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A Great (Gatsby) fall kick-off

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Such reads the final line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby as well as the inscription on the author’s grave.

And to NPR Book Critic, literature professor and author Maureen Corrigan, that line defines The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald and the way the American dream is depicted through literature.

Corrigan’s passion was evident throughout the day last Thursday as she spoke to the Northeastern community as part of the Humanities Center’s Fall Kick-off Event: A Celebration of The Great Gatsby. Corrigan, who says she has read the novel at least 60 times, is in the midst of writing her own book that argues why Gatsby is “The Great American Novel.”

Gatsby’s Party, the featured event held at the O’Bryant African American Institute’s Amilcar Cabral Student Memorial Student Center, featured Corrigan’s talk as well as award-winning jazz pianist’s Pamela York’s performance of period pieces referred to in the novel.

Corrigan began her talk with an anecdote from Thanksgiving 2010 in which she and her husband sat in the New York City Greyhound bus station at 12:30 in the morning, just 16 hours after arriving in Manhattan, trying to get back to their DC home for Thanksgiving dinner. The reason for their quick trip? The couple had come across last-minute tickets to the seven and a half hours-long theatrical presentation of GATZ at the Public Theater and just could not miss it, even if it meant a long bus ride rather than a quicker Amtrak trip whose trains were long sold-out for the holiday weekend.

If that doesn’t describe passion, or perhaps obsession, over a book, then maybe there isn’t a person on this planet that should be writing such a book about Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.

“Gatsby amazes me,” confessed Corrigan, “because it goes against every expectation of what the great American novel should be.”

Corrigan spent nearly an hour describing how instead of depicting the traditional All-American ideals of optimism, endless possibilities and second chances, The Great Gatsby actually evicts the even stronger American spirit of yearning for more and reaching out for something magnificent. She convincingly persuaded the audience that the image of Jay Gatsby reaching out to the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock is “more American than Ahab’s white whale of Moby Dick or Tom Sawyer’s raft.” Longing, even if one can’t grasp it, is actually the great American heritage, she explained.

Evoking the roarin’ 1920s described in the book, York played a series of upbeat jazz and blues piano pieces, such as “Beall Street Blues” and Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm,” which had the room tapping its feet.

York, who flew up from her home in Texas for the event, headlined a musical night out Friday at the Northeastern Alumni Center at Columbus Place. Playing a sampling of jazz standards such as “Stardust” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” as well as a few of her own songs, including some from her just-released third album, York transformed the room into a snazzy jazz club for the students, faculty and staff in attendance. Local musicians Les Harris (drums), Marty Ballou (bass) and David Newsam (guitar) accompanied the Canadian-born pianist.

On Thursday morning to kick-off the series of events, the Humanities Center hosted Corrigan and a small group for a conversation on her career as a book critic and how to best write for the ear. Corrigan writes book critiques for NPR’s Fresh Air where she has won the Edgar Award for criticism.

She described her row house in Washington as a “candy store” to any reader since she receives more than 100 book copies a week in addition to the 30 or 50 more at her office. Corrigan finds herself losing herself in books so often, she’s written the memoir, “Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading,” available at the Northeastern Book Store. Her love of literature and what she does for a living, certainly the best possible job for a reader, is evident.

Going back to the Public Theatre that Thanksgiving Eve nearly two years ago, and seven and a half hours after the production began, Corrigan still found herself and the entire audience reciting the final words of the novel along with the narrator, the final words of Fitzgerald’s legacy:

“So we beat on, boasts against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

For upcoming events sponsored by the Humanities Center, please visit the center’s calendar at

– by Leslie Casey

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