While teaching her undergraduates at Georgetown, Maureen Corrigan often points to her own family name, wedged between Russel Betty and the Kellehers, “in that long, screwball, pages long-list of all the people who went to Gatsby’s parties.” The introduction to her new book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, includes this anecdote, as she suggests a “personal excursion into the novel [she] loves more than any other.” Despite the minor solipsism, her close reading displays a poignancy and humor that’s otherwise absent in the rest of her unfocused work. Corrigan’s main problem, even in the opening, is that she can’t quite decide on the scope of her project. Her own experiences, coupled with several disassociated analyses, muddle what could be a convincing cultural assertion about why, now, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby thrives, when it flopped at the time of its publication.
Though not anything revolutionary, her deconstruction of the novel in the context of noir, or “hard-boiled” detective fiction, offers a refreshing perspective, a well addressed and easy-to-understand alternative to reading The Great Gatsby as a love story, or as a comment on the American dream. As does, too, her understanding of Fitzgerald’s narrative as steeped, inherently, in “New York,” a city where “roughly 80 percent” of her college students hope to move after graduation. Yet this thorough account also doesn’t award anything wholly original. New York isn’t alien to Fitzgerald. Although it’s often attributed to Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” one of Fitzgerald’s most well-known essays, “My Lost City,” essentially starts the tradition of writing about loving and leaving Manhattan. And framing a discussion around the city isn’t a stretch, since whole collections, like those of Henry James or Edith Wharton, immediate predecessors to Fitzgerald, are organized around the borough. Even at her best, when Corrigan provides deft literary criticism and research, either after combing through artifacts at Princeton or leafing through archives in the Library of Congress, she unearths interesting points without nearing adequate conclusions. While she might dwell too long on the motif of water, or Fitzgerald’s view of class, the effect World War II and paperbacks had on The Great Gatsby, and its appearances on high school syllabus, are important trends to note. However, Corrigan doesn’t dedicate enough space to wondering what those things might imply.