Frantically Rowing Across Memory’s Styx

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, 1st edition, 1925.

Rowing historian Thomas E. Weil writes:

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, is generally considered his most successful work, as well as one of America’s foremost novels. Required reading in most American high school and college English literature courses, it is often referred to as a cautionary tale about the American dream.

The principal subject of the novel, Jay Gatsby, is a relatively young man with lots of money and a somewhat mysterious background, whose lost love of yesteryear, Daisy Buchanan, turns out to be a cousin of the narrator, Nick Carraway, and married to one of Nick’s Yale college friends. Trysts, trusts betrayed, deception, deceit and death litter the landscape of the story, which makes it good fodder not just for readers, but for the movies.

At least five films have borne the name. The most recent of them, directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, appeared in 2013. One scene in that film depicts Gatsby showing Carraway through his mansion. Stopping in his den, Gatsby points out several sports trophies from his college years.

Filming ended, the sets were struck, and the props dispersed. Three of those prop trophies ended up at auction in Australia, and I purchased them, because one of them purports to be a rowing award (see below). It is inscribed: “Intercollegiate Rowing Association / Summer Regatta / Varsity Eight-Oared Shells / First Division – 1913 / Champions”. The connection of rowing with The Great Gatsby, however modest and contrived, appealed to me, and I found this to be a charming, albeit patently inauthentic, association item.

The Gatsby rowing trophy.

It was only recently, however, that a far more powerful connection to The Great Gatsby – which had eluded me for close to half a century – finally struck home.

Those few of us who retrieve, preserve, celebrate and preach rowing history have taken on a much unappreciated avocation. This year, in particular, we have witnessed the closing of the National Rowing Hall of Fame and rowing history exhibits at Mystic Seaport, and we are now engaged in a quest for its successor that poses more questions and hurdles than answers and succor. But we persevere. And the famous last lines of The Great Gatsby seem almost to be written for our purpose. Sweet, succinct and melancholic, but utterly apropos in meter and metaphor, under what better banner could we press forward than this …

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

As we paddle frantically across memory’s Styx to save our half submerged subjects from the anonymity of history’s Hades, at least we have a literary lodestar to guide us. Thank you, Mr. Fitzgerald.

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