If in the last sentence of The Great Gatsby it has been written, "Nick suggests that Americans can transcend and recreate [advancing, in a poetic sense] the past--'we beat on'--in order to find the true heartbeat of those early settlers who had an aesthetic contemplation of the wondrous new land of opportunity."
So, what is the literal meaning of "beat on"? [Does this verb derive from sailing where "to beat" is to head into the wind? Is there any relation with a heartbeat?]
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
The use of the nautical term "beat on" may well serve Fitzgerald's meaning here in Chapter Nine since when a sailboat is beating it is heading into the wind by means of a zigzag pattern since there is no way for sails to propel the boat straight forward when heading into the wind. Nevertheless, this meaning is still used figuratively as it suggests that Americans have strayed from the course of the genuine American dream, trading it for the falsity of the dream of materialism.
Perhaps, another meaning of "beat on" is that Americans will continue to strive as desire continues to beat in their hearts. The closest one can come to a literal meaning, therefore, is that "beat on" means to live and strive. For, history demonstrates that people do, indeed, live and repeat the past.
It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.… And one fine morning.…
Nick hopes that by returning to the past, by taking this zigzag path toward the future by way of what was good in the past, there will be hope for Americans and they can "beat on," and live and strive toward better goals.