Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book Review: So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures by Maureen Corrigan

I misunderstood what this book was about, based on NPR interviews with the author. I thought the whole book was about how The Great Gatsby was out of print and it came back into print due to remaindered copies being given away to GIs in WWII. (In fact, my mother gave the same summary when I saw her Tuesday night so I'm not the only one with this mistaken impression.) Instead, that is the story of one chapter (and not entirely accurate as it was an edition especially published for the soldiers and sailors, not remaindered copies, that were given out. How did it get on that list? No one really seems to know.)

Instead the book is a biography of The Great Gatsby. It goes over Scott and Zelda's life, identifying events that may have influenced parts of The Great Gatsby's story, tells the story of its publication, its revitalization, and renaissance. In its biography of Fitzgerald, I admit that I gained a lot of sympathy for a man I'd unfairly lumped in with Hemingway as a drunk, misogynistic ass. Instead, Hemingway bullied Fitzgerald, who was drunk, but otherwise was an optimistic, striving young man who never felt like he was good enough. He had high aspirations, but they almost never panned out. In fact, he died believing his novels were all failures. The last royalty check he received was for $13.13 and the secretary noted that all of the books bought during that period were bought by Fitzgerald himself. Aside from the sky-high ambitions and the alcoholism, he even reminded me a little it of me and my friends in New York in our twenties.

Ms. Corrigan almost has persuaded me to reread the book. I did see the Baz Luhrmann movie a couple of years ago (not impressed but liked the music) so that at least had reminded me of major plot points and minor characters. Otherwise, the discussions of symbolism and meaning might have been frustrating. I do appreciate how she loves the book partly because no matter how many times she reads it and teaches it, there's always something new to learn, to notice, and I can see how important that would be for a teacher. Personally, the last chapter was my favorite. She went back to her old high school in Astoria. Astoria is mentioned in the novel a few times (although mostly as a neighborhood to travel over on the Queensboro Bridge [and yes, we know the Queensboro Bridge actually goes over Long Island City, not Astoria, but Fitzgerald got that wrong.]) I used to live in Astoria. These high school students are reading the book for the first time, and seeing it through 16-year-old eyes. Ms. Corrigan can't remember her own first impression of the book (other than that she didn't much like it.) And so this is the next best thing. And impressively, one of the students makes an observation that is fresh to Ms. Corrigan, proving again why she loves the book. I also really liked the discussions of his extensive revisions and his work with his editor (the famous Maxwell Perkins).

Had I known this book was going to be so much about the content of The Great Gatsby and about Scott Fitzgerald, I don't know that I'd have read it, but I'm glad I didn't know. Because I enjoyed it thoroughly. It's rare to read a book analyzing a novel by an academic that is so compulsively readable (It may in fact be the first one, it's so rare!) This book should be required reading for all English majors.

I got a free autographed book at Winter Institute 2015!

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