Reneé Weissenburger: "The adventures of Scott and Zelda are awe-inspiring, but not necessarily ones we would desire for ourselves."
INSTRUCTOR PROFILE, TEN QUESTIONS:
Instructor Reneé Weissenburger has special affection for her eight-week UC San Diego Extension course that’s currently in session — “Desire, Decadence and Decay: A Study of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age.”
Unto itself, the course title portends a lively, intellectually stimulating course, which is precisely why Weissenburger has been a life-long devotee of Fitzgerald's literary legacy, both fictional and real-life. Though she's never too distanced from the allure of Scott and Zelda, she also teaches the following Extension courses:
Here, she discusses the deliciously gilded world of "The Great Gatsby" and its desires, decadence and decay.
1) What’s your greatest fascination with the Fitzgerald era?
The intricate duality of profound loss and the surreal opulence denial engenders. An entire generation was spiraling from the magnitude and devastation of the war. Their survival tactic? Reckless materialism, abundant distractions and diversions, and living as though there were no tomorrow.
2) When did you first become immersed in his novels?
In the library, when I was around 13, I stumbled upon "The Romantic Egotists," a pictorial autobiography consisting primarily of materials from their personal scrapbooks. I checked it out continuously for over a year, which the library allowed since no one else had read it in ages. By the time I read the novels, I was already in love with their dazzling history.
3) What lessons do you hope your students learn from taking your course?
The primary themes of the book remain relevant today. We still struggle against classifications based on wealth, education, beauty and class and are often guilty of presuming to know what someone’s life is like. Nick passes along this sage advice from his father: "Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."
4) Is taking one course enough to digest all the grandeur and excess Fitzgerald’s novels convey?
Like all great books, his warrant multiple readings. There are subtleties you see in rereading them as an adult that you may have missed as a teenager. At least, that was the case with me.
5) In what ways does “The Great Gatsby” reflect American life of the Roaring 20s?
While the sheer scale of opulence is a signifier of the times, there are many themes that remain timeless: Denial, escapism, self-medication, the aftermath of war, and the desire to regain what is long lost.
6) What special insights do you bring to your course?
Hmm … a life-long, geeky adoration of all things Fitzgerald?
7) As a devotee of Zelda, how would you describe her life?
She was a non-conformist, an adventurer, a ballerina, a painter, and a writer. She was daring, confidant, fearless -- not afraid to live under the microscope. As someone who does not like to be the center of attention, I love the vicarious adventures I get from reading about her.
8) How did her mental state affect her life with Fitzgerald?
One of my favorite plays by Tennessee Williams, "Clothes for a Summer Hotel," explores this aspect of their lives. The play takes place at Highland Mental Institution in Ashville, North Carolina, where she died in a fire at age 47. The play, set during one of Scott’s visits, drifts from past to present to future and investigates the adoration, pride, jealousy and destructive impulses of their life-long love affair.
9) In your view, does Fitzgerald get as much scholarly credit as he deserves?
"The Great Gatsby" is often called the great American novel. As he remains as anthologized and adored as ever, I would say he’s still doing quite well for himself in the 21st
10) Would you say that their real life together was even more “larger than life” than his novels portrayed?
I’d say they were fairly spot-on. The adventures of Scott and Zelda are awe-inspiring, but not necessarily ones we would desire for ourselves. Perhaps that is why we remain so enamored of them.