In a new book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, literary scholar Maureen Corrigan explains why the novel failed in its author’s day but has since enthralled millions
By: Jennifer Hunter The Reader
“His life was depressing at times, but there is the consolation of art for those of us who believe he created a masterpiece.”
Maureen Corrigan has an unabashed passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. For more than 30 years, the Georgetown University professor and NPR (National Public Radio (NPR) book reviewer has taught Gatsby, lectured about it across the United States and researched Fitzgerald’s life and times. She spoke with the Star about her new book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures. The interview has been edited for length.
Every five years I read all of Jane Austen, but The Great Gatsby is not something I’ve thought about picking up since university. Why are you so affected by this particular Fitzgerald novel? Why do you read it again and again?
The first time I read it was in high school, which is when most American students read it. I didn’t love it; I thought it was kind of boring. It was about rich people and I wasn’t particularly drawn to these wealthy characters, coming from a blue- collar background myself.
I did my master’s degree in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania and then, of course, I had to teach Gatsby to freshmen. As I re-read Gatsby, the language drew me in.
It’s that odd kind of novel. It is not a character-driven novel or a plot-driven novel, but Nick Carraway’s voice drew me in, and Fitzgerald’s language captures aspiration and yearning and regret. He does so in ordinary American diction and even slang sometimes, but it is made unearthly because he is a poet and his use of words is just stunning.
To give you an example, the first time you see Gatsby in the novel, at the end of Chapter 1, he is standing and looking up at the “silver pepper of the stars.” That’s a phrase that lodges in my mind.
Who thinks like that except a poet? It is a perfect phrase to describe how Gatsby is standing because he is a character who is about aspiration, about stretching his arms farther and looking up to the stars, even if that aspiration is doomed to failure.
That’s a very long answer to your question. But it is the language that drew me in and it is the language that keeps me coming back.
I have never thought of Fitzgerald as a poet.
Maybe you have to hear it read out loud. When you read those passages out loud they hit you a different way than when you are just reading to yourself. You can even catch the humour of Gatsby.
I teach a course on New York literature, and one of the ways I teach it is to make students read Gatsby out loud. That famous Queensboro Bridge passage where Nick and Gatsby are driving into Manhattan from Long Island, Fitzgerald sticks a joke in there. He talks about the skyscrapers rising up like sugar lumps built with non-olfactory money, money that doesn’t smell.
Of course he is being ironic, especially because in the next scene you meet Meyer Wolfsheim, who is a gangster. There are moments like that when Fitzgerald is very wry.
It was astonishing to learn that after Gatsby was published, it wasn’t a bestseller. Sales were dismal. You note that “by the time Fitzgerald died in 1940, his greatest novel had pretty much disappeared.” And while he was alive, he couldn’t even buy the book to give to friends. It wasn’t in bookstores.
A lot of the popular press read Gatsby as a crime story. They focused on the three violent deaths, the bootlegging, the gangster aspect.
Fitzgerald himself had a lot of theories about why his book didn’t sell. His main theory was that the novel didn’t have a favourable female character. He says in a letter to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner’s, that women drive the fiction market.
He always thought the title wasn’t appealing enough and that the book was too short. Perkins shared that opinion. It wasn’t enough book for a buck.
There was one beautiful review by literary critic Gilbert Seldes. Ernest Hemingway (supposedly Fitzgerald’s best friend) was such a nasty man, and he told Fitzgerald that the positive review was bad for him psychologically, saying, ‘Too bad about the Gilbert Seldes review. How could you possibly write anything that is going to garner a review like that again?’ He was such an awful friend.
What brought Gatsby back to life in the 1960s?
During World War II, publishers and librarians got together in New York and decided the army and the navy needed books to read, and they produced the Armed Services Editions. That included 1,000 titles, from Moby Dick to My Friend Flicka.
Gatsby was chosen as one of those. He goes from mouldering in Scribner’s to having 155,000 copies distributed to the army and navy. You have to believe that had an effect in bringing Fitzgerald back.
By 1949, there is a second Gatsby film (the first was a silent), made with Alan Ladd, and in the 1950s you begin to get people writing about Fitzgerald. There was Arthur Mizener’s biography and in 1951 Alfred Kazin (writer and critic) brought out a book of essays about Fitzgerald which are beautiful.
Unfortunately, Fitzgerald never got to enjoy his later success. He died thinking he was a failure, that no one wanted to read his stories and novels.
In my book I quote a letter where Fitzgerald has made an assessment of his library. He was going to leave it to Sheilah Graham (the Hollywood gossip columnist who became his girlfriend), and the forced sale, he figured, would add up to $300.
There are a couple of heroines in terms of preserving Fitzgerald’s papers and work. Frances Kroll Ring was his secretary in Hollywood, and when Fitzgerald died she boxed everything up, letters and manuscripts, and sent it to Harold Ober, Fitzgerald’s literary agent.
Scottie Fitzgerald (his daughter) is a heroine in terms of literary history. When Fitzgerald died, she and Zelda (Fitzgerald’s wife) were determined not to sell things off piecemeal. In the 1940s, she offered all of Fitzgerald’s papers to Princeton (where Fitzgerald had studied).
They weren’t interested and finally they made an offer of $1,000 for his manuscripts, including The Great Gatsby. Ultimately Scottie ended up just giving them to Princeton.
It’s heartbreaking. When Fitzgerald died, he had a heart attack in Hollywood. He was reading the Princeton alumni bulletin. And you could see his pencil marks as he was checking off the names of football players who he thought were promising on the Princeton team. And suddenly the pencil zigzags off the page.
Today the Fitzgerald papers are the treasure of Princeton University’s library.
Tiffany’s recently offered Daisy-style necklaces as Baz Luhrmann’s film came out; there is a computer game in which Nick Carraway searches for Gatsby; there is an indie rock band called Gatsbys (sic) American Dream, etc. I don’t think Hemingway’s books have had that impact, nor Herman Melville. Why does Gatsby?
It’s an acknowledgement of how many people have read it. I don’t think most high school kids read Moby Dick. When I ask my class each year about it, only a few freshmen raise their hands. And there don’t seem to be as many Hemingway readers. Gatsby remains on high school and college curriculums.
Gatsby is a tragic novel and Fitzgerald had a tragic life.
There is an aspect of The Great Gatsby that seems to step out of the realm of being a novel and is prescient about Fitzgerald’s life.
It is eerie when you think Zelda had her first breakdown in 1929, four years after Gatsby was published. And Fitzgerald’s own life takes a short downward turn in the 1930s, when his books are out of fashion. He wasn’t considered a proletarian author. He is seen as someone who glorifies the rich.
Most eerie of all is the way that Gatsby’s funeral anticipates Fitzgerald’s, where he is buried in the rain by a Protestant minister who doesn’t even know who Fitzgerald is. And there are only a couple of people at the service.
His life was depressing at times, but there is the consolation of art for those of us who believe he created a masterpiece. Maybe he didn’t have happiness in life, but look what he left behind.