Monday 23 April 2007

F Scott Fitzgerald: baa bababa baa....

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

And so ends "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Is that the greatest last line in the history of American literature? Well, according to that renowned literary authority, the Director of IT in my office, it is.

Quite how this came up in conversation at all, I'm not entirely sure. He barely talks to me. Given that I consider him to be slippery and insincere, this is not a situation that troubles me greatly. So how did we end up talking about great works of American literature? Well, the truth is that we didn't really talk about American literature at all. He wandered over to me and told me that the last line of "The Great Gatsby" was the finest in American literature. Fact.

Nothing is surer to get my back up than by telling me that something is a fact. I have a Masters degree in history; I know that there is no such thing as a fact. History also taught me that whilst everyone has a valid and unique perspective, if they expect me to share in that opinion, then they're going to need to show their working.

"What's the line?"
He couldn't remember it, so I looked it up on google. I read it out to him.
"Yup. That's it. The finest final line in American literature. Have you read it?"
I admitted that no, I'd never got further than the first page. It's not a long book, so it was on my "pending" pile waiting for a gap in my reading schedule. "Is it good?"
He looked at me and ducked the question. "It's got the best last line in American literature".
He clearly hadn't read it. I looked at the line again.

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Even read out of context it looked like a decent line, albeit one with the faintest whiff of pretension about it. I could easily imagine that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that line and then sat back in his chair with a sigh of self-satisfaction, took a drag on a cigarette and reached for his martini. I thought about the line for a moment. Was it really the greatest final line in American literature?

"What about Steinbeck? "The Grapes of Wrath"? Huck Finn? "Uncle Tom's Cabin"? "The Scarlet Letter"? "Moby Dick"? "A Farewell to Arms"? "The Catcher In The Rye"? Nabakov? Kerouac? Heller? Vonnegut? De Lillo even?"

He looked at me for a moment, blinked and shrugged. "It's "The Great Gatsby"." Then his mobile phone rang and he wandered off, denying me the chance to ask him why.

It's not that I think that "The Great Gatsby" doesn't contain the greatest last line in American literature, it's just that I'm not going to believe it just because someone told me that it did. The only way to know for sure is to read every single work of American literature and make up my own mind.

I'm starting with "The Great Gatsby".

So far so good.


  1. Surely there must be facts? This is a comment on your blog.... fact?

    You don't have to read all of literature. You could just read the last line.

  2. I love The Great Gatsby. I tried reading some of Fitzgeral's other works, though, and wasn't as impressed.

  3. What is it with IT Directors?

    Do they attend the same training school or something?

  4. Ian - that depends upon us having a shared understanding of what "a comment" is and also what "a blog" is. If we diverge even a tiny bit then we cannot be certain of "truth" or "fact".

    I should also add -- lest RussL be reading this -- that although I believe that because we cannot know truth, no one opinion can be said to be definitively worth more than any other, in practical terms we have to make judgements like that all of the time. I'm taking a deliberately purist view here. Presumably some opinions are ill-thought out cobblers. Although we can perhaps never categorically prove that they are worthless, we can make a working assumption....


  5. Your last comment was much too confusing/thought-requiring for 2:30am, ST. Let's try to dumb things down around here, shall we?

  6. ST knows what's good for him.

  7. Good gods, at least you aren't starting with Moby Dick!

  8. I've read both Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby in the last 6 months. Love Gatsby though Moby was bobbins to be honest. Overblown toss with flecks of genius strewn amongst the tides of drivel.

  9. I'm thinking that maybe he had just watched the '100 greatest last lines in the history of American literature' show on Channel 4 late one night and had to share this fact with someone.

    Have they done a programme like that? Maybe they should.... and you could be giving soundbites on it! Fame!

  10. I love Gatsby, me. Great book to teach, too. A novel with barely any certainties in it at all, so it's funny that your IT director was so certain about its last line.

    That kind of comment is annoying. Almost as annoying as being asked what your favourite book is. I hate that question and refuse to answer it.