Under the Covers: “Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.”

October 2, 2014

I remember reading The Great Gatsby when I was in high school and just not getting it. It was one of those books everyone was supposed to read. Like most other people my age, I didn’t want to feel left out. Though I am from New York—and this book touts references that only New Yorkers would really understand—The Great Gatsby didn’t seem to fit into my world at all. What are these Eggs for, and why am I being blinded by this green light? Who throws extravagant parties in Long Island? 

I always knew I was missing something important in Gatsby. Three years later, after reading Maureen Corrigan’s new book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures, I finally understand the hype. I was attracted to So We Read On for two reasons: first, I had heard about the subtleties in Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, but never had the patience to master them myself. Second, it was written by Georgetown’s own Professor Maureen Corrigan, known for teaching the most popular English course on New York literature—complete with a trip to that beautiful chaos. 

Corrigan, like many of us, at first didn’t understand why this slim blue book was so pervasive. In fact, as Corrigan writes, Fitzgerald’s third book received terrible reviews when it was first published, becoming his least successful novel during his lifetime. Like many greats, it wasn’t until Fitzgerald had long passed that people started to take notice and fall deeply in love with Gatsby. They discovered incredible respect for the protagonist whom the media had depicted as a pretentious spendthrift.  

In So We Read On, Corrigan takes us on her journey across the U.S., from the Princeton Fitzgerald collection to the restricted chambers of the Library of Congress, simultaneously talking to experts and admirers, while reading the book several times over and gaining new insights every time. She also teaches the book extensively in some of her classes, and describes many of her Georgetown students’ surprising insights. Corrigan’s examination of every facet of Gatsby radiates her deep curiosity of how it grew beyond its slim, bounded edges. 

 But the book doesn’t stop at exploring Gatsby. It also excavates much of Fitzgerald’s life, from his teenage love affairs to letters to his daughter, Scottie. So We Read On explores Fitzgerald’s early years, depicting the writer as a man we don’t often see: the loving father and husband, the “pretty boy” at Princeton, and the skilled comedian, rather than just an idol-worshipping profligate who could write pretty well. When one of his past girlfriends asked him if she had inspired any of the women in his fiction, Fitzgerald responded, “Which bitch do you think you are?” Corrigan brilliantly portrays not only his sense of humor and reckless persona, but also his sensitivity towards his past, finally presenting Fitzgerald the person, as opposed to just Fitzgerald the writer. 

 Today, most of his other books are considered must-reads—Tender is The Night, The Beautiful and Damned, and his short stories have appeared in hundreds of movies and plays (for example, I had no idea that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was his). Despite his ubiquity, few know Fitzgerald’s personality. Most have come to know him only through his works, which, though iconic,  prevent readers from seeing something greater than his writing: his inner thoughts and his origins. 

 It’s important to turn back and remember why we were attracted to The Great Gatsby, after we pushed aside all the cultish fanfare and read it through. At its core, it’s a sincere story about reaching for something greater than oneself, without actually knowing what such possession entails—something to which every one of us should relate. It also invokes this message through layers of distasteful classism and an endearing (if phony) love story. For these reasons and the many that Corrigan devotedly shapes, The Great Gatsby’s green light will shine on.

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