Jazz Age January: West of Sunset & And So We Read On

24de28664bdf1f004be5425016536035“His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

As I read West of Sunset,  Stewart O’Nan’s lovely, sad fictionalized account of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final years, I found myself wondering what Maureen Corrigan would think.

Maureen Corrigan has been NPR’s book critic for 25 years. She also reviews regularly for many national publications and is the Critic in Residence at Georgetown University. Last fall, she shared her longtime passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece in So We Read on: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures. Often underappreciated and misread because of its brevity and apparent simplicity, the novel is, she says, our “Greatest American Novel”:

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.

Corrigan, like so many of us, first encountered The Great Gatsby as a teenager. “I thought The Great Gatsby was a boring novel about rich people,” she says in her book’s introduction.”The bad news is that we read it in high school or even (shudder) junior high, when we’re much too young . . .”  Then she spends almost 300 pages explaining why she thinks The Great Gatsby is truly The Great American Novel, worth reading again and again.

“Are you tired of it yet?” my husband and close friends would ask me every so often during the time I was writing this book and, of course, rereading The Great Gatsby. I can honestly answer “No.” I don’t know how he did it, but Fitzgerald wrote a novel that shows me new things every time I read it. That, for me, is the working definition of a great book: one that’s inexhaustible.

The Great Gatsby, originally published in 1925, initially sold poorly and received mixed reviews. By the mid-thirties, not only was the country in a depression — so was Fitzgerald’s career. He suffered from a host of physical illnesses that were complicated by alcoholism; his wife, Zelda, was incarcerated in a mental hospital; and he was deeply in debt. No one at that time would have predicted that Fitzgerald’s short novel would one day be the most widely read books in the world, eventually selling more than 25 million copies.

West of Sunset opens as Fitzgerald, badly in need of money to pay for Zelda’s medical care and his daughter Scottie’s private school tuition, heads west to Hollywood to take a screenwriting job at a movie studio: Read more