D’Angelo Barksdale reads The Great Gatsby

The Wire: D’Angelo reads The Great Gatsby

This is a scene from The Wire I constantly return to in my mind for some reason. I mean it might seem obvious given I have a quickly vanishing background in American literature, and I certainly believe that the The Great Gatsby is one of those works that gives you something new and desperate no matter how many times you’ve read it. But I’m not sure that’s it.

Oddly enough, this scene reminds me of a huge, survey lecture of English Literature I took at UCLA with Robert Aguirre in the early 90s. We had just finished reading either James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, I don’t remember which, and his basic wrap for this particular lecture focused on how literature makes the reader somehow different. Which is not an idea I disagree with necessarily at all, but what struck me about his telling was that the difference amounted to feeling somehow different upon your return home after reading these immortal words, as if you couldn’t look at the people, places, and things in your life the same way. I read his suggestion as a kind of imposed alienation and superiority all at once. It infuriated me to no end, and I stood up and said as much when he finished. I’ve always thought that if something as awesome and intensely regenerative as literature is framed as an excuse for invidious distinction, then all is lost for the humanities. Do we study the greatest words to feel better than those who didn’t or couldn’t? Moreover, did those who wrote them imagine them as a wedge rather than a window?

D’Angelo’s reading of  Gatsby is such a beautiful antidote to such a worldview of culture. It’s one of the few, and definitely the most powerful, moments in TV or film wherein literature becomes a struggle with life rather than an object of invidious cultural distinction or an allusion to be caught or missed depending upon your cultural literacy. In this scene literature is about the raw act of reading honestly and personally, which has nothing to do with how much you have read, or how much more you know or don’t know than another. Maybe that’s why I can’t shake this scene from my head, I love literature, but not as a cultural trophy, but rather a sincere struggle with all that is human and that haunts us.

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11 Responses to D’Angelo Barksdale reads The Great Gatsby

  1. Luke says:

    Thanks for posting this, Jim. I recently got the complete run of the series, and look forward to finding the time to rewatch it all.

    Your point about honesty is so crucial to the whole enterprise of The Wire, which relentlessly challenged and sought to expose artifice wherever it could be found. That point is underscored in this particular scene by the fact that the discussion leader is played by none other than Richard Price, the novelist who co-wrote a few episodes of the show, and also wrote Clockers, The Wanderers, and last year’s Lush Life. Price’s writing explores the same themes at work in this scene: the burdens of truth and the ultimate inescapability of one’s reality. He actually also spends a lot of time doing what he’s portrayed as doing in this scene: helping adults (imprisoned and not) explore humanity through literacy in reading and writing programs.

  2. Gardo says:

    Wild timing here.

    First, I just finished listening to the podcast on Eliot, “The Wasteland,” and modernism on In Our Time. The host, Melvyn Bragg, seems frankly incredulous (even a little snippy) at the way this poem continues to be fodder for academics. I think he’s especially bothered by the academic preening the poem has empowered (though his guests were not preening, thank goodness). For a long time I resented Eliot and “The Wasteland” for just that reason. That, and Eliot’s craven dismissal of Milton. Anyhow, many many years later, my students helped to restore that poem to me because their questions helped me to finally understand “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and *that* helped me to finally understand “Prufrock” (or at least to understand what I wasn’t understanding) and then to be able to embrace “The Wasteland” as at least possibly a cry from the heart.

    But it was a close one and it nearly didn’t happen.

    Same thing with Joyce, only this time it was grad school and a class in modern novel. I had very unpleasant memories of an undergraduate study trip to Ireland in which several solemn Irish dons (I remember Seamus Deane in particular) intoned and droned about how Joyce had “exhausted the form of the novel.” I got another dose of that in the grad school class, though this time it was more like how modernism had exhausted form, period. There was such a veneer of cultured dismissal of “getting real with the story” that I should have just thrown up my hands and walked out. Instead I kept trying to engage the question in class and got nowhere, though I admit the teacher was a good and smart person who was, in his way, tolerant of my outbursts.

    Then there was the time I taught a class in “Heart of Darkness” to prisoners in a state penitentiary–but that’s another story.

    I do think that reading the great stuff makes everything look different, but I agree wholeheartedly that the difference shouldn’t be a shibboleth. Yet at the same time I think of Richard Rodriguez’ story of how his increasing education drove a wedge between him and his family. When I met Rodriguez at Mary Washington, I told him his story had resonated very powerfully with me. He touched my hand and said “you must tell your story.” I had to leave because I could feel the tears starting.

    A great post and a great clip. Thanks.

  3. Reverend says:

    Brilliant, I had no idea that was Price. That makes this all the richer, I’m a huge fan of The Wanderers, and I think Clockers was a vision of what was to come with my favorite Spike Lee The 25th Hour. This scene is so special to me, because it was such a moment of clarity trough reading and discussion in the most dire of institutions, and maybe that’s why I keep coming back to it. We both know D’Angelo is just moments away from facing off with his mom, and then getting strangled to death, but his refusal to play anymore and the determined defiance and at the same time resignation is wild. And then add to that his reading here of the whole situation here, and you have magic. It pulls him out of it for a second, and provides some sense of something else which is ephemeral, but beautiful. That’s it, ephemeral, a space that is limited to an experience, not a system or a bonafide logic of difference and distinction. I might have to re-watch this series as well, it is deep under my skin these days.

    You know, strangely enough Modernism was always my favorite moment of literature in undergrad. I loved the experimentation with perspective and style. I was a huge Dos Passos fan, tripped on his writing in the Trilogy and Manhattan Transfer, the Newsreels, and his making the novels so serial in some ways. Most of my time at UCLA was spent on the British tradition of literature, and I had tons of it, two semesters of Shakespeare, one of Milton, one of Chaucer, 19th cent novel, 18th cent., etc. But in the end, my favorite modernist writers were not British (unless we think of Beckett as a Modernist–which I don’t really) they were Czech and Mississipians: Kafka and Faulkner. I would say they are still my two favorite writers. And I think that’s because they remain squarely within a tradition of alienation and perspectival confusion, while at the same time suggesting this strange sense of hope. Both of their styles, Kafka’s fragmentary works, and Faulkner’s ever lasting sentences mark a space of indeterminate intimacy in their vision. I took a class on Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (General in his Labryinth is a masterpiece as well) but Faulkner is the epitome of endurance and belief in creating an imaginative community (nay, county) and then methodically destroying it by way of the Snopeses, and you can almost see his tears on the page for the loss of everything he imagined he once knew and loved. His nostalgia is immensely (if not dangerously) influential on me. It is wild stuff.

    Kafak, well Kafka wrote a dream, the only dream I have ever been convinced of in fiction. His work was all a dream vision. It’s spectacular…..revolutionary, really. The human is a dog or a cockroach, but the dog and cockroach feel. Bizarre, crazy, brilliant. I have no qualms with modernism as a space for experimental form (just an issue with the idea of the artist it fostered and promoted in scholarship), and I think there forms were coming out of a similar moment as ours, just think about Dos Passos and Ford Maddox Ford, and herein lies the importance of form for our moment. We have a whole new set of media for telling these stories, and The Wire has been the closest thing to greatness I have yet to see in the 21st century, and it’s Balzac exemplifying and drolly bemoaning the corruption and death of the industrial models of the 20th century. It is a shining example of the wasteland most of our institutions have become, it’s a jeremiad and a eulogy all at once, it also a call to action.

  4. Gardo says:

    Great stuff.

    It was never the experimentation I minded. I loved the experimentation, actually. What I minded was the idea that the experimentation somehow canceled out everything that came before. All great writers look experimental to me. That’s why my final choice for a dissertation topic came down to Faulkner or Milton.

  5. Martha says:

    Wow. I’d forgotten about this scene. The Wire is amazing. Thanks again for encouraging me to stick with it. I think I need to go back and watch the whole thing over again. It’s definitely one of those series that lends itself to some recursive viewing, I think. It’s only by the end that I know what I should be looking for in the beginning.

    This clip also made me realize how much the theme of education and learning is pulled through the entire series. Obviously there’s the whole school season, but there is also this scene, Stringer at the community college, the kid in the first season (can’t remember his name) who decides he wants to get out of the drug-running business and go back to school. I don’t know. I hadn’t noticed it, but there’s quite a bit, actually.

  6. Brian says:

    Gardner – I love In Our Time (and look forward to hearing that show), but I find Melvyn to be “snippy” almost every week. he seems to enjoy bullying academics… though I’m sure the pressure to keep the conversation progressing and economical weighs heavily on him.

    We’re well into Season 4 now…

    Have you read this by Marc Bousquet: “Like The Wire? You’re Living It”…?


  7. Gardner says:


    I’ve never thought Melvyn Bragg a bully, though I think I can see why one might. From my listening position, he seems more like a cross between a fascinated interlocuter, a polymath, and a border collie. From my own radio experience I can imagine how fiendishly difficult it must be for him to shape something deep, rich, complex, and generally accessible out of three professors talking for 42 minutes. It’s probably also great fun, with the right professors. Do you subscribe to his email newsletter? Today’s has this lovely quotation:

    “I thought that the three contributors were extraordinarily generous in trying to distil their arcane and fiendishly difficult scholarship into the 42 permitted minutes on Radio 4. All of them were keen to say how much they appreciated the chance of talking about their science at such a time on such a channel. One of the pleasures of In Our Time is to observe the courtesy that academics extend to each other’s ideas and opinions.”

    Sadly, in my experience such courtesy is less common in the humanities, particularly in literary studies, than in the sciences. And “courtesy” itself is dipped in a feudal past, etc. etc. But I keep my hopes about me, as you can see.

    I read the essay you linked to and found it most compelling. Thanks for the link. At the same time, I know plenty of leaders without the quotation marks who’ve devoted themselves to keeping “quality management” and meaningless spin-ready assessment out of the picture as much as humanly possible. And I’m sure not arguing that progress will come without agitation. It all depends on the mode of agitation. That seems pretty obvious.

    I think it’s fine to critique “leaders” and “leadership” when the quotation marks indicate abuse. But abusing a good thing doesn’t make the good thing bad. If it did, we’d be in very bad shape indeed, as what is not susceptible to abuse? But I’ll close here without getting all Miltonic on ya.

  8. Brian says:

    Gardner, there was one IOT show on Flaubert that raised my hackles. It seemed like every time one of the contributors had found some niche that they found particularly fascinating he would jump in and pull them back to the planned narrative with what I took as excessive curt, even dismissive energy. I don’t doubt that there is some necessity for a strong hand, but I found it off-putting, and I am admittedly oversensitive to that sort of thing ever since. The newsletter you excerpt is interesting, and certainly shows a generosity of spirit. And I acknowledge it’s easy for me to sit here and criticize something that undoubtedly is very, very difficult to do… and that in the end the show speaks for itself.

  9. Gardner says:

    I remember the Flaubert show but only dimly. Melvyn can be, well, a bit brisk at times, and he may have been overly so here. I’ll go back and listen. Too much to take in one time through, anyway. My own pet peeve with My Man Bragg is that he’ll sometimes mumble and I can’t hear him over the road noise.

    It occurs to me that IOT is in its dear BBC way not that different from The Wire. I mean, going from Eliot and modernity to the measurement problem in physics may sound highfalutin’, but it’s actually not: it’s zestfully and recklessly interdisciplinary in ways that the academy typically frowns upon (or worse). But here is a great example of how education can be liberated from the dead invisible hand of the Academic Salons. Yet the expertise doesn’t go away, and the value and rigor don’t either. They’re all reframed and redirected. There’s plenty of awe and wonder to go around. What’s scarce is imagination and courage, as Jim’s post and the example from The Wire make abundantly clear.

    Man, I must see this show immediately.

  10. Holly says:

    Wow! Re-watching this clip made me realize how this talk about Gatsby foreshadowed his own death! “He was who he was, and eventually that shit caught up to him.” It’s also interesting to note how throughout the first two seasons, D’Angelo resembles Gatsby in many ways. An overall fantastic show!!!

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