So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures
F. Scott Fitzgerald died at age 44, the victim of a turbulent life of alcohol, high living and emotional trauma. Unhappily, at his passing, he was not a revered star of the literary world. What would become his literary bequest to the world, his novel THE GREAT GATSBY, was barely an afterthought in literature. A few years before his death, Fitzgerald sadly discussed the book’s languid literary status in a plaintive letter to his editor, Max Perkins: “I wish it was in print. It will be odd a year or so from now when Scottie assures her friends I was an author and finds that no book is procurable….” Fitzgerald’s funeral would be eerily similar to that of Jay Gatsby --- barely anyone attended.
Today, 90 years after its publication, THE GREAT GATSBY is one of the most read books in the world. It is on the reading list of almost every high school literature class in America and is the one American novel that most educated Americans have read. SO WE READ ON asks why. And while author Maureen Corrigan cannot really answer that, she does offer readers wonderful insight into the life of its troubled author and some suggestions as to why readers seem to be “borne back ceaselessly” into its thrall.
"[Corrigan] does offer readers wonderful insight into the life of its troubled author and some suggestions as to why readers seem to be 'borne back ceaselessly' into its thrall.... SO WE READ ON enriches THE GREAT GATSBY and those who read it."
Corrigan is the book critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air” and a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She teaches THE GREAT GATSBY as a labor of love, even going so far as to travel with her students to New York City to experience “the living text of the city.” She believes that Fitzgerald loved the Big Apple as he wrote the book. He had visited there while a student at Princeton and returned after military service. New York City of the ’20s suited his life aspirations. Part of Corrigan’s affinity for the classic work obviously stems from her love of New York. It is an enthralling combination.
For Corrigan, THE GREAT GATSBY is just about perfect, despite going against every expectation of what a Great American Novel should be. Length and plot development are not exhaustive, and the end is fairly predictable. Readers learn the basics of Jay Gatsby’s life but with very little detail. How he earned his fortune can still be debated, although most would attribute his money to some illegal activity. His early romance with Daisy also leaves many unanswered questions. Readers know very little about Nick, the narrator of the story. But perhaps it is the unanswered questions and the brevity of the novel that make it so majestic. It simply does not fit the mold for what most scholars would require of a great novel. It may not be hefty in pages, but it contains some of the most beautiful sentences ever written. Fitzgerald may suggest that the American Dream is a mirage, but his words serve to make it irresistible. The book’s brevity may contribute to its appreciation and greatness in another fashion: readers often return to it to savor its elegant writing once again.
SO WE READ ON discusses not only THE GREAT GATSBY but also its role in culture. Corrigan mentions the novel’s various movie versions. Surprisingly her favorite is the least known: the 1949 version starring Alan Ladd. It interprets the novel as an underworld crime saga as opposed to the more modern films that treat the book as a love story. One of the joys of reading comes from new discoveries. I anxiously await the opportunity to watch the one movie version of THE GREAT GATSBY that I have yet to see.
There is much more to enjoy in Corrigan’s paen to Fitzgerald’s novel. Readers are reminded of his brief Hollywood life and the tragedy that would envelop both him and his wife, Zelda. Corrigan reminds us that many great authors have been “one-hit wonders,” but laments Fitzgerald’s failure to reach his potential as a writer as a loss for literature, as well as a personal one. SO WE READ ON enriches THE GREAT GATSBY and those who read it.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on September 12, 2014