“You Got to Read This Book”

October 7, 2013—Maureen Corrigan is a bibliophile, but that’s something of an understatement for someone who receives 150–200 books a week.

Corrigan is a lecturer and critic-in-residence in the Department of English. She’s also a book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and the Washington Post, which explains the weekly deliveries of books. While Corrigan spends much of her time reading new works, her latest book, due out next year, explores F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby.

Corrigan has read the novel at least 50 times, but each time she discovers something new. “It just gets more curious. It has so many aspects to it,” she said. “It’s ordinary American language made unearthly. It’s so beautiful.”

Fitzgerald’s language is one reason for the book’s lasting popularity. “Great works of art are miracles, and I wanted to explore that miracle,” Corrigan said. “Part of my book is [about] how the novel lives on—how we use it in classrooms, how it becomes movies, and how it becomes Brooks Brothers clothing,” she said. Publishers probably didn’t expect the story to endure for generations. “When Fitzgerald died in 1940, there were still remainder copies in the Scribner warehouse. It didn’t sell out its first printing,” she continued.

In her book, Corrigan recounts her Gatsby-related adventures, from riding “a floating tourist trap” on Long Island Sound to interviewing Scott Shepherd, an actor in the play Gatz who has memorized the entire novel. “I wanted to tell stories and bring people back into [Fitzgerald’s] world and the world of the novel,” she explained.

Corrigan’s exploration took her all over the East Coast. She visited her high school in Astoria, Queens—Fitzgerald’s “Valley of the Ashes”—to sit in on English classes reading the book for the first time. In the Scribner archives at Princeton University, she was able to see Francis Cugot’s painting, Celestial Eyes, which he created specifically for the cover of The Great Gatsby. “It’s the only book jacket he ever did, and he was paid $100 for it,” she said. But what may be the most famous book cover in American literature almost never happened. “Someone at Scribner threw it into a waste basket and then someone else got it [back] out,” she said.

Corrigan has accumulated a wealth of Gatsby stories for her book. In one story, she explains the mystery of how the novel became popular. “In 1940, the book is nowhere, basically out of print,” Corrigan said. But during World War II, publishers, editors, and authors decided that soldiers needed paperback books to distract them from the war. They created the Armed Services Editions, which were some of the first paperback books. “They decide to publish over 1,000 titles, everything from Moby Dick to detective stories, the Odyssey to cowboy tales,” she explained. “One of the titles chosen is Gatsby, and all of a sudden, [there are] 100,000 copies of Gatsby distributed during WWII.”

When Corrigan isn’t working on her book about The Great Gatsby, she is teaching at Georgetown and recommending books on Fresh Air. “The two [jobs] do bleed into each other,” she said. Newly released books often find their way into her courses. “I’m teaching Women’s Autobiography this semester, and we’re reading Patricia Volk’s Shocked, which came out [recently].”

Her students also have access to the authors and journalists Corrigan has met in her career as a book critic. Margaret Talbot, a staff writer for The New Yorker, will be visiting Corrigan’s Literature of the City course this semester to talk about the New York voice in literature. “I [also] teach a course on public intellectuals because I now know these people,” she said. Corrigan’s students have learned about intellectuals in the digital era from writers and bloggers such as Ezra Klein, David Frum, and Todd Gitlin.

Corrigan describes her work at Georgetown and NPR as a dream for a bibliophile such as herself. “My passion is to talk about good books. I love being able to talk about a book that people haven’t heard of and say, ‘You got to read this book.’”

—Elizabeth Wilson