Getting a jump on the 90th anniversary of the publication of “The Great Gatsby” (next April 10), Maureen Corrigan reminds us in her engaging new book why F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is still going strong after nearly a century.
At first, it didn’t look as if it would last a decade. As Corrigan notes, Fitzgerald’s third novel got lousy reviews, sold poorly and was nearly forgotten by the time its embittered author died in 1940. But beginning in the 1950s, more and more people came to recognize it as a masterpiece, and as it was added to more and more anthologies and school curricula, “The Great Gatsby” attained its current status as one of the most widely read American classics, here and abroad.
Like many, Corrigan first read it in high school and, she confesses, didn’t really get it. (Me neither, at age 19; she thinks most of us read it when were too young.) But after a lifetime of rereading, teaching and touring with the novel — she lectured on it for the National Education Association’s Big Read project — she has come to love it and regard it as the Great American Novel. In “So We Read On,” she tells us why in unabashed fan-girl fashion, which makes her book as pleasurable to read as Fitzgerald’s.
Taking what might be called a holistic approach, she examines “Gatsby” from every angle: from close readings of the novel’s language (its chief attraction), to biographical matters, textual history, media reincarnations (movies, plays, homages, even computer games), critical responses and its place in today’s culture. (In the final chapter, Corrigan returns to her high school and sits in on a few discussions of it.) She clearly knows the novel minutely, has read most of the criticism (a corpus as big as the Ritz), has visited the archives to report on its wonders, and is a fund of anecdotes about the Fitzgeralds and their world.
The book critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air” and a regular reviewer for The Washington Post, Corrigan digresses wherever her fancy takes her. As she says of “Gatsby,” her book “jumps and ducks and shimmies.” Although she is a professor at Georgetown University, she writes in a refreshingly nonacademic manner. She is not too politically correct to refer to women as “dames” when appropriate — and in fact takes a few jabs at recent literary theorists and their trendy jargon. She compares the “aggressive absurdity” of some critical approaches with those of old-fashioned scholars such as Fitzgerald specialist Matthew J. Bruccoli: “They did more than just adopt theoretical positions toward literature; they actually knew things.”
It is her own deep knowledge that allows Corrigan to argue that “The Great Gatsby” is more a hard-boiled detective novel than a glittery love story, “a noir that surveys the rotten underbelly of the American Dream” (which is why she prefers the 1949 Alan Ladd movie version over others). She is also able to provide a historical context for what appear to be anti-Semitism and racism in the novel, and to supply the relevant biographical data to account for Fitzgerald’s ambivalent feelings about America.
She argues that “Gatsby” is “our most American and un-American novel, all at once,” and that Gatsby himself is, “for better or worse, an American.” That ambivalence is the divided heart of the novel: Gatsby is a dreamer and a “go-for-broke Promethean overreacher,” but — as Corrigan’s former high school teacher tells her, “Gatsby was looking for the wrong things. . . . Money and clothes and Daisy.” He embodies the best and worst qualities of America, resulting in a novel that is simultaneously buoyant and grim, as Corrigan notes. “ ‘The Great Gatsby’ is an elegant trickster of a novel, spinning out all sorts of inspired and contradictory poetic patter about American identity and possibilities.” She quotes with approval one early reader who pegged Gatsby as “extraordinarily American, like ice cream soda with arsenic flavoring,” which also describes the novel he inhabits.
Like Rebecca Mead’s recent book on “Middlemarch” and Michael Gorra’s on “The Portrait of a Lady,” Corrigan’s “personal excursion” represents a welcome alternative to academic criticism: It’s smart and compelling, persuasive without demeaning other interpretations (except for the rookie mistake of regarding the novel as “a celebration of the consumer society that was taking shape in the 1920s”). She succeeds at uncovering the novel from “under fossilized layers of Great Books-type reverential criticism” without going to overtheorized extremes. I used to think “The Great Gatsby” was too short to qualify as the Great American Novel — for a country as big as America, surely that honor should go to a sprawling work like John Dos Passos’s “U.S.A.” or William Gaddis’s “J R” — but Corrigan almost convinces me that bigger is not necessarily better. If you love “Gatsby,” or want to understand why it deserves such adulation, “So We Read On” is a gorgeous treat.
At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Corrigan will appear at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
At 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Corrigan will appear at the Mason Hall Tent, Outside Center for the Arts, part of Fall for the Book, at George Mason University, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax, Va.
Moore is the author of “The Novel: An Alternative History,” which has been nominated for this year’s Christian Gauss Award.