wrote “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world” and “the greatest book of the sea ever written” (D. H. Lawrence). It tells of Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest, aboard the whaling ship Pequod, for revenge against the white whale, Moby-Dick, for having bitten off his leg at the knee on a previous voyage. Melville gives detailed and realistic descriptions of whale hunting, the extraction of whale oil, and life aboard ship among a culturally diverse crew. Mixed into this narrative are explorations of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of God.

The Great Gatsby

In 1923, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (1896-1940) wanted to write “something new – something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” That effort produced his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. The story centers on the young and mysterious millionaire, Jay Gatsby, and his quixotic and obsessive passion for the beautiful former debutante Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby’s main problem is Daisy’s oafish, wealthy husband, Tom Buchanan. Because of their inherited wealth, Tom and Daisy are spoiled and thus careless people, and that causes damage to others of humble origins who have their own great aspirations: the American Dream. The story is told by lyrical observer and incidental participant Nick Carraway. Fitzgerald’s artful, fluid prose conveys not only the interesting plot of the social drama, but a sense of the times, the nature of the characters, and – very subtly – his own judgments about each of these.

The Grapes of Wrath

While preparing this novel, John Steinbeck (1902-1968) wrote: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects],” he also said “I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” The Grapes of Wrath is the story of the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, changes in the agricultural industry, and bank foreclosure. Down and out and on the road during the Dust Bowl, the Joads set out for California along with thousands of other “Okies” in the hopes of finding jobs, land, dignity, and a future. Steinbeck’s sympathies for people like the Joads, and his accessible realist prose style, brought him a large following among the working class worldwide, and recognition with the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1962.

The Catcher In The Rye

Jerome David Salinger (1919-2010) matched Mark Twain’s achievement in Huckleberry Finn, of presenting the story of a rebellious and kind-hearted teenager, Holden Caulfield, in the very specific idiomatic speech of the protagonist, his peers, time and place. This novel presents an unparalleled view into the angst and alienation filling a perceptive teenage boy’s mind, trying to unravel the complexities of innocence, identity, belonging, loss, and connection. James Joyce had said that he wanted his own book, Ulysses, to be so richly detailed in describing Dublin on 16 June 1904 that one could thereafter recreate the entire city of that time out of his novel. Salinger did just that, with The Catcher In The Rye, for the New York City of a prep school lad during Christmas week, 1950.

Catch-22

Joseph Heller (1923-1999) mined his experiences as a U.S. Army Air Corps B-25 bombardier, who flew 60 combat missions on the Italian Front during World War II, to write his best novel, Catch-22. This satiric novel unfolds in a non-chronological manner, and it centers on Captain John Yossarian, a B-25 (a twin engine, medium bomber) bombardier, who along with his companions attempts to maintain his sanity during his time at war, despite its continuous undercurrent of deep dread, which is punctuated by random instances of explosive terror. The great hope is to return home alive. There are many comical elements in this book, and Yossarian is a serious nonconformist, a wise ass, but all these laughs are forms of gallows humor to help these men trapped in war to momentarily release their tightly knotted tensions. This is an anti-war book. In the novel, the Catch-22 itself is a circularly constructed Air Corps rule that makes it impossible for an airman to arrive at a valid excuse – except being killed – for being relieved of combat duty. Milo Minderbinder, one of the characters in Catch-22, is the quintessential icon of a capitalist, a parody that is so exquisite because it is so realistically accurate.

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death

To write Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) drew on his experiences as an American prisoner of war, captured by the Germans in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, who witnessed the destruction of the city of Dresden by an incredibly intense firestorm created by four British and American aerial bombing raids, dropping high explosive and incendiary devices, between 13-15 February 1945. At least 25,000 Germans, mainly civilians, died as a result of the indiscriminate area bombing of an ancient city with scant military installations. Slaughterhouse-Five is an overt anti-war novel published during the height of the Vietnam War. It presents the science fiction-infused story of Billy Pilgrim, an innocent Everyman-type who is a chaplain’s assistant in the U.S. Army and survives the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war. This experience forms Billy into the not-so-usual individual he becomes by his maturity in present-day 1968 upstate New York, and the guru-seer he becomes thereafter, “unstuck in time” and in out-of-his-control contact with the Tralfamadorians, aliens from deep outer space. Vonnegut’s prose is almost child-like, and his science fiction episodes are whimsical, but the essence of this book and the drive behind it are very serious.

To Kill A Mockingbird

Nelle Harper Lee (1926-2016) reflected on her observations of her own father, a lawyer, to write this warm, Southern Gothic novel about the rape trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, by a white court and jury, in a small Alabama town during the Great Depression, in 1936. The rape victim-accuser is an unmarried white woman whose father is a rabid racist; Tom Robinson is a married man with children: a black family. This story unfolds as the observations of two young white children, primarily Jean Louise Finch (nicknamed Scout), and her older brother Jeremy (nicknamed Jem), who live with their widowed father Atticus Finch, a highly principled, anti-racist and quietly brave man. Atticus Finch is Tom Robinson’s defense attorney. About this novel, the critic J. Crespino wrote in 2000 that “In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism.” To Kill A Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s only published book from 1960 until 2015 (seven months before her death), when her publisher, J. B. Lippincott & Co., issued Go Set A Watchman, an inferior novel based on an earlier draft of To Kill A Mockingbird. I suspect this was an act of pure exploitation by Lee’s publisher.

Are The Movies Any Good?

Nothing equals the experience of reading these books, and having their artistry unfold intimately in your own mind and at your own pace. Do yourself a favor and read each completely before you see any movie or even movie clip of it (actually, a movie of somebody’s interpretation or even misrepresentation of it).

Also, make sure to avoid all introductions, prefaces, essays about and critiques on any of these stories before actually reading the full texts that the authors labored to gift us with. Don’t allow the blather of others to pollute the purity of your own first impressions and – just as good as any critic’s and English teacher’s – your own analysis and artistic appreciation of what the authors have given us.

The nature of American society and the American cinematic industry makes it impossible to create accurate and meritorious movies of three of these novels: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and The Catcher In The Rye. The barriers to making good movies of these three stories are, respectively: the inability to face Mark Twain’s searing frankness about 19th century American racism; the inability to produce a movie as elegant, layered, lyrical and subtle as Fitzgerald’s novel; and similarly with Salinger’s novel, which he anticipated by stipulating that movie rights to his stories never be sold.

There are good movies of Moby-Dick (in 1956, by John Huston and Ray Bradbury), The Grapes of Wrath (in 1940, by John Ford, Nunnally Johnson and Darryl F. Zanuck), Catch-22 (in 1970, by Mike Nichols and Buck Henry), Slaughterhouse-Five (in 1972, by George Roy Hill and Stephen Geller), and To Kill A Mockingbird (in 1962, by Robert Mulligan, Horton Foote and Alan J. Pakula). But read the books first!

Other Great American Novels

Obviously, there can be as many different nominees for inclusion in lists of “great American novels” as there are enthusiastic and opinionated readers of American literature. A listing of often cited works for inclusion among the “American greats” is given by Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_American_Novel).

Remember, readers come in two sexes (and varieties of sexual orientation), of all ages, and from the wide multi-cultural spectrum of the American people, and beyond. So, the type and period of American novel that would captivate any given reader, as a “great book,” can be quite different from the novels I have listed.

I’m not arguing, just gratefully enjoying and appreciatively learning from the sincere and varied literary artistry of the dedicated authors cited here. Enjoy!

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