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American Modernism and the Edenic Themes
Langston Hughes and Jay Gatsby: Different Strokes for Different Folks in the Search for an Edenic World
The search for Eden has always had an eternal quality since the development of primordial man. At times, this search has manifested itself as a quest for a promised land full of natural resources, while at others, it has taken the form of a journey seeking social acceptance and harmony. Either which way, man's search for Eden has always been motivated by a desire to secure material and emotional well-being. Though this search is not unique to the people of America, the promise held out by a vast, virgin continent and new beginnings led to the belief that a life in the pursuit of wealth and happiness was possible here. This great 'American Dream,' however, soon proved as susceptible to human greed, bigotry, and the struggle for power as any other settled society, destroying the innocence and hopes of many 'New Adams' in the process. It is this story that forms a repetitive theme in American literature with different variations. For instance, there is Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, in whom the New Adam takes the avatar of an innocent who believes that securing material wealth will lead to achieving his dream. As compared to this, Langston Hughes's version of the New Adam in The Big Sea is an African-American who hopes that America would, one day, truly accept his people. Fitzgerald and Hughes's New Adam, thus, take the shape of two entirely different folks, separated by ancestral heritage and color, employing vastly different strokes in their search for an Edenic world. Jay Gatsby chooses to use material wealth as a stepping-stone to securing his emotional happiness, whereas Langston Hughes approaches his quest for Eden by seeking social acceptance and harmony to secure the emotional well-being of his people.
The innocence in Jay Gatsby and Langston Hughes in The Great Gatsby and The Big Sea manifests itself right through the narrative of both books, clearly revealing a quintessential New Adam quality in both of them. In fact, The Great Gatsby is nothing but the story of a dreamer in pursuit of an ideal though his choice of the means to that end is morally debatable. Born James Gatz, a poor boy from the Midwest, Jay Gatsby wholeheartedly embraces his own interpretation of the American Dream, which is to become wealthy beyond imagination. He sets out to attain that dream as early as the age of seventeen and begins by first reinventing himself as Jay Gatsby.
His journey takes him to a military training camp near Louisville, Kentucky, where he meets Daisy. In his innocence and naivety, Daisy soon comes to represent beauty and purity, and becomes his ideal: "...his vision was that she should be his Eve and together they should live in timeless harmony in the American garden." (Baldwin, et.al., 158) In spite of Daisy breaking their engagement to marry Tom Buchanan, Jay Gatsby's innocence and idealism never wavers. He simply resolves to devote his life to winning back his "golden girl." (Fitzgerald, 127)
Though Gatsby ultimately becomes a bootlegger, stock-sharper, and criminal, it is evident that his fall from grace is caused by a society that values material wealth and possessions above all. This is established at his funeral when his father shares with Nick Gatsby's plans for self-improvement, scribbled on the back cover of Hopalong Cassidy. The list reveals the young Gatsby's determination to succeed in work, sports, and in improving himself through reading. That innocence is soon, however, tempered by a healthy dose of realism as indicated by Gatsby's opportunistic streak, which is finely honed by a series of disillusionments: "The whim of a Daisy, who will marry any Tom for the price of a pearl necklace.... The Great Gatsby world is built on a foundation of bootleg gin, penny stocks...riotous debauchery...the truest images of its reality." (Pelzer, 100)
In spite of the questionable means he adopts to accumulate his wealth, Gatsby never really loses his sense of innocence or idealism. He has an almost childlike belief that he can win back Daisy and get her to admit that she loved only him, in spite of the reality of her marriage to Tom and her child. His passionate commitment to his ideal and dream is evident when he says, "Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!" (Fitzgerald, 116) When he is finally forced to accept the reality of time and Daisy's human frailty, he still displays a touching idealism, reflected in his implied inability to go on with life. In many ways, Gatsby's actual death is symbolic of his dreams dying and of a life built on the illusion of the American Dream.
Langston Hughes, too, describes his innocence, reminiscent of an Adamic quality, in his autobiographical The Big Sea. For instance, he talks about his experience as the only African-American in a white school, where he was, at times, subjected to racist remarks by one of the teachers:
after such remarks, occasionally the kids would grab stones...and chase me home. But there was one little white boy who would always take up for me. Sometimes others of my classmates would, as well. So I learned early not to hate all white people. And ever since, it has seemed to me that most people are generally good, in every race and in every country where I have been." (Hughes, 14)
Perhaps it was this innocence, along with such glimpses of goodness, which led Hughes into believing that it was possible for African-Americans to realize his version of an Edenic America, characterized by social and racial equality and harmony. In fact, Hughes's longing for such a paradise led him into often escaping into the world of literature, where "...if people suffered, they suffered beautiful language...the good knights won, and the Alger boy triumphed." (Hughes, 16) Soon, however, Hughes's idealism and hope develops into a determination to change the world's perception of colored people and achieve self-actualization for himself and his people: "...to talk about things that trouble you, the feeling of always being controlled...by some outer necessity not your own. All those things I wanted to throw away...be free of.... I wanted to be a man on my own...go my own way." (Hughes, 98)
Hughes's desire to go his own way is nothing but another manifestation of the Adamic myth. Unlike Jay Gatsby who only sought to embrace the popular version of the American Dream, Hughes wanted to be "an individual emancipated from history...an individual standing alone, self-reliant...ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources." (Daly & Mayhew, cited Lewis, 13) The quest to seek his own identity actually led Hughes to journey to Africa, the first sighting of which evoked a strong sense of belonging: "My Africa, Motherland of the Negro peoples." (Hughes, 10) Unfortunately, Africa, for Hughes, is as disillusioning an experience as America, since the natives refuse to accept him as one of their own.
In spite of such frequent and continued collisions between hope and reality, Hughes seems to have accepted life's challenges with equanimity and understanding. The experiential wisdom, which he derived from both his observations and own experiences with racism culminated in a body of work describing the universality of the human spirit as well as highlighting the plight of African-Americans. An evocative example of Hughes's desire for African-Americans to be understood and accepted is inherent in his poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers: "the flow of blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers." (Hughes, 55) Like other New Adams, though, Hughes's negative experience of an America that is a far cry from Eden is embodied in much of his writing. As…[continue]
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