Skip to main content
more options
"Privileged Glimpses"

Past Glimpses...

Chapter I: Naming the Book

June 19, 2006

F. Scott Fitzgerald was never really satisfied with the title of his third novel. Today, given the book's fame and popularity, it is difficult to imagine any other title for The Great Gatsby, but as he worked on the book between April 1924 and April 1925, Fitzgerald considered a number of options.

His first thought was to call it, Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires, but his editor, Max Perkins, discouraged this wording and early on Fitzgerald considered using The Great Gatsby as his title. In fact the manuscript that he submitted for publication was so entitled, but Fitzgerald wavered and wrote to Perkins:

I have now decided to stick to the title... Trimalchio in West Egg. The only other titles that seem to fit are Trimalchio and On the Road to West Egg. I had others Gold-hatted Gatsby and The High-bouncing Lover but they seem too light.

"It was when curiosity about Gatsby was at its highest that the lights in his house failed to go on one Saturday night—and, as obscurely as it had begun, his career as Timalchio was over." (p. 113)

These titles refer to Trimalchio, a party-giving character in the Roman work, The Satyricon, and were meant to convey "a more satiric attitude towards Gatsby." (Mizener, The Far Side of Paradise.) The lighter suggestions come from the poem that serves as the book's epigraph, which we will discuss in a later posting. (It is curious to think that Fitzgerald almost beat Jack Kerouac to his famous title—On the Road—by 30 years.) Around this same time Fitzgerald also considered calling the book simply, Gatsby, but decided that it was too similar to Sinclair Lewis's 1922 novel, Babbitt.

Just weeks before the book was to be released, Fitzgerald sent Perkins the following telegraph message: "CRAZY ABOUT TITLE UNDER THE RED WHITE AND BLUE WHAT WOULD THE DELAY BE." Perkins was able to dissuade him of any further changes, but as Matthew Bruccolli notes in an Appendix to his 1991 Cambridge University Press edition of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald's final thoughts on this matter were: "The title is only fair, rather bad than good."

 

Chapter II: "Once Again to Zelda"

June 26, 2006

As he had done earlier with his collection of short stories, Flappers and Philosophers (1920) , Fitzgerald dedicated The Great Gatsby to his wife, Zelda. She was his muse, and the dramatic content of their lives served as the source and inspiration for many of his fictional plots and characters. The narrative of their courtship—a young military officer romancing a Southern belle—turns up in several of Fitzgerald's works, including Chapter IV of Gatsby, where Jordan tells Nick about the lieutenant sitting in Daisy's roadster and what happened between them in Louisville in 1917.

It is often assumed that Zelda was Daisy, but Daisy Buchanan is a composite character partly based on Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, and largely modeled on F. Scott Fitzgerald's first love, Ginevra King.

Fitzgerald met Ginevra while he was at Princeton and she was attending a boarding school in Connecticut. She was the daughter of a wealthy Chicago stockbroker, who like Tom Buchanan had attended Yale and owned a string of polo ponies. One of her best friends was the famous golfer, Edith Cummings, our Jordan Baker. Their young love was brief and apparently doomed from the start. Ginevra had many boyfriends at the time. In his journal Fitzgerald quoted a remark said to him after visiting her family, "Poor boys shouldn't think of marrying rich girls." Ginevra did the "sensible thing" and broke off their relationship, married a banker, and assumed a position in Chicago's high society. Fitzgerald was left feeling hurt, socially inadequate, and forever longing for the idealized love and beauty of this unattainable rich girl.

Fitzgerald kept copies of Ginevra's letters his entire life. While he did not quote from them directly in his writing—as he had done with some of Zelda's diary entries—it appears he used them to invoke memories of her and her world. Memories that he used to "repeat the past" in his fiction.

He purposely avoided seeing Ginevra again for many years in order "to keep that illusion perfect." For him she never lost her beauty or grew older. A sharp contrast to his love for Zelda, whose life he shared, keenly observed, and documented as she lost her youth and looks to time and her personality and mind to schizophrenia.

Chapter III: Thomas Parke D'Invilliers

July 3, 2006

When F. Scott Fitzgerald was revising the galley proofs of The Great Gatsby in preparation for its publication, he added this verse to his title page:

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry "Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!"

—Thomas Parke D'Invilliers

This epigraph doesn't just suggest a theme for the novel, it also pays tribute to a good friend.

The name of the author—Thomas Parke D'Invilliers—is both a pseudonym for Fitzgerald, who wrote these lines himself, and a reference to a character in his first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), a character based on his Princeton colleague, the poet, John Peale Bishop. Bishop edited a student literary magazine, The Nassau Lit, and he had selected several of Fitzgerald's early short stories for that publication. After their undergraduate days they and another of their Princeton associates, the noted author and critic, Edmund Wilson, would share intertwining lives and literary careers. In 1922 Vanity Fair magazine included the three classmates in their profile of a "New Generation in Literature" calling them "young writers who have come upon old age while still in their twenties." (See Arthur Mizener's Scott Fitzgerald and His World, p. 59) Fitzgerald and Bishop also both moved to France in the mid-1920s and became associated with the "Lost Generation" of expatriated American writers there.

After Fitzgerald's death, Bishop mourned the passing of his friend in his poem, "The Hours," a requiem first published in The New Republic and later included in The Crack Up (1945), a collection of Fitzgerald materials edited by Edmund Wilson.

"We were in the same senior society, and while we were never intimate I always had the impression that he approved of me and wanted me to like him with some harsh, defiant wistfullness of his own." (p. 7)For those of you who are new students coming to Cornell this fall, you have not yet had the pleasure of meeting your college friends. You have all of that before you. I think that you will be surprised at how many of the people you meet here will end up becoming your life-long friends. I cannot guarantee this, remember our Gatsby characters, Nick Carraway and Tom Buchanan knew each other in college and we can read about what became of those connections. But maybe that is just a New Haven thing! Perhaps if they, or Fitzgerald, had come to Cornell instead of those other Ivies, we would have a much different story to read.

College friends have a way of becoming best friends and old friends. So maybe that person you meet in the dorms or in a library or while walking between classes—that person carrying a copy of The Great Gatsby—just might be the person to whom you dedicate your first book.

Chapter IV: Absolution

July 17, 2006

During his lifetime, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote four novels—This Side of Paradise (1920), The Beautiful and Damned (1922), The Great Gatsby (1925), and Tender is the Night (1934)—and four short story collections—Flappers and Philosophers (1920), Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), All the Sad Young Men (1926), and Taps at Reveille (1935)—that were all published by Charles Scribner's Sons. We know him for Gatsby, but in the 1920s and 1930s, Fitzgerald was far better known and more widely read as a short story writer than he was as a novelist. In addition to the collections just mentioned, his canon of approximately 160 stories appeared in serious literary magazines like The Smart Set and The American Mercury and in many of the most popular mass-circulation magazines of his day: Colliers, Liberty, McCall's, Metropolitan, Red Book, and most importantly, The Saturday Evening Post, which published 65 of his stories.

Largely dismissed by his contemporaries as commercial "hack work" written solely for profit, Fitzgerald's stories, while of uneven quality, do merit our attention. They earned him his living and they subsidized his novel writing, which never made him very much money. Matthew Bruccoli notes in his preface to the 1998 edition of stories, "Gatsby and Tender is the Night were financial failures. In 1929 eight Post stories brought Fitzgerald $30,000, while all of his books earned total royalities of $31.77 (including $5.10 for Gatsby.)"

Fitzgerald's short stories also served as laboratories where he introduced and tested various themes, situations, and settings that he would later develop more fully in his novels. Scholars now group the stories written during the gestation periods for his novels into thematic clusters. The Gatsby cluster includes the stories: "Winter Dreams," "Dice, Brass Knuckles, & Guitar," "Absolution," "The Sensible Thing," and "The Rich Boy."

"There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors, and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender, but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year's shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered." (p. 148)Here we find familiar subjects: poor boys courting unattainable (rich) girls; the intertwining of love and ambition and money, youthful aspirations and dreams of success, and what the passing of time does to those dreams. Fitzgerald often mined phrases and passages from his magazine stories for use in his novels. In "Winter Dreams"—which Fitzgerald once described as "a sort of first draft of the Gatsby idea"—a passage describing the main character's reactions to his girlfriend's house became Gatsby's impressions of Daisy's home in Louisville. The story was later revised when it was collected in All the Sad Young Men, as Fitzgerald never republished stories that he had borrowed from without first reworking them. And many of his magazine pieces were simply designated as "buried"—not to be reprinted.

The story, "Absolution" is an example of the reverse. It was originally part of a now lost early draft of Gatsby, and was intended to serve as a prologue to the novel, giving us insight into the life of a young James Gatz, but Fitzgerald changed his mind and we are now left to wait until the later chapters of the book to learn more about Gatsby's early life. As we find out Gatsby was an "Oggsford man." But it is curious to see that in a preliminary sketch of him, Fitzgerald had this character, named Rudolph Miller in this story, dreaming of our Cornell as he:

"slept among his Alger books, his collection of mothy pennants—"Cornell," "Hamlin," and "Greetings from Pueblo, New Mexico"—and the other possessions of his private life."

Such aspirations.

Chapter V:  Gatsby’s Books

July 24, 2006

One of the things that impressed me as I reread Gatsby this summer was how often books and libraries and reading are mentioned. For a story so saturated with alcohol and music and dancing, with a plot that seems to progress only by moving from one boisterous party to another—often with bad driving or an accompanying automobile accident—I found it rather interesting that so many of the characters from The Great Gatsby spent a significant part of the summer of 1922 reading.

“There was so much to read, for one thing, and so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young breath-giving air.” (p. 4) Clearly this reading is tied to the novel’s themes of ambition, self-improvement, and education, and it illuminates the differences between the social classes. One can tell a great deal about the characters by what Fitzgerald has them reading. Early in the book Nick tells us that he has “bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities” and that he had “the high intention of reading many other books besides.” Through the summer he ate his dinners at the Yale Club and would then go “upstairs to the library [to study] investments and securities for a conscientious hour.” We find Tom Buchanan nibbling “at stale ideas” as he quotes racist views from a book entitled, “The Rise of Colored Empires.” (An allusion to Lothrop Stoddard and his 1920 book, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy.) And we have Jordan Baker languidly reading to Tom from the Saturday Evening Post and Myrtle Wilson buying a copy of “Town Tattle” (probably an allusion to the gossip magazine, Town Topics) and “a moving-picture magazine.” In Tom and Myrtle’s New York apartment Nick finds copies of “some of the small scandal magazines of Broadway,” and the popular novel, Simon Called Peter, which is about the passionate life of an army chaplain. (It is a novel that Fitzgerald regarded as immoral.)

“I have been drunk for about a week now, and I thought it might sober me up to sit in a library.” (p. 46)And then we have Gatsby’s library. It is a “high Gothic library, paneled with carved English oak, and probably transported complete from some ruin overseas.” It is a room filled with real books, as the astounded and drunken "Owl Eyes" tells us. He’s on to Gatsby, or at least, he senses that this mansion and these parties are all part of some larger, grander scheme or theatrical setting staged for some unknown drama.  He calls Gatsby a “regular Belasco,” referring to the famous Broadway producer and director. We learn later of course that Gatsby bought this house and held these parties in order to be near Daisy. All were meant to impress her—the mansion, the parties, and the library full of unread books. As "Owl Eyes" continues, “What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn’t cut the pages.” The pages of Gatsby’s books are “uncut” meaning they are unopened and unread.

The only books we know Gatsby has “read” are Nick’s copy of “Clay’s Economics” (Henry Clay, Economics: An Introduction for the General Reader. New York: Macmillan, 1918.), which he nervously browses while he waits for Daisy to arrive at Nick’s house, and his own boyhood copy of Hopalong Cassidy, which Gatsby’s father shows to Nick. Inside the book the young Jimmy Gatz wrote out a schedule and list of resolutions that he would use to improve himself and get ahead. Included there are his instructions to himself:“Read one improving book or magazine per week”

 

The child knew what the man did not: A book’s value does not come from owning the printed pages, but rather from possessing them—making them one’s own by reading the words, learning the ideas, and being inspired to think and dream. Jimmy Gatz wanted to be a cowboy and to be a success. Gatsby dreamed of perfection. Perhaps if he had read some of the books in his library he would have learned something of geography, of history, of love, and how the world really works. You cannot repeat the past, Mr. Gatsby.

But I cannot tell Jay Gatsby how to live his life or dream his dreams. Nor is it up to me to tell you that reading books can be both intoxicating and sobering. It is something you will have to learn for yourselves. Perhaps by reading a book.

 

Chapter VI:  Hemingway on Gatsby

July 31, 2006

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway first met each other in a bar—Le Dingo (The Crazy American Bar) in the Montparnasse section of Paris—in April 1925, just a few weeks after the publication of The Great Gatsby. At the time Fitzgerald was a famous author, while Hemingway was a promising but little known writer.  They became friends and they shared a number of literary—and now legendary—adventures together, which included Hemingway introducing Fitzgerald to Gertrude Stein and Fitzgerald helping Hemingway get his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, published by Scribner’s.

Yet two books devoted to their relationship: Fitzgerald and Hemingway: A Dangerous Friendship (1994) by Matthew Bruccoli and Scott Donaldson’s Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship (1999), tell us that their friendship was complicated. So it is fascinating to read what Hemingway—as friend and writer—had to say about Gatsby.

In his posthumously published book, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway looks back at his youthful days in Paris. The book is a “memoir” but one that is more like “a revised text of an unfinished autobiographical novel.”  Hemingway himself notes in the preface: “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.” 

While Hemingway is always the hero of his own stories, often at the expense of Fitzgerald and others, he does cast some light on what Fitzgerald must have been like. He writes cruel things about Fitzgerald, but he also says this about him:

"He spoke slightingly but without bitterness of everything he had written, and I knew his new book must be very good for him to speak, without bitterness, of the faults of past books. He wanted me to read the new book, The Great Gatsby, as soon as he could get his last and only copy back from someone he had loaned it to.  To hear him talk of it, you would never know how very good it was, except that he had the shyness about it that all non-conceited writers have when they have done something very fine, and I hoped he would get the book quickly so that I might read it."

And later after telling disparaging stories of Fitzgerald’s odd and drunken behavior  Hemingway adds:

"A day or two after the trip Scott brought his book over.  It had a garish dust jacket and I remember being embarrassed by the violence, bad taste and slippery look of it.  It looked the book jacket for a book of bad science fiction. Scott told me not to be put off by it, that it had to do with a billboard along a highway in Long Island that was important in the story. He said he had liked the jacket and now he didn’t like it. I took it off to read the book.

When I finished the book I knew that no matter what Scott did, nor how he behaved, I must know it was like a sickness and be of any help I could to him and try to be a good friend.  He had many good, good friends, more than anyone I knew.  But I enlisted as one more, whether I could be of any use to him or not.  If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he could write an even better one.  I did not know Zelda yet, and so I did not know the terrible odds that were against him. But we were to find them out soon enough.”

It is curious to hear Hemingway criticize and dismiss what is arguably one of the best and most famous dust jacket images in American literature.  But he is certainly entitled to his opinions. It is the compassion in his observations that stays with me. As we know the odds were against Fitzgerald. It would take him nine years to write his next novel, Tender is the Night, and his drinking and his wife’s health problems would plague him for the rest of his short life.

Hemingway would alter his opinion of Gatsby in later years, but his admiration of Fitzgerald’s talent remained strong. Here are quotes from several of his correspondences. In a letter to Arthur Mizener, who was then writing his biography of Fitzgerald, The Far Side of Paradise, Hemingway writes:

"For me the best of the books, in spite of any inconsistencies, is Tender is the Night… I thought Gatsby was ok with reservations." (May 1950)

And in a letter to Malcolm Cowley, who was editing a collection of Fitzgerald’s short stories, he states:

"I hope to hell you will be able to set some things right.  As you know only a few of the short stories are good.  Gatsby is good and Tender is the Night is mixed up but absolutely excellent.”  (April 1951)

In the 1950s, many years after Fitzgerald’s death, and many more years after their early escapades, Hemingway would write sentimentally—though also with a certain “big brother” sense of superiority—of Fitzgerald in A Movable Feast:

"His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless."

Leave it to Fitzgerald to set the record straight.  In 1940, the last year of his life, he compiled a log of his life-long meetings with Hemingway.  He could only recall four meetings during the 1930s.  He notes: “Four times in eleven years (1929-1940).  Not really friends since “26.”

 

Chapter VII: Performing Gatsby

August 14, 2006

Throughout his career F. Scott Fitzgerald maintained a close relationship with the American film industry.  He sold film rights to many of his stories and novels, he worked on fifteen movie projects as a screenwriter throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and his last unfinished novel, published as The Last Tycoon but now referred to as The Love of the Last Tycoon, was about Hollywood.  Fitzgerald was fascinated with cinema, and this interest shows up in his writing.

"I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye." (p. 56)Some have called The Great Gatsby a “cinematically inspired” novel as color and optics and visual imagery—the green light, the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg, Gatsby’s yellow car— are integral to the story-telling and Nick’s narration is often camera-like.  Note the repetition of the film-like phrasing, “constant flicker” to describe Manhattan scenes (p. 56 and p. 68) and how Nick’s gaze pans across the crowds at Gatsby’s parties (p. 40-41).  We also have Gatsby pointing out a movie star and director to Daisy and Tom (p. 104-105) at a party they attend.

When it was published in 1925, The Great Gatsby was a critical success, but a popular and commercial failure for Fitzgerald, selling just over 20,000 copies. But in 1926 Gatsby was everywhere. Fitzgerald had sold the post-publication serial rights to Famous Story magazine, and a successful Broadway play—based on the book and written by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Owen Davis—lead to the making of a silent film version of the play.

The 1926 silent film of Gatsby is now lost. All that survives of the film is a one minute publicity trailer, which is included in the National Film Preservation Foundation’s recent DVD: More Treasures from American Film Archives, 1894-1931: 50 Films. (Available in the Olin Library Media Center Videodisc 1661.)

Here in 2006 Gatsby is still everywhere. The Movies section of this web site lists many of the stage and screen adaptations that have been made of Gatsby.  The number alone tells us something of the power and richness of this compelling narrative. And of some need to retell Gatsby’s story.  Critics would argue that Fitzgerald and Hollywood never quite figured each other out, and perhaps they still haven’t.  But at least we have a number of Gatsbys to see and experience.

Unfortunately, the 1949 Alan Ladd Gatsby film has never been released in DVD format and the out of print VHS tape is difficult to come by.  But the 1973 Robert Redford Gatsby and the 2000 A&E Cable Network production are readily available for viewing. (Both DVDs are in the Olin Library Media Center.)  The world seems to be divided into two groups, those that love the Redford Gatsby, and those that hate it. I am in the first camp, but I must admit that the film is not without its flaws. I tend to agree with this 2003 DVD review—how could they make such a long movie from such a short book?  I rather liked the fact that screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola used so much of Fitzgerald’s own words in the film’s dialogue, but how he could leave out the book’s famous final sentences is a mystery to me.  The tag line for this version of the film, “Gone is the romance that was so divine” is a lyric from Irving Berlin’s 1924 song, "What'll I Do" which is featured throughout the soundtrack, as are other songs mentioned in the novel—The Sheik of Araby, Ain’t We Got Fun.  Fans of TV’s Law and Order will recognize a young Sam Waterson as Nick Carraway.

Two of the lesser known interpretations of the Gatsby story are director Mohamed Khan’s 1980 Egyptian film, al-Raghbah (Desire), and the 2005 film, G., “a Gatsbyesque love story set against Hip-Hop's invasion of the Hamptons.”

And what are we to make of Andy Kaufman’s Gatsby comedy routine? Or is it performance art?  The 1970s standup comedian, the subject of the 1999 film, Man on the Moon, used to read The Great Gatsby to his audiences as part of his act.  The Andy Kaufman Oral History web site collects some of his peers comments and reactions:

Marilu Henner: "The first time I saw Andy was at the Improv in New York. This guy gets up, he doesn't look like a comedian at all, and he starts reading from The Great Gatsby. And then, he keeps reading from The Great Gatsby. And he gets to chapter two. And we're like, wait a minute. This is his act. So people start pelting dinner rolls at him, they're heckling him. Finally he breaks down and cries. He's just weeping on stage. "

David Brenner: "And, you know, people would boo the crying. They were New Yorkers. "

Budd Friedman: "The Great Gatsby became a bore at times. I remember once it went about an hour. "

Bob Zmuda, Andy's writer, best friend, author of Andy Kaufman Revealed: "Budd Friedman would use Gatsby to empty out the club at the end of the night. When there were just people hanging out and they're not buying any more drinks, he'd sic Andy on em. "

Bob Zmuda: "We had to adapt the Gatsby bit for Saturday Night Live, because it didn’t have an out. The way we did it, Andy goes into character with a British accent and starts reading Gatsby: "In my younger and more formative years…" And he's reading for a minute and the audience starts making noise. And he slams the book shut and starts scolding them. He starts again from the beginning. There's this record player next to him, and he says, all right, I'm going to ask you all, who wants the music record, and who wants the book. They all want the record. He says "fine, but first the book." He keeps torturing them. Finally, he says all right, we'll put the record on. He puts the record on and starts doing a little beat thing, like there’s going to be a rhythm that's going to start. And then you hear the record is of the British guy reading "In my younger and more formative years…"

Note that Mr. Zmuda misquotes the opening lines of the book.  And for aficionados, here is the complete transcript of Andy’s March 11, 1978 appearance on Saturday Night Live.

And this summer there are two different theater groups staging productions of The Great Gatsby, and competing for New York City theater space.  The newly renovated Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, across the Mississippi River from Fitzgerald’s birthplace in St. Paul, is offering a new adaptation of Gatsby as the first performance in their new space. They hope the show will head to Broadway in the fall.  At the same time the Elevator Repair Service, a New York theater ensemble, is presenting, Gatz, a 6-1/2 hours long play that is “not a stage adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel but a verbatim reading of the entire book, accomplished by the staff of a small office in the midst of their increasingly bewildering business operations.”

And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the theater.

 

Chapter VIII:  “And one fine morning—“

August 17, 2006

Eighty one years into the future that receded before it, The Great Gatsby, has become one of the classic books of 20th Century American Literature, a national icon that is now imprinted upon our national conscience and firmly embedded in our popular culture.  I have found references to the novel literally everywhere. In addition to the numerous film and theatrical adaptations of the book that I mentioned in my last chapter, here is a selection of my Gatsby sightings

In the past few weeks alone, we have Thomas Vinciguerra, starting his New York Times article, “Titles That Didn’t Smell as Sweet” (August 13, 2006) with this anecdote:

"In late 1924, a young writer sent his new novel, “Trimalchio in West Egg,” to Charles Scribner’s Sons. The publishers hated the title. “Consider as quickly as you can a change,” wrote the editor, Maxwell Perkins. F. Scott Fitzgerald quickly complied; he substituted “The Great Gatsby.”

What’s in a name?"

Please see Chapter I of this “blog” for additional answers to this question.

And Bruce Bower provided an “anatomy of a classic” in his Wall Street Journal review, “Fitzgerald’s Leap Forward: ‘The Great Gatsby’ captures the ‘20s in a novel of beauty, vividness and economy” (July 29 – 30, 2006).

Earlier this year in response to the news that a Harvard undergraduate author, Kaavya Viswanathan, may have plagiarized portions of her novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, the New York Times ran an Op-Ed piece by John Kenney entitled, “How Gatsby Got Wild” (May 3, 2006). It consists of an imaginary television interview that begins:

“LARRY KING -- My guest tonight is John Kenney, author of the new bestseller ''The Great Gatsby.'' John, welcome.

JOHN KENNEY -- Thank you, Larry.   

MR. KING -- Tell us about the book.
MR. KENNEY -- It's the story of a man's quest to win the heart of a woman by amassing great wealth.
MR. KING -- You set it in the 1920's. Why?
MR. KENNEY -- It just felt right to me.
MR. KING -- The title is interesting.
MR. KENNEY -- The title is always hard but one day it just came to me.
MR. KING -- The green light.
MR. KENNEY -- Indeed.
MR. KING -- What does it symbolize?
MR. KENNEY -- So many things. Mostly hope, I think. But also wealth. Money is green. A traffic light can be green.
MR. KING -- A lot of vegetables are green.
MR. KENNEY -- That's true, too.
MR. KING -- I was struck by the narrator, Nick Carraway. Such a keen observer of life. He was obsessed with Gatsby, wasn't he?
MR. KENNEY -- He was.
MR. KING -- And Daisy. What a character.
MR. KENNEY -- I modeled her on an old girlfriend of mine. Also on the actress Mia Farrow.
MR. KING -- I can see it. This is a big departure from your first novel, ''White Noise.'' The character of J. A. K. Gladney. Professor of Hitler studies at a small college. Versus Jay Gatsby. Similar first names though.
MR. KENNEY -- I love ''White Noise.'' I'm still very proud of it.
MR. KING -- As you should be. Detroit, you're on with author John Kenney.
CALLER -- Hi, Larry. I love your show.
MR. KING -- What's your question?
CALLER -- I was wondering who MR. KENNEY 's influences are?
MR. KING -- Good question. John?
MR. KENNEY -- I have very little time to read when I'm writing but Scott Fitzgerald and certainly Don DeLillo are both very big influences. I'm very familiar with their work.
MR. KING -- Are there similarities between your new novel, ''The Great Gatsby'' and ''The Great Gatsby'' by F. Scott Fitzgerald?
MR. KENNEY -- Not so much ''similarities.'' They're actually identical.
MR. KING -- I see.
MR. KENNEY -- Except for my name as author.”

In May 2006, Houghton Mifflin published, Gatsby’s Girl, a novel by Caroline Preston that combines elements of Fitzgerald’s romance with his first love, Ginevra King (See Chapter II.) and the fictional characters that she inspired, including Daisy Buchanan.

And Gatsby is one of the books being featured in the National Endowment for the Arts’ The Big Read, “a national initiative to encourage literary reading by asking communities to come together to read and discuss one book.”

Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003), includes an amazing set of chapters about teaching Gatsby during the Iran Hostage Crisis.  Imagine sitting in a classroom discussing the American dream with chants of “Death to America” drifting in from across the campus.

A 2002 audio book of The Great Gatsby (available in the Olin Library Media Center) is performed by actor, Tim Robbins, and includes readings of a selection of letters written by Fitzgerald to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, his agent, Harold Ober, and friends and associates, including Willa Cather, H.L. Mencken, John Peale Bishop and Gertrude Stein.

The Great Gatsby has of course appeared on many book lists and ranks among the most popular and respected (and banned books) of the 20th Century:

See also PBS Banned Books essay (September 23, 2002) .

Who was Jay Gatsby? Over the years researchers have pondered and probed potential sources and inspirations for our main character. Was 1920s socialite Max von Gerlach the prototype for Gatsby? Or “Was Gatsby Black?

Gatsby’s story has inspired a number of literary works as well. Black Money, a 1956 mystery, by famed hard-boiled detective writer, Ross Macdonald (pseudonym for writer Kevin Millar) is a retelling of Fitzgerald’s story.  Macdonald was known to have reread Gatsby annually.

A.R. Gurney’s 1984 play, A Golden Age, is about an attempt to recover a lost chapter of The Great Gatsby.

Other perspectives of Gatsby include using the novel as a way to introduce and teach business ethics.  See “The Great Gatsby as a business ethics inquiry.”

The U.S. Postal Service released a “Gatsby Style” stamp in 1998 as part of their Celebrate the Century collection. The stamp “drew its inspiration from a 1924 fashion advertisement and was designed by the popular stamp artist Carl Herrman. Depicting the sophistication and glamour of America's infamous roaring-twenties lifestyle, the building pictured in the background; the elegant fashion of the assembled characters; and even their combined focus on the richly appointed automobile, seemingly just out of reach, are all reminiscent of themes often referred to in author F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic, 1925 novel "The Great Gatsby."

The J. Peterman Company sells “Gatsby Shirts.” (Anyone remember the J. Peterman character from Seinfeld?) Their product description reads:

“Gatsby was amazing. He even managed to see to it that the book about him was regarded as a novel, fiction, as though he didn’t exist.

Even Fitzgerald, by the time he was through writing it, believed he’d made the whole thing up.

There were those who knew the truth all along, of course; knew everything except where all that money came from. (Even by today’s standards, when millions mean nothing, only billions matter, Gatsby was incomprehensibly rich.) Gatsby walked into rooms wearing a shirt with no collar. Even a little thing like that made people talk. And probably will still make them talk.

The Gatsby shirt, of course, has no collar. Only a simple collar band. The placket is simpler also: narrower. (Gatsby had them made in France, originally.) The cotton we have used in our uncompromising replica of Gatsby’s shirt is so luminous, in and of itself, that even a person who notices nothing will notice something. Gatsby, of course, could afford stacks of these shirts; rooms of them. Never mind. All that matters is that you have one, just one. A piece of how things were.”

There is a Seattle-based band called Gatsby’s American Dream.

Great Gatsby's Antiques and Auctions can be found in Atlanta or online.

There’s a Gatsby’s Bar Lounge and Restaurant in Soho and numerous other restaurants and bars with his name.

Gatsby Coachworks builds custom handcrafted automobiles from the 1920's & 1930's era.

And there is even Gatsby related real estate for rent.  Our Great Gatsby offers year round rentals of John Peale Bishop’s Cape Cod estate in Chatham, MA.  As you may recall from Chapter III, Bishop was Fitzgerald’s Princeton classmate and life-long friend.

Perhaps my favorite reference to Gatsby comes from The Catcher in the Rye, where J. D. Salinger’s most famous character, Holden Caulfield, speaking of his brother, states:

“I don’t see how he could like a phony book like [Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms] and still like that one by Ring Lardner or that other one he’s so crazy about, The Great Gatsby.  D. B. got sore when I said that, and said I was too young and all to appreciate it, but I don’t think so.  I told him I liked Ring Lardner and The Great Gatsby and all. I did, too. I was crazy about The Great Gatsby.  Old Gatsby.  Old sport. That killed me.”

 

Chapter IX: "Gatsby turned out all right at the end."

August 22, 2006

Our Gatsby summer is now over and your Cornell experience begins. Time to say good-bye to Gatsby and hello to President Skorton. Our novel is composed of nine chapters and I will conclude these writings with my ninth chapter, ending with a few final thoughts on Gatsby and Fitzgerald.

For those of you who may have pondered over Nick's family connections to Daisy, have a look at What is a First Cousin, Twice Removed? to figure out what a second cousin once removed is.

At our large group gathering in Barton Hall on Sunday, one of you asked about the image on the cover of our Cornell edition of The Great Gatsby. It is indeed a replica of the image that graced the dust jacket of the first edition of the book. If you would like to know more about this image and how it came to be on the cover of the book, see Charles Scribner III's essay, Celestial Eyes-From Metamorphosis to Masterpiece.

"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us." (p. 180)You may have noticed that the film clip shown to us on Sunday from the 2000 Gatsby film used a different wording of the final sentences. Our edition speaks of the "orgastic future" but the film clip narration called it the "orgiastic future." This discrepancy points to a major question in Fitzgerald studies. What did Fitzgerald intend? The first edition of Gatsby reads, "orgastic", like our current edition. But after Fitzgerald's death when his friend, Edmund Wilson, prepared and edited a new edition of the book, he changed "orgastic" to "orgiastic" because he thought since the book was filled with scenes of orgies, Fitzgerald, a notoriously bad speller, must have meant "orgiastic." Subsequent editions of the book used Wilson's wording. Scholars have now corrected this editorial addition, but have they? Though Fitzgerald originally persuaded his editor, Max Perkins to use "orgastic" despite its "strong sexual content," I am told that in his own personal copy of Gatsby, Fitzgerald later crossed that word out and penciled in "orgiastic."

I have talked about our Cornell Connections to Fitzgerald in earlier chapters, but I would like to circle back to George Jean Nathan, the Cornellian who launched Fitzgerald's career, and to Arthur Mizener, the Cornell professor who helped to restore Fitzgerald's lost literary reputation. When Gatsby was published, Nathan, a close friend of Scott and Zelda's, wrote a glowing short letter to Fitzgerald:

"Dear Scott: A thousand congratulations! "The Great Gatsby" is an excellent job. It is leagues in advance of anything you have ever done. As ever, George Jean Nathan"

But these words hide the fact that their friendship had cooled over the previous two years, largely due to Nathan's "dangerous flirtation" with Zelda, which may or may not have been an actual affair. This encounter and Zelda's later infidelity while Fitzgerald was writing Gatsby in France seriously strained their marriage.

As for Arthur Mizener, while I was doing research for these writings down in the Division of Rare Books and Manuscript Collections in Kroch Library, I was looking through his faculty folder, which contains a variety of materials about him. There amidsts the collected articles and obituaries and photographs was a newspaper clipping from the February 26, 1965, Daily Princetonian, Princeton's student newspaper, about a recent lecture that Mizener had given there. In this lecture I was shocked to read that Mizener, after a long academic career spent studying and writing about Fitzgerald, had come to the conclusion that Fitzgerald was not really a major figure in American literature. How could this be?

The answer came from Professor Dan McCall. I had only seen a photocopy of this newspaper article. I had not seen the entire page that it came from. It turns out that some crafty and clever students from the Cornell Daily Sun had secretly created and distributed a hoax edition of the Daily Princetonian. See Ithaca's Only Princeton Newspaper to read about this elaborate stunt.

At my small group discussion yesterday with 17 new Cornellians, we talked about our favorite characters and how well we knew them or didn't know them. Some of the students felt Daisy was a caricature and others suggested that Jordan Baker was misunderstood and actually a stronger character than some have portrayed her. Opinions of Nick and Gatsby varied, but most agreed that Gatsby was a bit of an enigma. We also talked about the confused geographies of East and West and how the characters careened back and forth between Eggs and across the continent.

With this observation in mind, I leave you with a quotation from another American traveler, the writer Jack Kerouac, who said in a June 1962 Life magazine article:

"Nobody'll ever know America completely because nobody ever knew Gatsby, I guess."

I hope that you all enjoyed reading and/or rereading Gatsby. And I hope that this Reading Project will inspire you to keep reading. Perhaps another book or some stories by Fitzgerald, or maybe some of the books read in previous Reading Projects? Or some other books—we have almost 8 mllion of them in our 20 libraries on campus. Come in and explore and read. Or learn how to do the Charleston.

Good-bye, old sports.