Essayist and critic Maureen Corrigan, whose voice has long been featured on Fresh Air and Washington Post's Book World, recently wrote a comprehensive study of The Great Gatsby, embellishing the book's rich history with her personal experiences reading and compulsively re-reading it. Below, she discusses exactly why Fitzgerald's novel remains moving, relevant and enjoyable:
Why, in a sentence, do you think The Great Gatsby endures?
Gatsby endures because it's our most American and our most un-American novel at once: telling us the American Dream is a mirage, but doing so in such gorgeous language that it makes that dream irresistible.
According to your book, you weren’t exactly taken with Gatsby the first time around -- why was that?
I first read Gatsby in high school and promptly decided that it was a boring novel about rich people with whom I couldn't "identify." I think in high school many of us are reading for clues about how we're going to fit in the wider world and since I grew up in a Catholic blue collar family in Queens (more Valley of Ashes than West or East Egg), Gatsby's opulent visions of wretched excess meant little to me. Also, I think that, while high school students may connect with Gatsby's obsessive pursuit of Daisy, the voice of Nick Carraway, our narrator, is full of regret and yearning for times past. Generally speaking, Nick's voice resonates more with older readers, rather than readers who are still in their teens.
You weren’t alone in that assessment. The book wasn’t always popular in America, either. Why was that?
When the novel was published in 1925, many newspaper reviewers under-read it as a hardboiled crime tale -- three violent deaths! bootlegging! infidelity! -- and saw nothing more in the novel besides entertainment. Fitzgerald told Max Perkins that he thought Gatsby didn't sell because there are no likable female characters in it and that women drive the fiction market. I think that judgment of his is so interesting because that's what we say now: that women buy fiction and men buy nonfiction.
Do you think Gatsby comes close to earning its epithet as a Great American Novel?
Yes. Absolutely. The novel is all about aspiration: the first time we see Gatsby, he's stretching out his arms to that oft-discussed green light across the water. It's that gesture of reaching -- not the green light -- that's the all-American symbol of the novel. In fact, everyone in the novel is reaching for someone or something that's ungraspable. Gatsby celebrates the doomed beauty of trying in ordinary American language made unearthly by Fitzgerald's great poetic gifts.
You’ve noted that the book isn’t perfect -- in fact, it’s pretty problematic. Why do you think its lack of strong female characters (with the questionable exception of Jordan) sits well with contemporary readers?
Even in 1925, there were female readers -- Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, among them -- who looked beyond identification with Gatsby's female characters and connected, instead, with Fitzgerald's profound message about the promise of America. Readers today -- female and male -- who've lived through the earthquakes of the modernist and post-modernist movements in literature may be even more used to a certain ironic distance from the main characters in a novel. All that said, I think Gatsby is a particularly weird novel. It's not character driven nor especially plot driven; rather, it's that oddest of literary animals -- a voice-driven novel. I think once we grow past the idea that we have to identify with or like characters in order to be drawn into a book, we can allow ourselves to be "carried away" by Nick Carraway's voice as a narrator.
There are lots of novels -- classic and contemporary -- that don't contain likable female characters, but their other strengths compensate. I'm thinking, um, of Moby Dick, for instance, and in recent literary history, Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs and Brian Morton's just published Florence Gordon.
Fitzgerald considered many other titles for the book, including the now laughable Gold-Hatted Gatsby. What would you have named the book?
Don't ask me to improve upon The Great Gatsby! Both Zelda Fitzgerald and Fitzgerald's legendary editor, Maxwell Perkins, thought The Great Gatsby was a fine title: their opinion is good enough for me.
Which writers working today would you compare to Fitzgerald?
A few months before he died in 1940, a very depressed Fitzgerald wrote to Maxwell Perkins, wondering how to keep The Great Gatsby alive for readers (remaindered copies had been stored in Scribner's warehouse since 1925) and remarking on his influence: "Even now," Fitzgerald wrote, "there is little in American literature that doesn't bear my stamp." I'd now widen out his remark to say that there is little in world literature that doesn't bear his stamp. Writers who carry forward that beautiful attentiveness to language are working in the Fitzgerald mode. I'm thinking of Alice Munro, Denis Johnson, Jen Egan, Michael Cunningham, Dinaw Mengestu, Joseph O'Neill, Ha Jin... the list goes on and on.
Maureen Corrigan is the author of So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.