Book review: Maureen Corrigan’s ‘So We Read On’

By Steven Moore

SO WE READ ON: How ‘The Great Gatsby' Came to Be and Why It Endures. Maureen Corrigan. Little, Brown. 340 pages. $26.
SO WE READ ON: How ‘The Great Gatsby' Came to Be and Why It Endures. Maureen Corrigan. Little, Brown. 340 pages. $26.

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 almost 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 almost forgotten by the time its embittered author died in 1940. But beginning in the 1950s, 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 became one of the most widely read American classics, here and abroad.

Corrigan first read it in high school and, she confesses, didn’t really get it. 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, has visited the archives to report on its wonders and is a fount 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.

Her own deep knowledge 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.”

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 over-theorized 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’ U.S.A. or William Gaddis’ JR — but Corrigan almost convinces me that bigger is not necessarily better.

Steven Moore reviewed this book for The Washington Post.