Gatsby and the End of Summer

Tomorrow, I leave bright and early for Vermont which explains why I’m posting this today. For the past thirteen years, I’ve taught at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. I often teach a workshop in the novel, and when I do, I ask my participants to read The Great Gatsby. That novel gives us a chance to talk about matters of characterization, structure, point of view, detail, and language. It also gives me a chance to revisit one of my favorite novels. Our narrator, Nick Carraway, spends a summer and early autumn in the company of careless people, and though the book focuses on Gatsby’s attempt to reclaim Daisy Buchanan, the love of his life, it also has a good deal to say about wealth, corruption, the Midwest, and the East. At the end of the book, the East is haunted for Nick, and he makes the decision to go back to the Midwest: “So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air, and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home.”

My trip to Vermont always signals the end of summer. The cool mornings and the shortening days remind me that we’re making the turn toward autumn. I think of Gatsby at the end of the book telling his servant not to drain the pool. “You know, old sport,” Gatsby says to Nick, “I’ve never used that pool all summer?” I think of Gatsby floating on his air mattress, and a gust of wind, and the yellowing leaves, and the ripples in the water, and all he doesn’t know about what’s coming: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Autumn has always been a melancholic time for me: “A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about.” At the end of summer, when I was a small boy, my mother often took me with her when she went to the grade school where she taught to prepare her classroom. I remember the smells of floor wax, paste, pencil shavings, construction paper. I remember the marking pencils my mother used to correct her students’ lessons, writing not with a glaring red but with a rose blush, for her method was always one of kindness and encouragement rather than punishment. In the end, her gentle nature may have been what kept her from having her contract renewed, but that’s no matter. I hope her spirit knows that I always remember her tender nature, and I wonder how many of her former students might do the same. She modeled a life for me—one filled with books and education—and I followed her path.

My life has been that of a teacher. I’ll spend this week practicing that craft, and then, in two weeks, I’ll start another semester of teaching at Ohio State University. Like this, summer turns into autumn, and our lives cycle through the seasons. I miss those who have gone on before me, particularly my mother. Each autumn, when I step into a classroom, I think of her and everything she gave her students over her thirty-eight years of teaching: “Gatsby believed in the green light [at the end of Daisy’s dock], the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . .  .And one fine morning—”

So here’s to that time between seasons where we simultaneously mourn the past and look forward to the future—that bittersweet time of eternal hope.



  1. Angshuman Das on August 7, 2022 at 3:38 pm

    Wonderful thoughts and touching words. About our mothers, they never die. They always inspire us — with their gentleness if not success and glory.

    • Lee Martin on August 10, 2022 at 2:50 pm

      Your thoughts about mothers are so well expressed. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Debbie Hagan on August 7, 2022 at 5:03 pm

    So beautiful, and you capture it so well in the senses as well as the spirit. Makes me want to go back and revisit Gatsby.

    • Lee Martin on August 10, 2022 at 2:50 pm

      Thanks, Debbie! It’s the book I’d choose if I could only have one a deserted island.

  3. R on August 7, 2022 at 7:01 pm

    This was lovely to read, thank you. It’s been so long since I read The Great Gatsby and it’s been flattened in my mind as a piece of pop culture but perhaps it’s time to read it again.

    • Lee Martin on August 10, 2022 at 2:49 pm

      I’ve read Gatsby time and time again, and it always holds up for me. Thanks so much for your comment.

  4. Kacey Kowars on August 8, 2022 at 7:15 am

    Lee, I taught Gatsby for 15 years in my classroom. I have just retired. I have read The Great Gatsby over 100 times- I found something new with each reading. Enjoy the conference and the new school year.

    • Lee Martin on August 10, 2022 at 2:48 pm

      Thanks, Kacey. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one obsessed with this book. Enjoy your retirement!

  5. Barb McCullough on August 8, 2022 at 2:56 pm

    Just brings it back…that’s the beauty…

    • Lee Martin on August 10, 2022 at 2:47 pm

      Thanks for this comment, Barb.

  6. Deni on August 10, 2022 at 5:00 pm

    I taught this novel in England. The students enjoyed it so much because it was quintessentially American. This time of transition is one I have always loved as well and we actually talked about that in class. Our experiences are often more alike than they are different. One last comment: I have often thought, based on your writing about her, that our mothers were very similar. Be well, my friend.

    • Lee Martin on August 15, 2022 at 11:40 am

      Deni, thanks so much for sharing your story of teaching Gatsby to English students. From the photographs of your mother that I’ve seen, I quite agree that she and my mother were very much alike.

  7. Glenda Beall on August 11, 2022 at 1:33 am

    I like the way you speak of your mother, the teacher, and the mother. I had a wonderful mother, too, who kept me grounded and loved. I am a teacher and I like this about your mother: I remember the marking pencils my mother used to correct her students’ lessons, writing not with a glaring red but with a rose blush, for her method was always one of kindness and encouragement rather than punishment.
    Encouragement is essential for a good teacher, I think.

    • Lee Martin on August 15, 2022 at 11:38 am

      Thanks so much for this comment, Glenda. Without my mother, I would have been lost indeed.

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