Sarah Churchwell on The American Dream

If Jay Gatsby was alive today, he would be a Russian mobster with artistic leanings, Sarah Churchwell said at the end of this thoroughly entertaining lecture on the meaning and myth of the American dream. The dream itself is not, as we may have imagined, Washington’s dream, Jefferson’s dream or even Lincoln’s dream. In fact, it is coined at the beginning of the Great Depression as a way to explore the corruption of a society which had collapsed. The ‘American dream’ was invented to discuss American failures: to acknowledge the moral poverty and spiritual bankruptcy of the 1920’s. But the term was quickly ‘hollowed out’ and soon reduced to simple striving for better material prospects.

As Churchwell says, ‘if a novel is an American classic, it must comment meaningfully on the American dream’ and the novel which is thought to most epitomise that dream is Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. Churchwell’s own most recent book, Careless People, is a reflection on Gatsby, and she suggested today that popular understanding of Gatsby is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the work. Gatsby is a ‘lament’ for greed and acquisition not a ‘license’ for it, while the perception that Nick is a failure because he gives up on the dream ignores the fact that the dream itself is an illusion and a lie. It’s founded on greed and acquisition and Nick is right to be disgusted by it.

The parallels between the ’29 and the ’08 crash were brought out strongly today, though as Churchwell said ‘they had a crash and tried to change it; we had a crash and said let’s try the same thing again.’ Or, to take it another way, the ideals and aspirations of the dream are good, the problems are with the people who dream it.

At the end, there was some wondering what a ‘Welsh Dream’ might look like: any ideas?

David & Hilary Crystal

The linguists have teamed up to write a geographical journey of the English Language around Great Britain. Entertaining as always, they narrated their way through extracts of their latest book, Wordsmiths and Warriors. David identifies how, if you were to draw a circle around any location in England, you will discover some surprising things about the history of our language. From the very beginnings when the Danes invaded England and were defeated by King Alfred, to an actual memorial to dialect writers in Rochdale, they have uncovered a wealth of information about the history of the English Language.

Chris Tarrant – Dad’s War: Father, Soldier, Hero

It was a much quieter, humble and more reflective Chris Tarrant being interviewed and very sensitively by Paul Blezard. He suffered a stroke last year, rather terrifyingly during a long haul flight but has fully recovered.

His book about his father is a touching and poignant tribute to a much loved man, who, Tarrant discovered whilst researching for a programme for Channel 5, turns out to be a bit of a war hero, to his family’s surprise. Like many men who fought in WWII, his father hardly ever spoke about his experiences, even to his own wife.

It was the burglary of his Dad’s house, the day before his funeral that uncovered letters in a previously locked desk drawer. The discovery of these letters led Tarrant to five men who were still living and had known his father. Until then, he had never known he had been at Dunkirk, much less the actual details of his experiences there. One of them, Dougie, told him ‘I liked your Dad, but he was bloody mad!’

Tarrant spoke with enormous warmth and pride about his father, of the man he knew, and of the war hero he later discovered.

Margaret Drabble – The Pure Gold Baby

Peter Florence welcomed back to Hay the woman who was the first ever novelist they invited in 1988.  This time she was here  to talk about her novel The Pure Gold Baby. Margaret Drabble admitted to finding it difficult to find the right narrative voice for the novel about a young single mother of a severely mentally handicapped child. It is a novel of themes rather than characters, focussing on how time passes as we get older, how we become more reflective. It deals with the paradox of a child never growing up, always needing its mother. The young mother in the story will never be free from her role. Drabble admits that her writing process has slowed down as she’s got older. She finds she is less inhibited than she was as  an a young writer, asking herself “is it worth doing?”. Peter Florence asked her about the first sentence of the book, and what ‘prolepsis’ means – she explained that it is a literary device meaning a kind of ‘poetic foreshadowing’. She felt that her publisher and editor would hate it, but at this stage in her career she felt that she could get away with it! The novel is based on the situation of a good friend of hers, but she didn’t tell her she had written it until she had finished the book.  Luckily the friend approved and only made a few factual corrections to the manuscript. Drabble favours fiction over fact, as “it allows you to generalise, fiction frees you to make speculations, make theories about how things develop”. She had always been haunted about her friends situation, but also wondered if she had the right to write about someone who could never read what she’d written.