Create context for Gatsby with “Cosmopolis” documentary

This “Cosmopolis” viewing guide builds prior knowledge for Gatsby

Before you even mention to your students that they’ll be reading The Great Gatsby in your classes, know that they will have probably at least heard of it. But that’s about all.

Even though The Great Gatsby is arguably considered the great American novel, don’t think for a minute that young people know much about the 1920s or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Or even – gasp! – the 2013 movie by Baz Luhrman. Your juniors would have been about eight years old when it was released, so if you bring up that there’s a movie, plan to see a lot of blank stares across your classroom.

That being the case, you will no doubt need to spend a few days acquainting your students with all things Jazz Age. Here is one fantastic video resource — free on YouTube no less — to put in your planning notebook for the next time you teach The Great Gatsby: “Cosmopolis” from New York: A Documentary Film, the behemoth eight-episode historical saga of New York City.

Episode 5 of season 1, “Cosmopolis,” was released in 1999 by director Ric Burns of Steeplechase Films.

Here’s the quick summary blurb about “Cosmopolis” from IMDb:

“Episode five tells the African-American experience, the birth of the new media industries and the incredible convergence of human and cultural energies, ending with construction of the world’s tallest building.”

New York: A Documentary Film | Cosmopolis (Episode 5)

“Cosmopolis” covers the years 1914-1931 and runs over two hours in length. However, for our purposes with Gatsby, watch only the first 35 and half minutes, which covers New York City history through 1927.

Watch “Cosmopolis” (Season 1 Episode 5) from New York: A Documentary Film

Yes, this documentary first aired in 1999 and even though it’s not new, it’s still riveting and engaging. In fact, I use this same documentary series for two other units, 9/11 (Episode 8) and Triangle Fire (Episode 4), and it has yet to disappoint. My students have always found the series worthwhile and interesting.

What makes “Cosmopolis” perfect for The Great Gatsby? It begins and ends with this passage from the final pages of the book:

“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world.”


The narration of this delicious quote from the book is absolutely magical and bookends the entire discussion of the Jazz Age. In addition, Fitzgerald receives a lot of attention throughout “Cosmopolis.” Some basic biographical information is included as well as ideas about how his views and attitudes were integral to not only his various short stories and other novels, but also to the prevailing notions of his peers in the Big Apple.

I can’t recommend this documentary highly enough!

“Cosmopolis” provides informative and engaging information on the following topics:

  • World War 1 and its aftermath
  • Prosperity following the war
  • Passage of the 19th Amendment
  • Prohibition
  • The Red Scare
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda
  • The Harlem Renaissance
  • The influence of jazz on American culture
  • New technologies such as radio, motion pictures, and skyscrapers

There’s even this teacher’s guide you can download from PBS. Here’s a photo (below left) of two sheets from the guide for student use that contain reading passages and questions based on the era covered by “Cosmopolis.”

The other sheet in the photo (below right) provides more reference materials, vocabulary, and paired texts (stories, poetry and essays). In fact, there are materials like these for each episode of New York: A Documentary Film.

Worksheets from New York: The Documentary video.
Print out the Cosmopolis pages from this New York: The Documentary Season 1 teacher’s guide.

This information on these student pages supplements the episode, but doesn’t serve as a viewing guide per se. That’s why I created my own viewing guide to use next year when I teach Gatsby for the second time to my junior American Lit classes.

My 34-question viewing guide with key provides more than just something for students to follow along with as they watch. It contains not only basic fill-in-the-blank questions, but also encourages critical thinking with questions that will get your students pondering and discussing the broader implications of the video’s finer points.

I’ve divided the guide into the eight scenes of the “Cosmopolis” episode. Since the critical thinking questions are scattered throughout the guide, I would suggest stopping at the conclusion of each scene to talk through some of the questions with students and/or discuss briefly some of the talking points in the video before continuing.

But it’s really your call.

You might want to suggest that students fill out the guide as they see fit. Some will want to follow along question by question, stopping at each scene; some will prefer to watch and fill out later. I hope that the guide will allow this kind of flexibility.

Full disclosure: I have not used this guide yet. I created it during summer break and intend to use it during the upcoming school year.

This guide is available below for purchase from my TpT store. Scroll through the slideshow below to see sample pages from the guide.

If you purchase this viewing guide from my TpT store… THANK YOU! And please let me know how it works for you either here in the comments, on my Contact page, or on TpT.

In summary…

During my first attempt at teaching the novel, I know I didn’t provide enough prior knowledge and students missed out. There are SO MANY historical and cultural allusions sprinkled throughout the book that to stop and teach, explain, and discuss at every question stopped the flow of the story and interrupted the magic of Fitzgerald’s prose. If I had simply provided more guidance up front with “Cosmopolis” my students would have had a better Gatsby experience.

How about you? What are your go-to Gatsby prior knowledge resources? How do you teach the novel before even turning to page 1? Leave a comment below and share your experiences with the rest of us.

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“Song of Myself” Video Project Reveals Walt Whitman’s Importance Today

Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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