"But of course you can, old sport."

A few years back I paid a visit to Jamestown, or I should say what’s left of it. There’s not much there: the ruins of a church tower built in the 1600s, a few glass cases of pottery shards. Later, I did a little reading about the colony, and the impression I had was not flattering. Essentially, the Jamestown colonists were a bunch of ignorant, avaricious schemers, in whom one can see many of the future sins of our country. Of course, the film at the National Park Service’s Visitors’ Center (narrated by the sensually-voiced Sally Kellerman) tries to present the story in the best possible light. But even a cursory look at the facts and you can see what a disaster the entire thing turned out to be.

It was, to be sure, the first North American English settlement to make it, although just barely. Ninety percent of the 104 original colonists died within the first year in what later became known as “the starving time.” Yet despite their sheer ineptitude, they managed to eke out survival in the pestilential swamp in which they had chosen to live. Fortunately, they quickly realized the commercial potential for marketing an addictive carcinogen, the cultivation of which was only made profitable by the importation of African slaves.

So within 15 years, they had set in motion the least salutory aspects of American history: our genius for predatory capitalism and the exploitation of slave labor. Add in the depletion of the land through wasteful farming practices and a real talent for displacing and eventually eliminating the natives, and you have just about got the whole dispiriting picture. Unlike the Pilgrims, the Jamestown colonists lack even the moral veneer that they came here for religious freedom.

I visited that other Virginia shrine as well, Monticello, the mountain top aerie of our national political saint. A biography I picked up on Jefferson in the obligatory gift shop was equally disillusioning. Written several years ago by Joseph Ellis, it tried to assess the great man’s character outside of the romantic myths that have grown up around him. Before plunging into it, I sensed something of its theme while I was at Monticello. Indeed, I was struck by the improbability of the place. Jefferson had attempted to create a kind of Utopian vision of gentleman farming in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but it never worked.

The very place he chose to build was incapable of supporting a plantation. The view was magnificent, but the soil was lousy. Yet he persisted, building and rebuilding his dream house while his debts mounted. For some reason, I kept thinking of Gatsby while I was there, that perfect metaphor for reaching after a beautiful dream while ignoring the reality on which it is premised.

To my surprise, that’s the main theme of Ellis’ book. Time after time he demonstrates how Jefferson was able to maintain the chimera of an agrarian, democratic utopia by carefully ignoring its un-sustainability. Here was a man who often decried slavery, yet used it to maintain his gentleman farmer existence. But Ellis isn’t of the camp of historians who want to trash Jefferson as a hypocrite. Instead, he tries to understand him in the context of his conflicts, and in so doing he locates within Jefferson’s psyche the fons origin of one of our most cherished national myths. Like Jefferson, we Americans have an amazing ability to separate our noble aspirations for equality and individualism from our morally dubious track record. I just keep thinking of the line in Gatsby. Nick tries to tell Gatsby you can’t rewrite the past, to which he jauntily replies, “But of course you can, old sport.”

It’s funny; years ago when I taught the novel, I was intrigued that my international students had little difficulty seeing that Gatsby was delusional. They saw the story as an indictment of his moral failure. My American students, however, could only see the novel as a love story, somewhat tragic no doubt, but a love story nonetheless. Yet the novel is both. The tragedy and the romance are forever intertwined, but we Americans never seem to see this. We keep building our Monticellos.

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