Maureen Corrigan, book critic of NPR’s Fresh Air and The Washington Post, speaks and signs her new book at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café downtown on Wednesday, November 19 at 7 pm. So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures (Little Brown & Co., 2014, 352 pages) is a lively, informative, inspirational book. It now ties with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way as my favorite book on writing.
I’ve read Gatsby five times but I’ve never particularly liked it. My reaction, according to Corrigan, is not rare, in fact, she has a whole chapter entitled “I Didn’t Get It the First Time.” So We Read On is an exciting combination of biography, history, literary criticism, even autobiography—Corrigan has read Gatsby 50 times, so it’s a love story, too. And despite my original dislike (several, times remember) Corrigan’s book—her passion, her research, her originality, and her darn good writing—has convinced me to read the novel yet again. This time I’m looking forward it.
Corrigan claims The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, is the best American novel written in the 20th century. It was a hard-won struggle to attain that accolade—the book fizzled upon publication, and poor F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) died penniless, convinced he was a failure.
As a writer myself, I sympathize with other writers and Fitzgerald’s sad life has always made me it hard for me to separate his work from his biography. Not to mention the fate of his wife Zelda (1900- 1948), who died in a fire in Highland Hospital in Asheville.
During WWII Gatsby was chosen to be published in inexpensive paperback editions for American GIs and a great wave of appreciation began which the decades have not quelled. Movie versions of the book, including the latest (2013) starring Leonardo DeCaprio (directed by flashy Aussie director Baz Luhrmann), increased the number of fans of the book. (Corrigan considers the hard-to find 1949 version with Alan Ladd to be the best cinematic telling of the novel.)
The Great Gatsby (a title Fitzgerald didn’t want) is the tragic story of a self-made millionaire, Jay Gatsby, who lives alone in a mansion on one side of a bay off Long Island. He’s obsessed with dreams of his former lover a high society southern belle who is now married and living on the other side of the bay where he can see the flashing green light on her dock every night. A quick reading of Gatsby tells us that it’s about the materialism of America, the excessive hedonism of the 1920s. Well, yes, that it is. But upon closer examination, as Corrigan points out, Gatsby is a merciless depiction of something Americans don’t like to admit—that the country was, and is, a class-stratified society. Believing the American dream, we are addicted to illusion, longing for love, for riches, for acceptance, for reinventing ourselves.
Corrigan, a professor, also examines the book as a literary accomplishment. She details the things you think about but don’t pause long enough to let sink in — the way the beginning is mirrored in the end, its metaphors, such as the eyeglasses on the roadway billboard, its recurring images of water (rain, drowning, the bay) and how Gatsby pays homage to the pulp fiction crime novels that preceded it. Anyone planning to write a novel would do well to first read So We Read On and then re-read The Great Gatsby a half dozen times.
I’m just about to read Gatsby again, but this time, prodded by Corrigan’s love for it, I’ll read it out loud, a few pages at a time, in order to luxuriate in its exquisite poetry. The famous ending: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” I recommend the authorized text, with notes and preface by Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli and a reproduction of the iconic original book art by Cuban-born Francis Cugat (1896-1981)
The appearance of Maureen Corrigan at Malaprop’s on Wednesday, November 19 at 7 p.m. is a ticketed event. Its total cost is (the price of the book $26.00 + tax) $27.82. Come early to get a good seat.
A version of this article appeared in Rapid River Arts & Culture Magazine, Nov. 2014
Marcianne Miller is a local writer and critic. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.