Skip to main content
more options
"Privileged Glimpses"

Getting to know Gatsby

June 16, 2006

"...I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart." (p. 2)In my younger and more vulnerable years I was required to read The Great Gatsby multiple times, first in high school, then later for an undergraduate literature class, and then again in graduate school. You might say that Gatsby is an old friend of mine. And now I am visiting with that friend once again for this year's New Student Reading Project.

The Gatsby Style
U.S. postage stamp from 1998

Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Lance Heidig, and I am a librarian here at Cornell. I have been involved with the New Student Reading Project since its inception: leading discussion groups, providing content for the Reading Project web site, and assisting readers like you with their questions and research. This year I have been asked to contribute weekly entries (chapters) in this space as a way of providing some background information about our book and author and to tell you what I hope will be interesting stories about our story.

We shall see whether or not these musings and reflections prove to be privileged glimpses or decidedly riotous excursions. I only hope that you will reserve your judgments until one fine morning.

So come with me, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine.

The latest chapter is posted below. Read earlier chapters.


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.

Read earlier chapters.


Lance Heidig

Lance Heidig is a Reference and Instruction Librarian in the Library's Department of Collections, Reference, Instruction & Outreach. His work there is concentrated on the integration of traditional and digital library public services, with a focus on web-based instruction.