When book critic Maureen Corrigan first read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in high school, she was unimpressed.
"Not a lot happens in Gatsby," Corrigan tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It's not a plot-driven novel and I also thought, 'Eh, it's another novel about rich people.' And I grew up in a blue-collar community."
She also couldn't relate, she says, because it doesn't feature any likeable female characters.
"In fact, that's one of the reasons why Fitzgerald thought it didn't sell well in 1925," Corrigan says, "because there are no likeable female characters and women drive the fiction market."
But today Corrigan considers The Great Gatsby to be the greatest American novel — and it's the novel she loves more than any other. She's written a new book about it called So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.
Corrigan says she loves The Great Gatsby in part because of its message that it's admirable to try to beat your own fate.
"You can't escape the past, but isn't it noble to try?" she says. "That's the message here ... to be the boat against the current, even though failure and death inevitably await you. The doomed beauty of trying — that's what this novel is about."
While Corrigan is hardly alone in her evaluation of The Great Gatsby, she's perhaps unique in her ability to write in such a lively and engaging way about the book, Fitzgerald's life and the era in which it's set — the 1920s.
Corrigan has read The Great Gatsby more than 50 times and has taught it to generations of college students. She grew up near an area where part of the book is set in Queens, N.Y., which is described as The Valley of Ashes because it was a dump for coal-burning ashes.
As a book critic, Corrigan gets more than 200 books a week delivered to her house by publishers, and she likes to think that if The Great Gatsby were one of those books today, she'd read it.
She says, "I would've opened it and thought, 'Huh, The Great Gatsby.' ... The title wouldn't have grabbed me. What I do think would've grabbed me is the book jacket design. ... It's very striking, it's non-representational. It's odd. I think if I had opened the book and began reading, that [narrator] Nick [Carraway's] voice would've grabbed me. I want to think that I would've kept on reading."
On The Great Gatsby's similarities to film noir
Gatsby almost has the form of a film noir, where you have this voiceover, with Nick Carraway remembering things that have taken place in the past, things that can't be changed, events that can't be changed.
It's a violent story. There are three violent deaths in Gatsby. It's a story in which you get bootlegging, crime, explicit sexuality — and remember this is 1925 when it was published, so it's pretty racy for its time. ...
We don't explicitly read about [sex], but in chapter two, Nick is taken along by Tom Buchanan ... on a joy ride into Manhattan where Tom takes Nick to ... a drunken party in The Love Nest. So we know that there's infidelity — a lot of innuendo about people having sex outside of marriage and a lot of drinking.
And, most importantly, film noir, hard-boiled detective fiction and The Great Gatsby — they're all stories that are obsessed with the presence of fate. There's a very fated feel to Gatsby. Events that occur in the novel, they're foretold many times. That car crash in which Myrtle Wilson is killed, Tom's mistress, there are two other car crashes that preceded that car crash. So a lot of events are predicted in this novel.
On Fitzgerald's background
[Despite his success], he was also that Midwestern boy from St. Paul, Minn., whose parents didn't quite measure up to their neighbors. His parents never owned a home, for instance, they always rented. Fitzgerald never owned a home — he always rented.
He was always kind of on the outside looking in and hoping to be good enough for Princeton, to be good enough for the crowd on the Riviera who he hung out with — [wealthy expatriates] Gerald and Sara Murphy, the Hemingways, etc. I think you get that sense in Fitzgerald of someone who remade himself but was also aware at times in his life that he was pretending to be someone he was not.
Even when he died in 1940, Fitzgerald was denied burial in his own family's plot in Rockville, Md., because the Catholic Church [Fitzgerald grew up Catholic] decided that his novels were a little too risque and ... didn't approve of them. So Fitzgerald had to be buried in a Protestant cemetery. He's always being pushed out and told that he's not good enough.
On Gatsby's reception in its time
The literary readers — people like Gertrude Stein, Edmund Wilson, Gilbert Seldes, who was a critic and reviewer of the time who really got Gatsby — they loved it. ...
The popular reviewers read it as a crime novel and thought for the most part that it was maybe just OK. There's a famous headline for a review of The Great Gatsby that came out in the New York World, and the headline reads, "Fitzgerald's Latest A Dud."
On Gatsby's second life
When Fitzgerald died in 1940 in Hollywood, his last royalty check was for $13.13. Remaindered copies of the second printing of The Great Gatsby were moldering away in [publisher] Scribner's warehouse.
World War II starts, and a group of publishers, paper manufacturers, editors [and] librarians get together in New York. And they decide that men serving in the Army and Navy need something to read. ... They printed over 1,000 titles of different books, and they sent over a million copies of these books to sailors and soldiers serving overseas and also to [prisoners of war] in prison camps in Japan and Germany through an arrangement with the Red Cross.
The Great Gatsby was chosen to be one of these Armed Services Editions. And what that meant was that all of a sudden this novel that was basically nowhere, you couldn't get it in bookstores in the early 1940s, [but] by 1945 over 123,000 copies of The Great Gatsby were distributed. ...
The greatest distribution of the Armed Services Editions was on the eve of D-Day. Eisenhower's staff made sure that every guy stepping onto a landing craft in the south of England right on the eve of D-Day would have an Armed Services Edition in his pocket. They were sized as long rectangles meant to fit in the servicemen's pockets.
So you read these accounts of the guys on the landing crafts going over to Normandy Beach and they're reading, trying to take their mind off of what's about to face them. ... It's just such an amazing testament to what books can mean to people at critical times in their lives.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has just published a new book of her own. It's about the novel she loves more than any other, the novel she considers to be the greatest American novel, "The Great Gatsby." She's hardly alone in her evaluation of Gatsby, but she's perhaps in a unique position to write in such a lively and engaging way about the book, its author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the era the book is set in - the 1920s.
In writing about Gatsby, she also writes about herself. She's read Gatsby more than 50 times, taught it to generations of college students and grew up near an area where part of the book is set - not near Gatsby's mansion but near an area in Queens, New York that the characters drive through which is described as the valley of ashes because it was a dump for coal burning ashes.
I've been suggesting our listeners read or reread Gatsby before today's broadcast. But if you're interested in books, I think you'll enjoy what Maureen has to say, even if you've never read Gatsby. Her book is called, "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be Written And Why It Endures." Maureen Corrigan, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I so enjoyed reading your book.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Well, thank you, Terry.
CORRIGAN: I know you're a Fitzgerald fan.
GROSS: I am. So I will ask you to confess something that you confess in the book, which is that you didn't especially like "The Great Gatsby" when you were assigned to read it in high school. Why didn't you like it then?
CORRIGAN: As far as I remember, I didn't like it because I thought it was boring. Not a lot happens in Gatsby. It's not a plot-driven novel. And I also thought, oh, it's another novel about rich people. And I grew up in a blue-collar community, I guess, again, as so many readers do, especially when we're young, I was looking for myself in what I was reading. And Gatsby also famously is a novel that doesn't feature any likable female characters. In fact, that's one of the reasons why Fitzgerald thought it didn't sell well in 1925 because there are no likable female characters and women drive the fiction market.
GROSS: Well, as you point out, you read this book not for the story or for the characters, but for the voice, for the writing. So I want you to read the opening of "The Great Gatsby," and it's one of the most famous openings in all of literature.
CORRIGAN: Yeah, this is Nick Carraway, of course, our narrator. (Reading) In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had. He didn't say anymore, but we've always been unusually communicative in a reserved way. And I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.
GROSS: What do you hear in that opening?
CORRIGAN: I hear a narrator who we can't completely trust because, of course, I've read Gatsby so many times, I've read it upwards of 50 times. When Nick tells us that he's inclined to reserve all judgments, I say, oh, really? Because he does a lot of judging in this novel. What I also hear is someone who comes from a world of privilege, who's trying to tell us that he's just a regular Joe, that he's not a snob. And so what the novel also is telling us right away in that opening is that this is a novel that's very alert to the nuances of class in America. That - Nick is partly defining himself by what class he comes from.
GROSS: And by the end of the second page, we realize how disillusioned the narrator becomes by the end of the story because at the end of the second page, when he's talking about Gatsby, he says (reading) Gatsby turned out all right at the end. It's what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abort of sorrows and short-winded relations of men.
So we know by the end of this book, he's disgusted with people.
CORRIGAN: He's disgusted with people, and we also hear that it's a retrospective story. You know, Nick is remembering events that happened two years earlier in the summer of 1922. One of the things that I talk about in my book is that Gatsby almost has the form of a film noir where you have this voiceover with Nick Carraway, remembering things that have taken place in the past - things that can't be changed, events that can't be changed.
GROSS: You love hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir. What other similarities do you see between Gatsby...
CORRIGAN: Oh, my gosh.
CORRIGAN: Well, first of all...
CORRIGAN: ...It's a violent story. There are three violent deaths in Gatsby. It's a story in which you get bootlegging crime, explicit sexuality - and remember, this is 1925 when it was published, so it's pretty racy for its time as a novel.
GROSS: Whoa, hang on. The explicit sexuality, we know explicitly that people have had sex. We don't explicitly read about it.
CORRIGAN: We don't explicitly read about it. But in chapter two, Nick is taken along by Tom Buchanan, who's one of the greatest characters in the novel; he's taken along on a joy ride into Manhattan, where Tom takes Nick to the love nest that he's established with his mistress, Myrtle Wilson. And there's a drunken party in the love nest. So we know that there's infidelity, a lot of innuendo about people having sex outside of marriage and a lot of drinking.
And most importantly, film noir, hard-boiled detective fiction and "The Great Gatsby," they're all stories that are obsessed with the presence of fate. There's a very fated feel to Gatsby. You know, things - events that occur in the novel, they're foretold many times. That car crash in which Myrtle Wilson is killed, Tom's mistress, there are two other car crashes that precede that car crash. So a lot of events are predicted in this novel.
GROSS: When you say fate, you mean doom (laughter)?
CORRIGAN: Yeah, doom. That's right.
GROSS: We're fated for a bad ending.
CORRIGAN: That's right. And I think that's the beauty of "The Great Gatsby" ultimately - that it talks about how noble it is to try, to try to swim faster, jump higher, you know, go farther, even though inevitably we're going to be pulled under by the forces of fate.
GROSS: So I want you to tell just, like, the skeleton of the story of "The Great Gatsby." So people who have not read the book or haven't read it in a long time, have some kind of plot structure to hang what we're talking about on.
CORRIGAN: OK, in 30 words or less...
CORRIGAN: A young man named Nick Carraway moves to Long Island in the summer of 1922. And he's kind of got an internship - that's what we would think of it as - on Wall Street. And he discovers that he's living next door to this enigmatic character named Jay Gatsby, who lives in this over-the-top mansion. And he also discovers, as the plot unfolds, that Jay Gatsby has been carrying a torch for his, Nick's cousin, Daisy Buchanan for years and that Gatsby's whole purpose on living - to living on Long Island is to be close to Daisy Buchanan and to rekindle the romance that they once had years ago.
Things don't end well. After Daisy and Jay Gatsby get back together again, there's a break in the novel; there's a silence. It's almost as though Fitzgerald wanted to leave them their privacy for a while in the novel. But then Daisy's husband, Tom Buchanan, realizes that there's something fishy going on. He confronts Gatsby. And in the last act of the novel, as Daisy and Gatsby are driving on Long Island after this awful confrontation has happened in the Plaza Hotel, Daisy, who's actually behind the wheel, runs over her husband's mistress, Myrtle Wilson. Wilson's husband thinks that Gatsby was behind the wheel, and he goes after Gatsby and murders him. And - the end.
I mean, there are three bodies by the end of the novel. And the Buchanans leave town. They leave other people to clean up their messes. They're that kind of rich, privileged, entitled couple. And we've only got our narrator, Nick Carraway, who's kind of like Ishmael in "Moby Dick." He survives the wreck, and he lives on to tell us all. And he tells the story of Gatsby to us because he thinks Gatsby is the one pure soul in this entire story.
GROSS: A pure soul because he believed in something so strongly...
CORRIGAN: Yeah, that's right.
GROSS: ...In his love for Daisy and his desire to, like, get her back, even though she's married now...
CORRIGAN: That's right.
GROSS: ...Married to somebody else. He totally remakes his life. He is from a kind of - what? - poor or working-class background.
GROSS: And to make himself a kind of guy she might consider worthy of him, he makes a lot of money bootlegging. He buys piles and piles of shirts imported from England. He buys a mansion. He throws these great parties - all things just to impress her. And he once thought he might want these things, but the more of these things he gets, the less meaning they have. All he really wants is her.
CORRIGAN: You know, yes and no. When Daisy and Gatsby are reunited in the dead center of this novel, which is how, you know, incredibly overdesigned Gatsby is as a novel. Daisy and Gatsby are reunited in chapter five, the dead center of this novel.
There's a moment where Nick Carraway, who's also at this reunion, says there must've been moments when even Daisy fell short of Gatsby's visions. And we get that sense as the novel reaches its conclusion, that Daisy is someone who Gatsby has been dreaming, fantasizing about, for the years that they've been apart. But she falls short. You know, she's not commensurate with his capacity to wonder.
I'm borrowing Fitzgerald's words from the end of the novel. Gatsby is a dreamer, and so he ties his dreams to Daisy. But ultimately she's about as empty as, you know, the Maltese Falcon is in Dashiell Hammett's great hard-boiled novel of 1930, you know. She's something everybody is chasing. But she doesn't measure up.
GROSS: And, you know, one of the most famous things about "The Great Gatsby" is that Gatsby is always looking across Long Island Sound at the dock where Daisy lives. And he sees the green light that she has on at night on the dock. And he's always looking at that light and yearning for his dream - for her. And as you point out, when we first see him in the novel, he has his arms stretched out, as if reaching for that light. And that light becomes a symbol of everything that he wants, everything that he's remade his life to be near. And with that, I'd like you to read the very ending of the novel. After...
CORRIGAN: As some people say, the greatest ending in all of American literature. (Laughter) Yeah.
GROSS: And it's Nicks voice that we're hearing here because Gatsby's already dead at this point.
CORRIGAN: Gatsby's dead, yeah. (Reading) Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It alluded us then, but that's no matter. Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out at our arms farther. And one fine morning, so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
GROSS: You know, to put in the words of Chinatown, it's Chinatown Jake.
GROSS: It's like, you can't escape the past. I don't know, is that a terrible analogy?
CORRIGAN: No, no, it's not a terrible analogy. You can't escape the past. But isn't it noble to try? I mean, that's the message here.
GROSS: To be the boat against the current?
CORRIGAN: Yeah, to be the boat against the current. Even though you know failure and death inevitably await you. You're going - the doomed beauty of trying, that's what this novel is about.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is our book critic Maureen Corrigan. And she's a written a new book, it's called "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: And if you're just joining us, my guest is FRESH AIR's book critic, Maureen Corrigan. And the occasion for her visit is a new book that she has written. And it's called "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures."
You know, there was an article a few years ago in the New York Times that was headlined, Gatsby's green light beckons a new set of strivers. And it followed a class in which the students - and a lot of them were first or second generation immigrants - were talking about what is their green light? And one of the students said, her green light was Harvard. And another student said, my goal is to make my parents proud of me. And I thought, like, you really can't turn "Gatsby" into that type of inspirational novel - of, like, pursue your dream, and you will achieve it.
CORRIGAN: I mean, I love that the students take that inspiration from "Gatsby", especially students who are first generation Americans. They're remaking themselves. They're strivers. I love that there is that positive element in "Gatsby."
But if it were just, you know, this kind of cheerleading slogan for the American dream, Gatsby would be alive at the end of the novel. He's not. So Fitzgerald famously has it both ways. He celebrates the effort, the striving. And he also lets us know that there are limits to the striving - that, you know, ultimately, we all reach the dead-end.
GROSS: It's often said that self-transformation is the theme of a lot of American literature. And it's certainly one of the themes of Gatsby. And he both fails and succeeds in remaking himself. And where would you say that fits in - into American literature, in terms of personal transformation?
CORRIGAN: Well, we see so many conmen in American literature, you know. And I think of almost all of our great novels - Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Moby Dick, you know, on and on. At the center, there's someone who's pretending to be something that he's not. We're fascinated with the freedom that America allows us to sort of forge our own identities. But, you know, our smart American writers also know that it's not that easy, and it's not that simple. And you carry the past with you.
I mean, I think Fitzgerald felt that very much. He knew success so early, as a young man in his early twenties, with "This Side Of Paradise," his first novel in 1920. It was a hit. He was the toast of New York. But he was also that Midwestern boy from St. Paul, Minnesota, whose parents, you know, didn't quite measure up to their neighbors. His parents never owned a home, for instance. They always rented. Fitzgerald never owned a home. He always rented.
He was always kind of on the outside looking in. And hoping to be good enough for Princeton - you know, to be good enough for the crowd on the Riviera who he hung out with - Gerald and Sara Murphy, the Hemingways.
So I think you get that sense in Fitzgerald of someone who remade himself, but was also aware at times in his life that he was pretending to be someone he was not. Even when he died in 1940, Fitzgerald was denied burial in his own family's plot in Rockville, Maryland, because the Catholic Church - Fitzgerald grew up Catholic- decided that his novels were a little too risque, and they didn't approve of them.
CORRIGAN: So Fitzgerald had to be buried in a Protestant cemetery. I mean, he's always being pushed out and told that he's not good enough.
GROSS: They missed a real opportunity. (Laughing).
CORRIGAN: Well, they did. I mean, they made up for it. In 1979, Scottie Fitzgerald, the only child of Scott and Zelda - their daughter - had her parents reinterred in the family plot in Rockville. And I live quite close to that cemetery. It's a beautiful little churchyard. The church is - was a church on the underground railroad, so it's an old spot in Rockville. Unfortunately, these days, it's about 10 inches from a highway, so you do hear the traffic going by. But Scott and Zelda are buried together under a slab that has the last words of "The Great Gatsby" written on it.
GROSS: Yeah. And reading that in your book - reading about that in your book, I kept wondering, what would Fitzgerald have thought when he wrote those lines - and so we be on boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past - if he thought that that would be on his tombstone? And would you even want that on your tombstone?
GROSS: I mean, it's such a kind of pessimistic, like, ill-fated...
CORRIGAN: I guess. I don't know, but they're the most...
GROSS: It's beautiful.
CORRIGAN: It's so beautiful.
GROSS: It's so beautiful the words, but...
CORRIGAN: It's so beautiful. And, you know, people leave all sorts of tributes there. They live miniature liquor bottles.
CORRIGAN: They leave their own writing.
GROSS: Because of all the parties?
CORRIGAN: They leave coins. Yeah. I mean, it's lovely. It's not a shrine that a lot of people know about. But it seems like the pilgrims who do know about it - it means a lot to have those last words right there on the tombstone - not a tombstone, but on the slab.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." Maureen is our book critic and teaches literature at Georgetown University. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with our book critic Maureen Corrigan. She has a new book of her own which is about the novel she loves more than any other - "The Great Gatsby." Her book is called "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." Many critics, including Maureen, consider it to be the greatest American novel, but few readers in 1925 when the book was published would have imagined it would attain that status.
Gatsby was not that well-received in its time, right?
CORRIGAN: No, not at all. It got mixed reviews. The literary readers - people like Gertrude Stein, Edmund Wilson, Gilberts Seldes, who was a critic and reviewer of the time who really got Gatsby - they loved it. Edith Wharton - although she thought famously that Fitzgerald should've done more with the character of Gatsby - but she generally liked it. The popular reviewers read it as a crime novel and thought for the most part that it was maybe just OK. There's a famous headline for a review of "The Great Gatsby" that came out in The New York World, and the headline reads, Fitzgerald's latest - a dud.
GROSS: You say something in your book about "The Great Gatsby" that I totally identified with, even though I'm not a book critic like you are. You write that you are afraid if you were reviewing the book in 1925 that maybe you might not have realized how great it is, or if it came to you over the transom now, a book like it, maybe you wouldn't notice, maybe wouldn't have spent enough time initially looking at it to realize that it was worthy of a serious review. I worry about this all the time with books that I look at. Maybe I'm not looking at it long enough to realize how worthy it is of an interview on the show. Can you just, like, elaborate on that fear little bit?
CORRIGAN: Yeah, you know, Fitzgerald was known for tales of the Jazz age. You know, in his novels and short stories - tales about flappers and their boyfriends. I think if this book had landed on my porch as so many books do - I get about 200 books a week delivered to my house from publishers - I would have opened it and thought, oh, "The Great Gatsby." It's a slim novel. It clocks in at about 50,000 words, so it's a short novel - 180 pages.
The title is nothing to grab you - Fitzgerald always had trouble with the title up until almost publication day. He kept changing the title of "The Great Gatsby" and everything else he came up with was worse - you know, "Trimalchio In West Egg," awful titles. So the title wouldn't have grabbed me.
What I do think would've grabbed me is the book jacket design. It's got that famous book jacket design by Francis Cugat, who, for listeners of a certain age, he was the brother of the bandleader Xavier Cugat. He did that book jacket design of a flapper's disembodied face floating over a night sky, and you can see an amusement park, which looks like Coney Island - the lights of that amusement park at the bottom of the painting that became the book jacket - it's very striking. It's nonrepresentational. It's odd.
I think if I had opened the book and began reading, that Nick's voice would have grabbed me, and I want to think that I would have kept on reading, but, you know, it's a hard call because I think, you know, maybe I would've opened up the envelope that contained "The Great Gatsby" and thought, oh, another book about flappers. These days I get so many books still about dogs. I think we're still living through the "Marley And Me" phenomenon. And I love dogs, but I'm kind of tired of reading about dogs. So I probably might have thought, oh, another book about flappers - do I really need to read this? And maybe I would've put it down. That would've been a mistake.
GROSS: "The Great Gatsby" was not very well-reviewed in its time. It wasn't a hit in its time, but it got a second life in the 1940s during World War II which is so interesting, again something I didn't know about until reading your book. Can you talk about how it got that second life?
CORRIGAN: Oh, yeah. This is such a feel-good story for anybody who loves books and who wonders sometimes as I do, well, what practical purpose does this great love of literature really serve? When Fitzgerald died in 1940 in Hollywood, his last royalty check was for $13.13. Remaindered copies of the second printing of "The Great Gatsby" were moldering away in Scribner's warehouse.
World War II starts and a group of publishers, of paper manufacturers, editors, librarians, get together in New York and they decide that, you know, men serving in the Army and Navy overseas need something to read. Up until this time, civilians had been sending copies of surplus books overseas through an Army program, but that wasn't enough. And so they hit on this idea of what they called the Armed Services Editions - paperback editions of both popular books and classics everything from "My Friend Flicka" to "Moby Dick" to "Coming Of Age In Samoa" by Margaret Mead - they printed over a thousand titles of different books, and they sent over a million copies of these books to sailors and soldiers serving overseas and also to POWs in prison camps in Japan and Germany through an arrangement with the Red Cross.
"The Great Gatsby" was chosen to be one of these Armed Services Edition,s and what that meant was that all of a sudden, this novel that was basically nowhere - you couldn't even get it in bookstores in the early 1940s - by 1945, over 123,000 copies of "The Great Gatsby" were distributed to the Armed Forces. The more I read about the Armed Services Editions, I almost start to tear up, I mean, because it's such an amazing project - that all of these people - these editors and these paper distributors, librarians - you know, work together to make happen.
The greatest distribution of the Armed Services Editions was on the eve of D-Day. Eisenhower's staff made sure that every guy stepping onto a landing craft in the South of England, right on the eve of D-Day, would have an Armed Services Edition in his pocket. They were sized as long rectangles meant to fit in the serviceman's pockets, and so you read these accounts of guys on the landing crafts going over to Normandy Beach, and they're reading. They're trying to take their mind off of what's about to face them.
One other quick fact - one of the most famous and popular Armed Services Edition titles with one of these so-called D-Day titles, it was "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" by Betty Smith. I mean, I don't know. It's just such an amazing testament to what books can mean to people at critical times in their lives.
GROSS: My guest is our book critic Maureen Corrigan. She's written a new book called "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is FRESH AIR's book critic Maureen Corrigan who has a new book of her own. It's called "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures," and, Maureen, in the book you write a little autobiographically, making some connections between your life and the novel. And you write that your grandparents were in New York during the so-called Jazz age. Your parents were born in 1919?
CORRIGAN: My mom, yeah.
GROSS: Your mother?
CORRIGAN: Yeah. which is when Fitzgerald was first in New York, yeah.
GROSS: But, your parents and grandparents lived in a different world of New York than Gatsby and Nick live in?
CORRIGAN: Yeah. Yeah. You know, it's interesting to me that the novel is so celebrated as a novel about the high life, but this is a novel that also very much notices people who are not rich, who are not white, who are not, quote-unquote, "American," again that famous Queensboro Bridge passage that people tend to remember - when Nick and Gatsby are driving over the Queensboro Bridge, and they see the great skyline of Manhattan rising up before them. What they also see are the people in the cars around them, and one of the cars is driven by a white chauffeur. And it is carrying in the language of the novel - it's two bucks and a girl - African-Americans who are wealthy enough now to hire a white chauffeur. They're also surrounded by a funeral procession of cars driven by people who look like they come from Southeastern Europe.
This is a novel that's very worried about who might be passing the white guys, speeding by the white guys - Nick and Gatsby - on this roadway - people of color, immigrants. What's happening to America in the 1920s? When America is still getting in the early '20s, this huge wave of immigrants from South Eastern Europe, from Russia, when the great migration is still happening and you're getting the Harlem Renaissance happening in New York America is becoming a more diverse place, and because "Gatsby" is a novel of its time, it's noticing these social developments. And it's a little bit anxious about them.
GROSS: Do you cringe reading some of those passages?
CORRIGAN: You know, I don't cringe. I think Fitzgerald - as he so often does - he has it both ways. You can look at those passages and say, this book is so racist and, you know, just go down the list - homophobic and sexist, too, you know - in its judgments about the female characters. And too bad we have to forgive "The Great Gatsby" before we can really enjoy it. We have to forgive it for those social judgments that are judgments of its time.
On the other hand, the character who's the most racist in the novel is Tom Buchanan. I mean, practically his very first words in the novel are when he's going on and on about a book he's just read called "The Rise Of The Colored Empire," which is a book about - that's basically a book talking about how the white race is going to be overrun by all of these other, lesser races that are pouring into America. Tom is a racist, and he's a character that we're not supposed to like in Gatsby. He's a nasty guy. So ultimately my judgment on the novel is that it has it both ways, and maybe Fitzgerald himself in 1925 didn't yet know what to think about all of these ways in which America was changing.
GROSS: When Fitzgerald was courting Zelda who became his wife, her father - who was a judge - wanted to make sure that Fitzgerald could support her, and Fitzgerald knew - all right, it's going to be really hard to do that as a writer. So even with the woman who became his wife, class was a big issue.
CORRIGAN: Yeah. Yeah. Judge Sayre, Zelda's father, stipulated that as a condition of their engagement, Scott had to prove that he could support Zelda in the style to which she had become accustomed. So when Fitzgerald is discharged from the Army in 1919, he goes to New York. And Fitzgerald first gets a job - a day job - working for an advertising company, and he's submitting short stories to all of these magazines and getting rejected over and over and over again.
You know, he papers his one-room apartment in the upper reaches of Manhattan with all of the rejection slips that he gets, and he basically - he lasts six months in New York, and then he returns home to St. Paul. He just can't cut it. Zelda breaks off their engagement, the manuscript of "This Side Of Paradise" had been rejected twice by Scribner's, but he rewrote "This Side Of Paradise" for the third time. And the third time was the charm. Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner's, threatened to quit if Scribner's wouldn't publish the novel. It was published and it became one of those novels that defined a generation. It made Fitzgerald a star.
Shortly after the novel was published, Scott and Zelda get married in the rectory of Saint Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in New York, and they become the toasts of the town. The sad part of that story - because it's such an amazing rise - is that they fall as quickly as they rose.
By the end of the 1920s, Zelda has had her first schizophrenic episode in 1929, and Fitzgerald is struggling to write a novel after "The Great Gatsby," and he's having a really hard time. So it's - their story is so exciting and beautiful and shimmering - the story of Scott and Zelda, and it doesn't last. The bubble bursts fairly quickly.
GROSS: And it burst after he writes "The Great Gatsby."
CORRIGAN: Yeah, yeah. They're restless people - Scott and Zelda and Scottie, their small daughter who they're taking with them to Europe and back to America and back to Europe. They lived for a time on the Riviera in Rome in Paris; that's where Fitzgerald and Hemingway first meet, in Paris in 1925. But Fitzgerald is having a hard time cranking out that novel after "The Great Gatsby." He's disheartened because he thought Gatsby - rightly, he thought Gatsby was his masterpiece, and it didn't sell. And then of course he's got all these personal problems.
Zelda is institutionalized. He's writing short stories which are his bread and butter in order to pay the fees for the private sanitariums where Zelda's being cared for. Scottie, his daughter, is eventually sent away as a teenager to private girls' schools. So he's got a lot of bills, and eventually in 1934 he publishes "Tender Is The Night," which, I know I will alienate a lot of Fitzgerald fans, but I agree with those critics who see it as kind of a noble failure. I don't think it measures up anywhere near close to Gatsby and it didn't sell all that well. So that further disheartened Fitzgerald.
Eventually he goes to Hollywood in the late '30s to make a living, and there in Hollywood, he's treated, like - basically like a hand - like a writer who can be plugged into movies to write, to rewrite scripts. And he's even put for two weeks to work on "Gone With The Wind" until he's taken off of that and put on another movie. I mean, Hollywood famously treated so many of our great writers - it treated them so shabbily, and Fitzgerald was very disheartened when he was in Hollywood. That's where he dies in 1940.
GROSS: Maureen, would you like to leave us with one of your favorite passages from the book, one that you haven't already read?
CORRIGAN: Oh, gosh. You know what? I could do that, but I'd love to leave you with one of the greatest parts of a Fitzgerald letter, if that's OK?
GROSS: Sure, that's fine.
CORRIGAN: Fitzgerald never stopped trying to strategize how to sell Gatsby. He thought it was his masterpiece, and he was so disheartened that it didn't sell. He writes a letter to his editor, Max Perkins, in May of 1940. This is a few short months before he, Fitzgerald, dies in Hollywood, and in it he's talking about Gatsby and he mentions his daughter, Scottie.
(Reading) I wish I 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. Would the 25 cent press keep Gatsby in the public eye, or is the book unpopular? Has it had its chance? Would a popular re-issue in that series with the preface - not by me, but by one of its admirers - I can maybe pick one - make it a favorite with classrooms, profs, lovers of English prose - anybody? But to die so completely and unjustly after having given so much. Even now there is little published in American fiction that doesn't slightly bear my stamp. In a small way, I was an original.
GROSS: That is heartbreaking, and he was an original.
CORRIGAN: He was an original, and he knew it, but, you know, I do believe roughly in the meritocracy. I do believe that great books eventually find their audience, but the key word is eventually. Sometimes it doesn't happen until after an author is dead, and that was the story with Fitzgerald and "The Great Gatsby."
GROSS: Maureen, thank you for all that you do for literature and for our show, and thank you for helping me enjoy "The Great Gatsby" even more.
CORRIGAN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: It's really been a pleasure to talk with you.
CORRIGAN: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan's new book is called "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." You can read her book's introduction on our website, freshair.npr.org. Maureen is FRESH AIR's book critic and teaches literature at Georgetown University. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new brutal prison drama "Starred Up." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.