In the summer of 2013, my older son and I embarked on what we now call The Dead Writers Tour. The Great Gatsby film, newly released, was creating a resurgence of interest in the novel and F. Scott Fitzgerald himself. My son had just completed his second year teaching high school social studies, his favorite portion of which is the Jazz Age; he had even begun coordinating his history lessons with the English classes’ reading of Gatsby and teaching his students how to dance the Charleston.
Perhaps it was our shared loved of literature and writing, or the joy of the whole summer lying before us, teachers on the loose, that beckoned us like the green light beckoned Jay Gatsby. Perhaps the movie was the impetus for adventure, capturing the zeitgeist and ending, as the novel does, with my son’s favorite literary quote:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Fitting, indeed, for a young history teacher who was born by a bay (albeit one in Virginia, not New York).
“You know, Mom,” said my son, as we left the cinema, “That quote is on Fitzgerald’s grave.”
“Is it, now,” I mused. “As much as you love it, you ought to go take a picture and put it up in your classroom.”
The light in his eyes was instantaneous. Out came the phone to research the grave’s location: Rockville, Maryland. How far is that from home in North Carolina? A quick check in Apple Maps: Right at four hours.
“That’s a day trip,” I said. “I’ll come with you. It will be our summer celebration kick-off.”
So, on a mid-June morning, we left long before daylight. We ate breakfast while it was still dark, chattering about our teaching accomplishments that year and our dreams about writing, lamenting the constraints of time in the daily grind of making a living. The hours passed quickly, despite the epic traffic snafu of D.C. Once on the other side, however, we sailed right into Rockville.
The cemetery is at a Catholic church in the midst of bustling city streets. After navigating such noise and chaos, I was not expecting utter silence on entering the graveyard. It was like a cosmic mute button was suddenly pressed, or that I had passed through a portal from one world to another. The city receded at once; all I could hear was a faint shivering of tree leaves overhead in the breeze, oddly cool for June, and the occasional flap of little American flags, remnants of Memorial Day, at the graves of veterans.
How incredibly peaceful, I thought.
“There it is,” whispered my son, pointing.
Fitzgerald was easy to find; his grave was the most adorned. As we approached, a brown rabbit hopped out of our path to a more remote patch of sun-dappled grass where it could nibble, undisturbed. At at the foot of his grave a flag commemorated Fitzgerald’s World War I service. On the headstone, the author’s full name signifies an even deeper connection to the flag: his famous cousin wrote the lyrics to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” I reveled in having my own first name in common with these writers and Fitzgerald’s daughter, buried nearby. A pot of daisies had been placed by the headstone, a nod to the love of Jay Gatsby’s life. Most interesting of all is that Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, who was at least part of the inspiration for the character of Daisy, is buried with him in the same grave.
Any student of F. Scott Fitzgerald knows his struggles, that he was always teetering on the brink of financial ruin, that he and Zelda lived a frenzied life, that both of their deaths were sudden and tragic, him with a heart attack in his forties and her a few years after, in a fire at the mental hospital where she was a patient. Fitzgerald never knew The Great Gatsby would become the beloved American icon that it is.
We stood there in the stillness, my son and I, drinking in the sight, lost in our own thoughts. After a bit, we took the pictures.
One or the other of us sighed. I am not sure which.
“What do you want to do now?” asked my son.
I looked up at the sky. The day was golden, still young; we had time, perhaps, for another adventure.
“You know,” I grinned, “Baltimore is only forty-five minutes farther. Poe is buried there.”
My son chuckled. He took one last look at the final Gatsby lines etched on the weathered granite slab. “All right, Mom. Let’s go.”
So we beat on.
Reflect: What literary works or quotes strike a deep chord in you? Why?
-Happy Birthday this week, F. Scott Fitzgerald.