Let the Great World Spin


Colum McCann

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Let the Great World Spin Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Colum McCann

Colum McCann was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1965, the son of a newspaper editor. McCann himself became a journalist by the age of 17, quickly thereafter taking on his own newspaper column. When he was 21 he moved from Ireland to the United States, where he planned to write a novel. After an initial failed attempt to do so, however, he decided to ride his bicycle across the country in order to enliven his emotional capacities. Soon after, he found himself in Texas, where he worked as an outdoor leader on wilderness trips for at-risk youth. He went on to graduate from the University of Texas at Austin with degrees in English and history. In the early 1990s McCann moved to New York, where he currently lives with his wife and three children. He has penned six novels and three story collections, won numerous awards, and is known internationally for his literary work as well as for his involvement with charities and nonprofits. Perhaps most notably, he is a co-founder of the global nonprofit Narrative 4, a story-exchange program that seeks to transcend stereotypes and barriers through the use of storytelling and the idea of “radical empathy.”
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Historical Context of Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World Spin makes use of a vast array of political and cultural events that took place in the 1970s. At the forefront of the book is Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974. In the background of the novel is the political climate: notably Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal—when the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate office was broken into and subsequently covered up by the president’s administration—which lead to his resignation on August 9, 1974. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was dragging on despite the fact that America had withdrawn its troops, and thus still greatly occupied the country’s public consciousness. Whether or not they blatantly reveal themselves, all of these political tensions and events are at play in the background of each story in Let the Great World Spin. And although the book does not explicitly address it, the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 is yet another relevant historical event, since the novel engages so closely with the Twin Towers and what they signified for Americans.

Other Books Related to Let the Great World Spin

The novel’s title is taken from “Locksley Hall,” a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. This poem includes the line, “Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change.” McCann breaks this line into two parts in order to title two of the sections chronicling the tightrope walker’s experience (one is called “Let the Great World Spin Forever Down” and the other is called “The Ringing Grooves of Change”). Similarly, Tennyson’s poem itself draws from seven lengthy poems in Arabic written in the sixth century called the “Suspended Poems.” Though the novel’s title is taken directly from the Tennyson poem, Let the Great World Spin pulls thematic inspiration from a question articulated in the “Suspended Poems,” namely: “Is there any hope that this desolation can bring me solace?” It is also worth noting that Let the Great World Spin is McCann’s second novel about New York City; the first is called This Side of Brightness and takes place in the city beginning at the turn of the 20th century, when the first subway tunnels were dug. As such, the project of capturing the city—especially during its defining moments—emerges as a clear goal of McCann’s work.
Key Facts about Let the Great World Spin
  • Full Title: Let the Great World Spin
  • When Written: In the years following September 11, 2001
  • Where Written: New York City
  • When Published: June 23, 2009
  • Literary Period: 21st Century literary fiction
  • Genre: Realistic fiction, poetic realism, short story sequence
  • Setting: New York City in the 1970s
  • Climax: Because there are so many different stories in the novel, there is not simply one traditional climax. But there are two events in particular that are especially significant to the book’s shape: the first is the tightrope walk and its eventual completion, and the second is the car accident that kills both Corrigan and Jazzlyn. Both of these moments greatly influence many of the book’s storylines, either directly or indirectly, ultimately serving as plot points around which everything else is organized.
  • Antagonist: The prejudices and stereotypes that wedge themselves between fellow humans and keep them from truly connecting with one another.
  • Point of View: The point of view varies in each section, variously including first person and third person omniscient narration.

Extra Credit for Let the Great World Spin

An Author’s Motivation. Let the Great World Spin is Colum McCann’s attempt to respond to and perhaps reframe the personal, national, and global grief over the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. When the Towers fell, McCann’s father-in-law, who worked on the fifty-ninth floor of the north tower, made it out of the building safely even as the other tower had already fallen. He walked to McCann’s apartment on Seventy-First Street—far uptown—and immediately threw away his clothes, which smelled of smoke. However, he left his shoes by the door, and they remained there until, weeks later, McCann moved them to a cupboard in his writing office, where they remained as he composed Let the Great World Spin.

A Changed Ending. Colum McCann originally wanted to rewrite history with Let the Great World Spin by having the tightrope walker fall from the wire. It seemed, he thought, in keeping with the current political context of George W. Bush’s administration. However, the more he researched the walk—and the more invested he became in the way it could function within the confines of a novel—the more he found himself swept away by the lives of the people on the ground who watched the walker. When Barack Obama was elected into office, McCann decided to infuse the book with a slight sense of hope and optimism, ultimately trying to steer it “toward a point of recovery.”