Mayor scrambles his politics with prose

Quote In Question


In Rockville yesterday morning, hours before he would officially announce for governor, Mayor Martin O'Malley was already in full campaign mode. He spoke of hope, opportunity and faith in the future. He said he wanted a state "in which no one is left behind." He said the people of Maryland "can do great things together."

So far, so good. But then O'Malley detoured into the bizarre. He closed his speech by saying, "I leave you with the words of the poet who was from Rockville: And `so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.'"

As anyone who has taken high school English knows, that's the last line from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the tale of a mysteriously wealthy man trying - and failing - to recapture the love of his life. Its final line might be the most famous ending in all of American literature. But what's it doing in a speech about the future?

Fitzgerald's novel, scholars agree, is about the death of the American dream and the closing of the frontier. The last line means that Americans are chained to their past - a shackle that keeps them from the future they most desire. It's melancholy, and depressing.

"It's a great poetic utterance, but it's kind of a cry of despair that Gatsby, nor anyone else, can transcend that past," said Christopher Wheatley, a professor of English at Catholic University, O'Malley's alma mater. But he added, speaking of the mayor, "You gotta remember: He was a politics major, not an English major."

Wheatley didn't think there was much in Fitzgerald that would appeal to a politician.

"It's nice that he's quoting literature," he said, "but he picked the wrong person. You don't pick the Lost Generation to talk about visions of hope."

O'Malley campaign spokesman Steve Kearney said the mayor chose the line because it's inscribed on Fitzgerald's tombstone, at the Rockville church that O'Malley attended as a child. (Fitzgerald is buried in Rockville, and his father was born there.) Being in Rockville reminded the mayor of the line, and of his past, Kearney said.

But literature professors say the mayor is taking it out of context. The last page of the book says that Gatsby's dream "was already behind him" and speaks of "the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us." It seems to contradict O'Malley's message of a hopeful future.

"I do not see any hope in the last sentence of The Great Gatsby," said Matthew J. Bruccoli, the nation's foremost Fitzgerald scholar. "It denies hope. It says we're trapped in the past. It's a book about defeat. Gatsby is the great believer in the American dream of success, and by the end of the novel, he's dead in his swimming pool."

Bruccoli, a professor at the University of South Carolina and author of numerous books on Fitzgerald, decided to place that final line on Fitzgerald's tombstone, when it was moved to its present location in Rockville. He said he did so "because it's poetry." But, he said, it's not optimistic:

"It says Gatsby had high hopes and ideals, and he was defeated and destroyed. It's a paragraph about the failure of ideals."

To be fair to the mayor, the line can be read as a statement about Americans continuing to strive for their dreams, even if they will never be achieved, said Jackson Bryer, an English professor at the University of Maryland.

"The very last line does seem to indicate an inability to not continue to pursue the dream," Bryer said. But even he was not inclined to cut the mayor much slack.

"We have an annual F. Scott Fitzgerald literary conference in Rockville every fall," Bryer said, "and the next one is Oct. 22. If people want to find out what Fitzgerald is all about, they should come to that instead of listening to Mayor O'Malley."

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