I first arrived in New York under the spell of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’d read The Great Gatsby at least twice that year – once while still in northern Michigan and then again after my move.
His city has vanished, but when I look out my window today, I am looking west. The George Washington Bridge is just in sight. The Palisades are beyond the Hudson, and beyond them lie New Jersey and Pennsylvania and Ohio and on and on, the fields of the republic rolling up to the Rocky Mountains – “the wheat and the prairies and the lost Swede towns” of the American Middle West. Gatsby is set in New York but its heart seems to be on the frontier, in so-called flyover country.
Every time I read the book I think of home.
Before Jay Gatsby was Jay Gatsby, he was simply James Gatz, and he “had been beating his way along the south shore of Lake Superior as a clam digger or a salmon fisher.” He suddenly meets Dan Cody, a millionaire with a yacht, and James saves Dan from a Superior squall, and gets taken on as mate. The fateful moment is mentioned only in passing, but apparently occurs at a place called Little Girl Bay.
The more I consider it, the more it seems obvious: though there’s no real proof, Little Girl Bay is, I think, the same Little Girl’s Point that’s just fifteen miles north of my parents’ house. With its aquamarine water and red clay cliffs backing a wide sand beach that stretches out over a mile, the Point is famously a favorite spot for swimmers and sailors. The book also mentions Duluth, Minnesota – a sizable port only two hours by land from the Point, and perhaps five hours from Minneapolis/St. Paul, where Fitzgerald himself was born and raised.
Could it stand to reason that Fitzgerald and I have gone swimming in the same spot? Sunburned on the same sand? Clambered up the same cliffs and looked at the same vista? If the Little Girl Bay on page 106 of Gatsby is the same as my Little Girl’s Point, then I think we have.
And when I go home to Michigan and reread The Great Gatsby for the umpteenth time, I will think inevitably eastward to New York and a moment when, for the first time, I visited Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. There was a banner unfurled across City Pier A. On it was magic, from the last chapter of Fitzgerald's novel, which I knew by then by heart, and have ever since equated with new horizons.
For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.