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Daphne Merkin

So We Read On and Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers and Swells

Did the Jazz Age ever exist — apart from being a cultural construct, that is, a coinage credited to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and one that he had a singular role in characterizing (raccoon coats, bootleggers, bobs, cool cars, flappers in short skirts) by virtue of his novels, “This Side of Paradise” and “The Great Gatsby” in particular? Did the Lost Generation know it was lost any more than the Me Decade recognized its own solipsism or those who lived in the fin de siècle 1890s realized they were at the end of something? Decadology is an intriguing if somewhat arbitrary device, allowing us to view the preceding, largely amorphous segments of history as slim and discrete crosscuttings of time. Then again, not every cluster of 10 years lends itself to being named in an equivalently catchy way; the 1940s, although known as the War Years and the Duration, seemed to recede between the more emphatically summed-up “radical” ’30s and “quietist” ’50s.

Meanwhile, there are periods that continue to draw our interest precisely because they suggest an implausible and vibrant cohesiveness — a moment, say, when everyone was living it up as though there were no tomorrow, seconds ahead of the deluge. I am referring, of course, to the Jazz Age (a.k.a. the Roaring Twenties), which, thanks to two new books, is up, together with its most significant chronicler, for renewed consideration. Maureen Corrigan, an English professor and the book critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” is a passionate advocate in “So We Read On: How ‘The Great Gatsby’ Came to Be and Why It Endures.” Depending on your taste in writing, either you think there’s no overrating Fitzgerald at his best or you think he’s a boozer with a fancy prose style and little to say. Since I place myself firmly in the former category, I was happy to have another examination of “Gatsby” at hand, especially after the novel took a beating in May 2013, when the critic Kathryn Schulz published an essay, “Why I Despise ‘The Great Gatsby,’ ” just in time for Baz Luhrmann’s noisy and inexplicably uncompelling film treatment (at least the fifth such attempt)...

The New York Times | December 4,


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