I know it’s cliche, but my all-time favorite novel is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. To me it offers prescient warnings on the perils of a consumer society and perfectly captures the American drive to strive for the unattainable, even if it results in tragedy. NPR’s literary critic, Maureen Corrigan, is also a huge Gatsby fan. A far bigger one than I am, in fact! She’s read the book 67 times and has even sat through a seven-hour reading/performance of its text. In her latest book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, Maureen takes us on a cultural/historical tour of a true classic. She wanted to uncover what it is about a novel written about Jazz Age New York that resonates with Americans nearly a century later. In today’s podcast, we discuss what she found in her search. If you’re a fan of the Gatsby, this is a must-listen.
- Why The Great Gatsby was a critical and commercial flop when it was first published and how it became the Great American Novel
- Why Gatsby still resonates with readers 90 years after it was published
- How Gatsby was a predecessor of the hard-boiled detective novel
- The novels that have been published in the past 20 years that are as timeless as Gatsby
- What you can do to make Gatsby a more engaging read the next time you dig into it
- And much more!
If you’re a fan of The Great Gatsby, So We Read On is a must-read. The insights Maureen provides made me appreciate Gatsby even more and helped me see a well-worn classic in a new light. I had a hard time putting this book down and as soon as I was finished, I was ready to pick up The Great Gastby and give it yet another read.
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Special thanks to Keelan O’Hara for editing the podcast!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here. Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. One of my all time favorite novels is The Great Gatsby. I know it’s cliché, but every time I’ve read it, and I’ve read it multiple times since high school, I’ve always found some new insights, some new symbolism that I hadn’t seen before, and it’s just a fun, fun read. When The Great Gatsby first came out, it was complete critical and commercial failure, and it wasn’t until after F. Scott Fitzgerald died that it gained the status of the great American novel, and it became required reading for high school English students.
Our guest today wanted to figure out why that was. Why it took so long for The Great Gatsby to become the sort of cultural touchstone in the United States, and why the book still endures today, decades later, a book written about the 1920s prohibition era America, why that story still resonates with us, even in the twenty-first century. Our guest is Maureen Corrigann. She’s a lecturer at Georgetown University. You probably have heard her on NPR’s Fresh Air, where she’s the resident book critic, and her book is called So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures. In this podcast, we’re discussing all things Gatsby, so let’s do this.
Maureen Corrigann, welcome to the show.
Maureen Corrigan: Thank you, Brett. It’s good to be here.
Brett McKay: Your book is called So We Read On, which is a play on a line from my favorite book, The Great Gatsby. There have been lots of books written about this book, articles, essays dissecting it. What angle are you taking with your book on the Gatsby?
Maureen Corrigan: Yeah. Certainly when I started thinking about writing a book about Gatsby, that was daunting to realize how much has been written about Fitzgerald. He’s probably the most chronicled American writer of all time, and just, also, how much has been written about The Great Gatsby, really daunting. My angle was to approach it as someone who has read the book, by now sixty plus times, who has taught it almost all of my teaching life, so we’re talking like thirty years, and I’ve traveled the country lecturing about it for the Big Read Program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.
I wanted to talk about it as a passionate informed reader, and to try to figure out where the power of this novel comes from, and not really to talk about it in a scholarly way, although I wanted to use some criticism and some biographical study, but to really talk about it the way I talk about books on Fresh Air, which I do every week, as someone who is really trying to get to the heart of what makes this book work or doesn’t, and why is this book in terms of Gatsby, which disappeared by the time Fitzgerald died in 1940. Why did it come back so quickly, and why has it had this power over us as Americans ever since.
One of the things I talk about is the fact that Gatsby is probably the American novel that unites us if we’ve gone to high school in America. Someone did a survey years ago, and I do an informal survey every year with freshmen English classes at Georgetown where I teach. I say, “What have you read? Have you read To Kill a Mockingbird? Have you read Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick?” Kids raise their hands, but when you say, “Have you read The Great Gatsby,” pretty much everybody in class raises their hand year after year. That’s the one you can count out. That’s our unifying text.
Brett McKay: How did that happen, because you talk about in the book that when The Great Gatsby first came out, it really wasn’t well received by literary critics or the public, so why was it such a flop when it first came out?
Maureen Corrigan: Yeah. It comes out in 1925. Probably the most famous bad review was in the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s paper, and the headline read, “Fitzgerald’s latest a dud.” Gatsby was Fitzgerald’s third novel. He had such hopes for it. He thought it was going to outsell This Side of Paradise, his big hit of 1920, The Beautiful and Damned, and then it turns out not even to sell out its second printing. Just to give you a sense of what I’m talking about, when Fitzgerald dies in 1940, remaindered copies of that second printing that Scribner does in 1925, they’re still in Scribner’s warehouse moldering away. It sold about twenty-two thousand copies when it came out in 1925. Fitzgerald never stopped torturing himself, trying to figure out why didn’t it sell, and he had a lot of guesses. He thought, well, it’s too short, and people want more book for their buck. He never liked the title. He thought the title was terrible.
I think most interesting of all, in a letter to Maxwell Perkins, he said, “I didn’t create any favorable female characters, and women drive the fiction market.” I love that letter. I really had a jolt, because that’s what we say today, women drive the fiction market. Men always go for nonfiction.
I, also, think that a lot of critics and book reviewers misread it as just a murder story. I mean it was viewed as a crime novel by a lot of the popular book reviewers. I think they didn’t value it. They said here’s this book about bootleggers, and three violent deaths, and a character whose name even derives from gangster slang from the 1920s. A gat is a gun. I think they just dismissed it as a crime novel.
Brett McKay: I thought that was interesting, because you had a section in your book about this. Before I read your analysis of it, I think most people do see Gatsby as this tragic love story, and tragedy of aspirations that aren’t fulfilled, but you make a case that it could, also, be viewed as one of the first hard boiled noir novels in America.
Maureen Corrigan: Yeah. I think it anticipates so much of what we later see in the great noir movies, like Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, but, also, you think about Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s working on it from about 1922 through ’25, and he’s, also, for a while living in New York. He moves to New York in 1919, comes back in 1920. Lives there for a few years, and this is the era when the hard boiled detective and crime story is really taking shape in cities like New York, and LA, San Francisco.
Fitzgerald was a great admirer of Dashiell Hammett. All of this reading lists that Fitzgerald always made all of his life. He’d have all of these classics and Greek tragedies on these reading lists that he’d give to friends, and then he’d always have the Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. He was a good friend of H.L. Mencken, the critic, and H.L. Mencken for a while edited the Black Mask Magazine, which carried some of these first noir stories. You think about the fact that we’ve got all these criminal elements in Gatsby, not just Gatsby himself, but folks like Mira Wolfenstein, whose is modeled after Arnold Rothstein, the real life gangster who supposedly fixed the 1919 World Series, the Black Sox scandal.
We’ve got bootlegging, prohibition, all of that atmosphere, loose morals. People are having affairs, and women are smoking and drinking, but it’s, also more than that. It’s the fact that you’ve got this heavy interest of fate in Gatsby. Mixed narration is retrospective. When the book opens, Nick tells us that two years have gone by already, and everybody is dead. Gatsby is dead. Nick is speaking to us present time in 1924, and he’s looking back two years to the summer of 1922. There’s that funny sort of feeling like you get in a noir movie, like Sunset Boulevard, that everything that happens in this story, it’s fixed. It can’t be changed, because you’ve got this voice over, this narration by, in this case, Nick Carraway, who is looking backward and telling us what happens.
Noir is fascinated with fate, and fascinated with the fact that people can’t change their fate. It’s in some ways a very un-American form, and I think it’s really interesting that Fitzgerald choose that kind of framed structure for Gatsby, which basically forecloses all possibilities. I say that Gatsby is our greatest American and un-American novel at once, because it celebrates this aspiration, as you said, this character who tries to be more, who reaches for the stars, but, at the same time, it tells us the game is all fixed. It’s over before it begins, and, in fact, Gatsby is dead as of page two of the novel. We learn that.
Brett McKay: It’s very Greek. It’s like a Greek tragedy almost.
Maureen Corrigan: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Is that the appeal of the book? Is that why Americans are so drawn to it, is that, yeah, you should shoot for your dreams, go for it, even thought it might be impossible? It’s just the striving that counts.
Maureen Corrigan: Yeah. That’s right.
Brett McKay: Is that the draw of the book?
Maureen Corrigan: That’s its deepest draw. That’s what Fitzgerald said the book was about. He writes a letter when he’s living on the Riviera and finishing Gatsby in the summer of 1924. He writes a letter to a Princeton classmate, Ludlow Fowler, who was the best man at his wedding to Zelda in 1920, and he says to Fowler that the novel is about those illusions that give such color to the world that you don’t even care whether they’re true or not. To lose them would be like death. He, also, talks about the fact that the book is about aspirations. Yeah. It’s about dreams. It’s about illusions. It’s about those enabling fictions that make life worthwhile. It’s about striving, even though you know inevitably you’re going to fall short.
I’ve listened to so many speeches I feel like during the Obama presidency, where it’s almost like he’s channeling Gatsby. He’s made so many speeches where he’s talked about this is our almost like inheritance as Americans. That we’re supposed to reach. We’re supposed to strive. We’re supposed to stretch our arms out. Run faster. Try to be better, even though we know inevitably we’re going to die. We’re going to fall short. It’s all going to end. I think that’s what the last line of Gatsby is about. So we beat on boats against the current, drawn back ceaselessly into the past. You want to keep trying to row forward, but you are going to be drawn back ultimately into the past, into the great whatever, nothingness.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about how Gatsby became the great American novel, and the novel that high schoolers read. After Fitzgerald died, there was a renaissance. What caused that re-interest or that rekindling of interest in The Great Gatsby?
Maureen Corrigan: Yeah. It’s funny. Fitzgerald dies at the age of forty-four in Hollywood. He’s working for Paramount. He’s working on different movies, and really treated like a hand in Hollywood, as so many of our great writers were. In fact, he works for two weeks on Gone with the Wind before he’s pulled out of that movie, and he dies in 1940 in December of what’s probably his third heart attack. When he dies, he can’t even find Gatsby in bookstores. When he goes into bookstores in LA …
Brett McKay: That was really sad.
Maureen Corrigan: If I had one wish, sometimes people ask me what would you ask Fitzgerald, and I say I wouldn’t ask him anything. I would tell him, “You did it. You did it. You wrote the great American novel. You did it,” because when he died, he thought he was a failure. His well placed literary friends, people like H.L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, Dorothy Parker, his legendary editor, Maxwell Perkins at Scribner, they work really hard to try to get Fitzgerald’s writing back before the public, so these different editions come out. In fact, Edmund Wilson even completes The Loves of the Last Tycoon, the novel that Fitzgerald is working on in Hollywood when he dies.
What really gives Gatsby a boost is World War II. It’s a story I really didn’t know about until I started researching my book. During World War II, there was this effort by publishers, paper distributors, editors, authors, librarians, to try to get books into the hands of soldiers and sailors overseas, and they come up with this idea for cheap pulp paperback editions of everything from The Odyssey, to Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, to the latest Rex Stout mystery, Moby Dick and Gatsby is chosen as one of the titles to be distributed, made into what are called these Armed Services editions. In fact, I have a mock up of one here, a sample. They looked like this.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I have some of those.
Maureen Corrigan: They were rectangular, because a serviceman’s pocket … You have some originals?
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Maureen Corrigan: Oh, my God, that’s great.
Brett McKay: We actually wrote an article about it a couple of years ago. It’s such a fascinating period of history.
Maureen Corrigan: Yeah. It’s so fascinating. Yeah. I mean really anybody who cares about books, you kind of feel like, “Oh, yeah, books can make a difference.” They certainly made a difference to these guys in World War II. Here’s Gatsby. You can’t buy it in 1940, and then by 1945, there are 155,000 editions of The Great Gatsby distributed basically all over the world where American servicemen are. I’ve gotten a couple of letters, which have been amazing, from men who have told me that the first time they encountered Jay Gatsby, that’s how one of these guys opens his letter, when they were serving in 1945. One guy said he was a paratrooper, about to be thrown into occupied France, and that’s when he encountered Gatsby.
After the war ends, then we get the paperback revolution, and Gatsby is one of the titles that’s picked up right away by Bantum, by Scribner’s paperbacks, and in 1949, we get the second Great Gatsby movie, and this one stars Alan Ladd, who was known for playing criminals and tough guys and cowboy loners like Shane, and he plays Jay Gatsby. It’s my favorite Gatsby movie of the ones that exist. It’s not the novel either, but it’s interesting, because it really is Gatsby as a film noir.
Brett McKay: That’s very fascinating. What’s the status of Gatsby today amongst academics, because during the past seventy years or so, it sort of become a darling amongst academics to analyze it in all sorts of ways.
Maureen Corrigan: Yeah.
Brett McKay: What is its status now? Is it still a literary darling, or do academics like it’s kind of low brow?
Maureen Corrigan: It’s got this strange schizophrenic reputation. It’s a great American novel. I don’t think anybody disputes that. I mean a few people dispute it, but they’re idiots. It’s almost like it’s Wonder Bread. It’s not sexy enough. It’s so familiar that I think, again, it’s downgraded a bit. When I would tell colleagues in the English Department at Georgetown that I was working on a book about The Great Gatsby, it was like, “Oh, okay.” It’s like can’t you find anything a little bit more off road to work on.
It’s funny. Somebody posted on Facebook today in honor of July 4th, all of these novelists and critics from other countries around the world giving their suggestions for the great American novel, and for the novels that tell us something about America, and I’ve noticed that the list is interesting. Fitzgerald is on this, number four, but as an American author, but some people have put on the Pat Hobby stories, or they’ve put on This Side of Paradise. It’s almost like people are working to avoid mentioning Gatsby, because it’s like water, it’s like air. It’s so much with us that I think there’s a little bit of a backlash against it in the scholarly world that it’s just too familiar.
Brett McKay: You said you’ve read it sixty times. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve read it, but what I love about the Gatsby, it’s one of those books, no matter how many items I read it, it still feels fresh, and it doesn’t get stale, and I always pick up some new insight, or catch some new symbolism. What did Fitzgerald do to accomplish that, to make it so fresh, even though you’ve read it sixty times?
Maureen Corrigan: I’m going to give you an answer that’s going to probably put you to sleep and everybody else listening to sleep, but it’s the language. I notice when I say to students, or even on Fresh Air, when I’m trying to speak to a book’s strength, if you say, “It’s got this poetic language,” you can see the ignition key turning off in students’ brains at least, and I feel like I can hear it around the country, because poetic language sounds too highfalutin, but the language is so rich, and it’s funny, and Fitzgerald’s writing like a real poet in Gatsby, and it’s condensed. He said to Maxwell Perkins, his editor in 1922, that his third novel was going to be something different, and I’m quoting mostly from memory. He said I want to write something intricate, and beautiful, and simple, and heavily patterned. He wanted all those things at once. You can read Gatsby like a simple crime story, like a simple love story, but then when you start to reread it, as you’ve done, as I’ve done, and you become alert to those layers of meaning, it’s just such a richer book.
They’ve totaled up the symbols in Gatsby. There are 450 time words in Gatsby, because it’s a novel that’s so aware of an ultimate deadline looming, that Jay Gatsby is going to die by the end of this summer, and that the party is going to be over. It’s a novel that every chapter is organized around a party, starting with that opening dinner party at the Buchanan’s, and ending with the failed party in quotes of Gatsby’s own funeral. He’s got so many layers of symbols, but he’s not hitting you over the head with them. They’re integrated beautifully into the story.
That’s why I think as much as I love James Joyce and I love Dubliners and all of that, I always feel like Joyce, and T.S. Elliot, and those other modernists Fitzgerald met, and admired, and was influenced by, I feel like they’re always nudging me in the ribs, “Hey, here’s another symbol. Look at how clever I am.” Not in Gatsby. He’s got everything in there that every other great modernist writer has, and the fragmented story line, and all of those other modernist tricks, but it’s not like he’s constantly asking us to admire how clever he’s being as a writer. It is a masterpiece, an overused word, but not in this case.
Brett McKay: What I thought was fascinating, one of the things I think made it so great, because he was constantly editing it, and even after the book was published, he was still editing The Great Gatsby.
Maureen Corrigan: I know. It’s crazy. I went to Princeton where Fitzgerald’s papers are, and I looked at his own edition of The Great Gatsby, and this is the first edition that comes out, first printing, and he’s making changes. To an ordinary reader, I can’t have access to what’s going on in his brain, the changes are sort of inexplicable. Like he’s changing the number of the regiment, where supposedly Jay Gatsby served. It’s like why are you doing this, but he’s such a perfectionist, he can’t let it go. I don’t know. I love that about him. It probably shortened his life, but I loved that he couldn’t let it go.
Brett McKay: It’s very like Gatsby, right, the striving. Even if you’re not going to attain perfection, you still got to go for it.
Maureen Corrigan: That’s right. Fitzgerald was raised Catholic, as I was, and sometimes when I’ve read his letters, I feel like I can hear that Catholic influence. Our nuns used to tell us way back when, they used to recite this jingle, “Good, better, best. Never let it rest until your good is better, and your better best.” I feel like Fitzgerald had that planted in his brain, too. You can’t let it go. You’re never good enough.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I’d love to get your thoughts on this, because it’s something that I’ve often wondered since I’ve read the Gatsby, and you are a book reviewer. One of the things I love about Gatsby is that it’s both timeless, but yet, at the same time, it perfectly describes the jazz age New York. It captures the time.
Maureen Corrigan: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Has there been a novel written in the past twenty years that does the same thing as Gatsby, where it’s both timeless, but, also, perfectly captures our time?
Maureen Corrigan: I hate these questions.
Brett McKay: If you don’t have an answer, it’s okay.
Maureen Corrigan: You’re not going to love my answer, but I think a lot of detective fiction does that still.
Brett McKay: Like Lee Child.
Maureen Corrigan: Yeah. Lee Child, Sarah Paretsky. I’ve just read her latest, which is great. I love this new detective fiction writer, A.X. Ahmad, who has an Indian immigrant as his amateur detective, who is a taxi cab driver in New York. It’s a great series. They’re not cute. The latest one is called The Caretaker, and it’s hard boiled. I feel like when detective fiction is well written, as these examples are, they’re, also, linked to their time, because they’re investigating mostly social issues of the time. They have that double identity where they can do that.
I’m trying to think of other people. Most of the writers who are flooding into my brain are people who I think are aiming more for that timeless quality. My favorite novel so far this year is The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and that’s a fantasy novel. He’s … from any particular time. It’s hard to do I think.
Long time, 1980s, of course, Tom Wolfe tried to do it with Bonfire of the Vanities. He wanted to write this great Dickensian novel about New York in the go go 80s, but I don’t think that novel has stood the test of time. I think people were reading it in the 80s, and even into the 90s, but it’s really not I don’t think regarded any more as this novel that can stand on its own. Yeah. I’m not coming up with fabulous answers for you.
Brett McKay: No. I love the detective novel thing. That makes sense. I like that a lot. I’m a big fan of detective novels. Last question. For our listeners who are listening, and it’s been a while since they’ve read Gatsby, and they’re listening and they’re like, “Maybe I should give it a second go,” do you have any suggestions on themes or motifs, or something they can do to make reading more interesting or getting more out of it the second time or third time they read it?
Maureen Corrigan: First of all, I would recommend that they watch the Alan Ladd version, because it really foregrounds the crime element and the film noir element. In that way, I think when people have fallen out of love with Gatsby or never got Gatsby in the first place, it’s because it’s been hammered into their heads that this was a great American novel, and they approach it almost too much reverence. I think listening to it is a fabulous idea.
I went to Gatsby twice, the off Broadway production, where the actors had memorized Gatsby, so they did the entire novel in seven and a half hours, and that was when I really heard the humor in it. The first third of Gatsby is filled with jokes, with almost screwball comedy. That opening dinner party, Daisy and Tom, they’re jabbing at each other, like Ricky and Lucy almost. I would try to be alert to the comedy.
The hot reading now of Gatsby is the homo erotic reading, that Nick is in love with Gatsby, and that must be what’s going on. I think maybe if that freshens it up for people to think of that unrequited yearning, everybody in the novel is reaching out for somebody or something that’s out of their reach, so that’s something to pay attention to.
I’m a big fan of looking at the water imagery, which sounds like such an English teacher thing to say, but the novel is terrified of going under, people drowning, people going under. It’s the great American fear that you’re reaching for the stars, but you’re going to be pulled under by your desires, by the past, and certainly by the end of this novel, pretty much everybody is underwater, and there’s a class element to that imagery as well.
Those are some of the things I would maybe recommend doing, but if you can find a good audio version of The Great Gatsby, I think listening to it would be fabulous.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Maureen Corrigan, this has been a fascinating discussion. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Maureen Corrigan: Thank you. I could talk about Gatsby for hours.
Brett McKay: Me, too. Our guest today was Maureen Corrigan. She’s the author of the book, So We Read On. You can find that on Amazon.com, and if you love the Gatsby, go get that book. You will enjoy the historical backdrop of how the Gatsby came to be, and some of the insights that Maureen provides. If you want to learn more about Maureen’s work, you can find her at NPR.org where you can find more of her book critiques.
That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at Art of Manliness.com, and if you enjoy this podcast, you get something out of it, I’d really appreciate it if you’d give us a review on iTunes, Stitcher, whatever it is you use to listen to your podcast. I’d really appreciate it, help get the word out. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.