Last year marked the 90th anniversary of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel The Great Gatsby. Yet back in the 1920s, few would have expected its appeal to last so long. On publication it met with a glut of hostile reviews, sold poorly, and by the time Fitzgerald died in 1940, was practically forgotten. It was only at the end of the 1950s that a gradual build-up of enthusiasm finally secured Gatsby's place as a modern classic, widely anthologised and soon incorporated into American school curricula.
But why is it so good? Writer Maureen Corrigan attempts to explain it in her new book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures. After a lifetime teaching and thinking about the novel, her insight comes down to the paradox in its style and subject matter: seeming to be a glittering love story, it reads more like a hard-boiled detective thriller. In wrong-footing the reader as he does, Fitzgerald is able to “survey the rotten underbelly of the American dream” with unparalleled precision. “The Great Gatsby,” says Corrigan, “is an elegant trickster of a novel, spinning out all sorts of inspired and contradictory poetic patter about American identity and possibilities.” Gatbsy himself, in the words of an early admirer, is “extraordinarily American, like ice-cream soda with arsenic flavouring”. This was the secret of its appeal, and perhaps also the reason why the book took a few years to swallow.
While discussing Corrigan's book in The Washington Post, academic Steven Moore (and author of the colossal and on-going The Novel: An Alternative History) even found himself moved by her contention that The Great Gatsby is the true “great American novel”, in spite of its modest scale: “I used to think it was too short to qualify as the Great American Novel – for a country as big as America, surely that honor should go to a sprawling work like John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. or William Gaddis’s J R – but Corrigan almost convinces me that bigger is not necessarily better.”
Maureen Corrigan's So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures is published by Little, Brown.