Gatsby Text Pairing: John Green’s “Our Capacity for Wonder”

Revel in Green’s Gatsby-filled essay in The Anthropocene Reviewed

If Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is your favorite novel to teach, here’s an essay you need to either read or listen to. Titled “Our Capacity for Wonder,” it’s a beautiful five-page reflection on Gatsby, its critique of The American Dream, and how the novel considers and celebrates man’s capacity for wonder.

By initially focusing on one of the most memorable sentences of chapter 12 in The Great Gatsby, Green connects the capacity for wonder, held by Fitzgerald’s Dutch sailors at their first sighting of New York, to his own capacity for wonder as sparked by a simple observation made by his two-year-old son, Henry.

That sentence from the novel, as you well know, is…

“For a transitory enchanted moment, man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Chapter 12

I won’t spoil this Gatsby-focused essay for you, but it’s classic John Green and it’s straight out of his 2021 book, The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet, an assemblage of essays from the WNYC Studios podcast of the same name. (By the way, “anthropocene” refers to the world’s current geologic age and in this book, Green reviews and rates on a five-star scale the topics of each chapter, which, in addition to Our Capacity for Wonder, also include Diet Dr Pepper, the QWERTY Keyboard, Sunsets, Canada Geese and about forty others. He gives man’s capacity for wonder three and a half stars.)

“Our Capacity for Wonder” is a poignant, smart, and meandering mental stroll rich with acute observations and a whopper of a warm fuzzy at the end to bring the stroll to a satisfying conclusion.

Only Green could write an essay that weaves together the following:

Best-selling author John Green
John Green; Hank Green, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  • The Dutch sailors passage Green calls “a hell of a sentence”
  • The initial slow sales of The Great Gatsby and how the U.S. Army played a part in increased readership
  • The novel’s American Dream theme and the confusion that often arises around that theme
  • Fitzgerald’s silky smooth sentences
  • The bias and inaccuracies revealed in the “transitory enchanted moment” passage
  • The exhausting ironies and inaccuracies the novel presents overall, and finally…
  • A story about a walk in the woods and an oak leaf

And that’s the wonder of this essay: Green makes Gatsby personal. @TheAnthropoceneReviewed #gatsby

Those beautiful imagery-filled sentences aren’t just part of an old book from the Jazz Age. They demonstrate the timelessness of Fitzgerald’s ideas. Whether man’s capacity for wonder is recorded in 1925 or 2021, great literature lives within us and whispers to us through our personal experiences.

I’ve needed a book like this for a while. Writing essays is such a dominant activity in my classroom and finding interesting and arresting ones to read takes a lot of time. It’s awesome that there are so many in this collection and, even though I haven’t read them all yet, they’ve all been compelling.

In addition, having a resource like this gives me ideas for other ways to incorporate this book into my classroom routine.

Other Ways to Use This Essay

  1. As an Essay of the Week

“Our Capacity for Wonder” and other essays in The Anthropocene Reviewed would be good candidates for Essay of the Week (EOTW) assignments as discussed on educator Matthew Johnson’s website. Similar to Kelley Gallagher’s Article of the Week assignments, Johnson’s EOTW assignments are “built around the idea that for students to write better, deeper, and more lively essays, they need to have regular exposure to the essay form in its many shapes and styles.” Read Johnson’s in-depth post here about EOTW assignments.

2. As a Mentor Text

I’m thinking of joining students in making a retroactive outline of one of Green’s essays, and then using the outline and the essay to inspire an exploration of our own chosen topics. It will be good to see on the whiteboard how Green employs historical information, narrative, and speculation into a thoughtful essay… and how he employs transitions, repetition, and other techniques to arrive at satisfying conclusions.


Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading! I’m still reading and listening my way through The Anthropocene Reviewed.

As I make my way through the rest of the collection, I’ll fill you in on what I learn, glean, and take-away.

Have a great week!



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Published by Marilyn Yung

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

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