Friday, October 3, 2014

Rereading The Great Gatsby

So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures
Maureen Corrigan
Little, Brown and Company
Publication Sept 9, 2014
ISBN 9780316230070

When the last Gatsby movie version came out I reread the novel, along with Tender is the Night and Flapper short stories by Fitzgerald that had appeared in magazines. Yet even before I had finished her book Corrigan had me reading Gatsby once again.

How many times have I read Gatsby? I read it in high school several times, first in the paperback used by high school English classes. It was not required reading for my classes, but in my teen years I was reading Modern fiction and spent my much of my precious allowance at the bookstore. Then I joined The Literary Guild and obtained cheaply bound sets of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Joyce, and of course Fitzgerald.

In those days Fitzgerald was not my favorite of the great Max Perkins discoveries, nor was Hemingway. I adored Thomas Wolfe – his language, his snippets of lovely insight. But Wolfe's writing was self-absorbed and emotional and I was a self-absorbed emotional teen, and neither of us had much control but spilled out like a roaring deluge. Some years later I found him unreadable. A year or so back I reread Look Homeward, Angel and appreciated Wolfe again. But I remembered Fitzgerald as a writer about romances and excesses, and his books had left my library many moves ago.

Corrigan maintains that we read Gatsby too young, that it is appropriated as a high school text based on it's diminutive length, before we understand regret and the powerful urge to revive the dead past. As a girl I did understand regret and nostalgia; moving at age 10 having set it's “deforming” foot on my soul. I was too young to appreciate the fine, honing work Fitzgerald accomplished in this beautifully faceted gem, and too young to truly 'get' Gatsby. My reading of a few years ago I was surprised by the mystery of Gatsby and the violence I had forgotten.

This reading I noticed the beauty of the language, how every scene is crystalline and sharp, how we are told just what we need to be told. How did I miss that before? I was labeled a “naive” reader in college, and I suppose even after all those critical classes I am still a naive reader. I am a speed reader, too, and too often forget to slow down and read words and sentences, not paragraphs. Somehow this reading I took my time.

Corrigan knows her subject. Fresh Air book critic and a professor who teaches Gatsby, she has read the novel fifty times. She writes about going to her New York City high school to discuss Gatsby, and like all teachers finds student's fresh perspectives bring up insights and readings she had not thought of. That is the mark of good literature: an ever freshening spring that revives each drinker whose thirst is slacked according to the needs they bring to it. How many readings can a book take? As many readings as we have years since we are never the same person each reading. Life jostles us around, marks it's losses like hash-tags, and we come at things with new wisdom even when looking at familiar scenery.

Never for a second is Corrigan boring. It's like having a great day at the amusement park while teacher surreptitiously pours knowledge into our ear. We venture into the nether regions of the Library of Congress on a last minute mission. We learn how the Armed Services Editions paperbacks spread literature through the ranks and helped revive Gatsby. We hear about Fitzgerald and Zelda's excesses which led them from the beautiful to the damned.

Corrigan reminds us that this is a Post-War novel. Nick goes East because he no longer feels at home in the Mid-West after service abroad. Gatsby and Tom were also in the service. The relationship between “buddies” Nick and Gatsby, Gatsby and his mentor Dan Cody, the rivalry between Tom and Gatsby and Tom and Wilson—this novel is about men. Fitzgerald bemoaned that sales were slow because the novel did not attract female readers. I get that: I don't get The Lord of the Rings mostly because it is about a war story about a bunch of guys. But I don't buy that excuse. Fitzgerald was typecast as the chronicler of the 1920s and people were so over the 20s.

From the perspective of fifty years reading Gatsby I resonate to lines I hardly took in as a girl. Such as Jordan's comment about liking large parties: “They're so intimate. At small parties there isn't any privacy.” I recall life in Philadelphia, its teeming streets, where I could sit in a park and not have one person notice I existed. There is a privacy in crowds. Brilliant.

Gatsby is a love song to the city. Midwesterner Nick talks about New York City, watching people live their glamorous lives. “At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.” And later Nick writes, “I see now that this had been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern Life.” It is a failed love affair in the end, and Nick returns to his roots, still stunned, perhaps more affected by his sojourn East than by the War.

Nick tells us the story of Gatsby from two years perspective. He is compelled to tell the story, trying I suppose to put some form and meaning to the tragedy. Nick had a history of passively accepting the confidence man role. Near the end he tells Gatsby that he is “worth the whole damn bunch of them put together.” Later he tells us, “I've always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.”

“You can't repeat the past.”
“Can't repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

“I'm going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly.

Nick is possessed by Gatsby and it is only by telling the story that he can begin to shrug off his burdon. Or is Nick trying to recreate the past, knowing it is futile? Either way, like Gatsby he is tangled in the web of memory and can't get free. Corrigan states that Nick loved Gatsby, no dispute. I wonder. Some things seen can't be unseen, and an eternal altercation arises as we endeavor to shake it off. We bury it, put out our eyes, stop our ears, but can't rid the ghost, so we try naming it.

So many questions are raised by Gatsby. About the role of class and money in America. About idol worship and dreams and cold reality. We weigh Gatsby's relation to bootleggers and larceny against Tom and Daisy's carelessness and selfishness. Nick's casual relationships to Gatsby's holding onto a youth's lovely imaginings. We each have to decide, after all, what was so “great” about Gatsby.

Corrigan's book is a pleasure and a revelation. 

I thank NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company for access to the e-book for review.

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