Famous American novels
Corrigan documents how, after Fitzgerald’s death just before Christmas in 1940, “Gatsby” came back, establishing itself as part of the modern American canon. The novel received a boost from the war: With millions of Americans in uniform overseas, the U.S. government developed a program to ship them compact paperbacks to read in their down time. “Gatsby” was one of the books selected for the Armed Services Editions. That resulted, Corrigan reports, in 155, 000 paperback copies of “Gatsby” being shipped overseas in 1945. Meanwhile Fitzgerald’s friends and admirers worked diligently on the reputation-reclamation project. The sudden popularity of paperbacks coincided with the return of “Gatsby” to the mainstream of American letters. In 1949, Hollywood produced a version of “Gatsby” with Alan Ladd in the title role.
Rather quickly, in part because it’s a short novel and easy to read, “Gatsby” because a fixture in high school English classes. Corrigan pinpoints 1951 as the critical year of the Fitzgerald revival. That happened to be the year that J.D. Salinger published “The Catcher in the Rye, ” in which Holden Caulfield notes that his older brother made him read “Gatsby.”
“I was crazy about The Great Gatsby, ” Holden tells us. “Old Gatsby. Old sport. That killed me.”
I can’t emphasize enough how much fun Corrigan’s book is. This is what I read in recent weeks as relief from my research on hypothetical dystopian futures. Her book reminds me a lot of my friend Paul Hendrickson’s masterpiece “Hemingway’s Boat, ” a similar effort at literary archaeology. (Paul was my colleague in the Style section back in the day.) Both books have the remarkable effect of making you understand why you like to read, and why literature can somehow grab you across great expanses of time and cultural differences, and how this human innovation known as writing — the rendering of life into symbols that can erupt in another person’s brain as a story — is the ultimate killer app. Yes, Plato was right to fear this technology.
What makes “Gatsby” the Great American Novel, Corrigan argues, is the combination of its extraordinary rendering of the American vernacular — it’s a “voice-driven novel” — and its success at capturing the aspirational (if borderline delusional) nature of the American psyche:
“Gatsby’s magic emanates not only from its powerhouse poetic style — in which ordinary American language becomes unearthly — but from the authority with which it nails who we want to be as Americans. Not who we are; who we want to be. It’s that wanting that runs through every page of Gatsby, making it our Greatest American Novel. But it’s also our easiest Great American Novel to underrate: too short; too tempting to misread as just a love story gone wrong; too mired in the Roaring Twenties and all that jazz.”
Her book explores the water themes everywhere in the novel (which I’m not sure I ever noticed) as well as way the book is almost absurdly over-structured, right down to the way Gatsby has his big reunion with Daisy Buchanan precisely in the center of the story.
In my own occasional stints as a writing teacher I have asked students to excise words from various difficult-to-cut literary passages (a McPhee* assignment, you know), and one of my selections is from “Gatsby.” Imagine trying to shorten this passage by two lines of type:
Already it was deep summer on roadhouse roofs and in front of wayside garages, where new red gas-pumps sat out in pools of light, and when I reached my estate at West Egg I ran the car under its shed and sat for a while on an abandoned grass roller in the yard. The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life. The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight, and turning my head to watch it, I saw that I was not alone — fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.