Saturday, December 26, 2015

My Year in Books: Gatsbies

[This year, I was curious about what I was reading, so when I finished a book I put it on an ever-growing pile by my desk. Given their rapid-fire appearance, some folks have asked how I've been writing them. Actually, the ideas within have been in note form for most of the year, and this is just my chance to haul them out and give them a good shake for publication. Besides, you have the next week off to read them, right?]

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell, The Penguin Press, 2014
So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures by Maureen Corrigan, Little, Brown, 2014
Provenance: Christmas presents

So, in 2014 I was on a plane watching the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby with the sound off. You've done this before, on the older planes that play a single movie on drop-down screens and they ask that people who don't want to watch the movie to forgo looking out the windows in consideration of those who have paid for earphones. Anyway, I'm watching The Great Gatsby and have to say I am following it along pretty well as an adaption, which is intended as a complement. I read the book in high school, and saw the relatively bloodless Redford/Farrow movie from 1974. And with the sound off I was more engaged with the colors and the way shots were framed and how the film was edited. But like I said, I could scan most of what happened.

And when I got off the plane, I picked up a copy of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and re-read it. And, yes, it is book that is fodder for a lot of analysis, from its construction to its language to its topical references to little bits that provide a great deal of commentary. Perhaps I would do a week on Gatsby, but that's not exactly what we're doing here. Instead I'll talk about two rival commentaries - Careless People by Sarah Churchwell, and So We Read On by Maureen Corrigan.

Of the two, I prefer the Churchwell. It concentrates on the period in question, and I am always trying to get a grip on the 1920s. It was an era where being a successful writer meant you could afford to live in hotels, visit the remains of Europe on the cheap, and get a big summer home out on Long Island. Fitzgerald pulled a lot of his surrounding life into Gatsby, from the nature of parties out on the island to friends to Daisy's child, who shows up only briefly so Scott can quote Zelda about their own kid.

Churchwell also tries to tie the writing of Gatsby into the year's crime of the century that was ongoing over on the Jersey side, and in this she was less successful. Eleanor Mills and her lover were found murdered in a park, their love letters scattered about their bodies, a case that unspooled in the New York press while Fitzgerald was writing. Churchwell reports well on the case, but she doesn't quite make the direct connection between crime and Fitzgerald. The social levels were not the same, nor was the nature of the crime itself on the same line as the vehicular homicide at the heart of Gatsby.

The connection, I think, does come with the concept of "ballyhoo", a word which I first encountered in Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen. Only Yesterday was a book on the 1920s written in 1931, a case of immediate reporting as opposed to excavation of old records, and as such dealt with things that seemed important or novel at the time. Ballyhoo was what we would now call a media circus, fueled by new technology (radio) and the desire for instant reporting (akin to our 24/7 news cycle). The target of ballyhoo could not be determined in advance, though in retrospect it was obvious that this crime of passion or that miner trapped in a cave-in would excite the nation for weeks on end. Similarly, Gatsby attracts his own ballyhoo in the wake of the car accident, and in this way the two are linked, exploited, and then forgotten.

The Corrigan book, on the other hand, takes the longer view, charting not only the creation of Gatsby but  also what happened next. The Great Gatsby was, at its time, a failure. A dog. It was overprinted and did not go back into print in the author's lifetime. Fitzgerald blamed himself for not aiming the book more at women by making Daisy a more sympatheric character (women made up the large bulk of book-buyers at the time). So how did Gatsby become the tower of Twentieth Century Lit?

In part (spoiler) it was because it was short. It could be read and taught easily. It encapsulated a particular time and place in American history before things got all depressed. The book was written in 1925 but set in 1922, and Fitzgerald himself declared the Roaring Twenties to be over by 1922 (sort of like an old hippie saying that if you weren't at the first Woodstock, you missed everything important). But also, during WWII, we sent books to our troops and inculcated a reading habit among a generation of men. And Gatsby was one of those early books.

Corrigan also makes her research into Gatsby a personal journey, visiting Fitzgerald fans and the archives of Fitzgerald's writing. There is much on how Gatsby intersected with the author's life. This gives me the book the feel of an NPR-style news report where the reporter has to engage with the story as oppose to just report on it. For me, it was a passing wave to commentary to be tolerated until she gets back to the meat of the issue.

Both books have strengths and weakness, but of the two I prefer Careless People's evaluations, as she remains more planted in the era of Gatsby's creation. As We Read On concerns itself more with what happens after the writing, as it rows forward, seeking the green light of comprehension. Both are part of the rising tide of Fitzgerald works, which hit a flood tide in the movie, which I ended up watching on a plane with the sound off and all the words missing.

More later,