How editorial feedback improved The Great Gatsby
When Scott Fitzgerald heard his first novel This Side of Paradise was accepted, he immediately quit his job (repairing the roofs of railroad cars), and ran down the streets, stopping automobiles and friends to tell them the news.
His novel had been accepted by the traditionally conservative New York publishing house Charles Scribner’s Sons. And although Scott had sent previous drafts of the novel to Maxwell Perkins there, acceptance of This Side of Paradise marked the beginning of a professional relationship that would last for two decades.
Soon F. Scott Fitzgerald would become the voice of a generation – forever associated with the Jazz Age and flappers.
And Maxwell Perkins would go on to work with Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, making him possibly the most famous and influential fiction editor in history.
Scott’s last letter to his editor, Max Perkins, was dated December 13th 1940. Scott died later that month from a heart attack. His final novel, The Last Tycoon, was left unfinished.
The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel. It was preceded by This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned and followed by Tender is the Night. Additionally, his Jazz Age short stories solidified his reputation.
Perkins was exceedingly gifted at inspiring an author to produce their best work. While he could help with structure, think up plots and titles where needed, Perkins had a credo: “The book belongs to the author.”
He also long avoided the spotlight believing that editors should be invisible, both for the benefit of the author and the public. To be visible could erode trust in the work or the writer involved.
If you have a Mark Twain, he said, don’t try to make him into a Shakespeare.
But in Fitzgerald Max Perkins was dealing with a perfectionist. Consequently, there was less advice needed compared to some others. Nevertheless, as well as dishing out support, cheques against future earnings, and exchanges on other up and coming authors, Perkins would also give editorial feedback.
In this blog post, I’ll specifically deal with his editorial commentary on the original draft he saw of Gatsby. Perkins would later say of the novel, his favourite Fitzgerald novel, that it was “as perfect a thing as I ever had any share in publishing.’“
What to call the third novel?
Correspondence between Perkins and Fitzgerald shows Scott trying out different titles for the book. Some of these titles seem distinctly odd now: Trimalchio in West Egg is perhaps one of the least strange. Other suggestions included:
Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires
On the Road to West Egg
The High-bouncing Lover
Under the Red, White and Blue
While Scott worried over the title and was still fond of Trimalchio, this choice did not go down well with most of those at Scribner’s. And although The Great Gatsby ultimately won out, Scott felt the title wanting in some way.
The editorial feedback
There is a Cambridge edition of the early Gatsby manuscript, titled Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby. It also contains notes and two letters from Perkins. The value of this draft of Gatsby is in seeing what differs from the final version.
For anyone particularly familiar with Gatsby, there will be obvious changes. However, the novel that most people know is still very much there.
Previously, the novel Fitzgerald was writing was far longer, but he removed a lot of material. There is a long story called Absolution that was cut from the Gatsby narrative. By the time the first draft arrived on Perkins’ desk, the manuscript (Trimalchio) was very similar to the end product.
Maxwell wrote back to Fitzgerald full of enthusiasm. Dear Scott, he wrote, I think the novel is a wonder. He goes on to say it has vitality and glamour.
He brought up the issue of the title, which no one at the publisher liked but him. This letter was brief since he intended to take the novel home and read it again, before writing his impressions in full.
His second letter was a bit longer, but it did not amount to what might be a modern manuscript critique. This is partly because Fitzgerald had already cut a lot out of his novel and shaped it before sending Perkins the first draft he saw. This was Scott’s third novel, so he knew what he was doing and was already a perfectionist.
Perkins opens the second letter with, “I think you have every kind of right to be proud of this book.” He goes on to praise the use of a spectator narrator in Nick Carraway, which gives the readers more perspective on what is happening than the characters at the heart of the book. The eyes of Dr Eckleberg also look down on events.
When it comes to actual criticisms, Perkins makes only a few points. He was not a very hands-on editor with Fitzgerald. He never wanted to impose his own vision and he was dealing with an exceptionally talented writer.
The criticisms make perfect sense and while tiny in number, they do make an important difference.
First of all Scott had worried that there was a slight sagging in chapters six and seven. Perkins agreed with him but didn’t offer a suggestion other than to say he knew Scott would come up with something to fix the pacing.
One major difference between the first draft Perkins saw and the published version relates to the scene where Nick first finds himself looking at Gatsby.
He was only a little older than me – somehow I had expected a florid and corpulent person in his middle years – yet he was somehow not a young man at all. There was a stiff dignity about him, and a formality of speech that just missed being absurd, that always trembled on the verge of absurdity until you wondered why you didn’t laugh. I got the distinct impression that he was picking his words with care.
After that, Gatsby is distracted by his butler and leaves.
Readers familiar with Gatsby will remember a more memorable description that more clearly outlines his youth. Perkins pointed out that Tom Buchanan was so well described that he’d know him if he met him on the street. By contrast, “Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim.”
While much about Gatsby is a mystery, Perkins felt that he should be described in as much detail as the others.
Perkins adds that two people at the publishing house thought Gatsby was older than he was, even with the statement that the man was only a little older than Nick.
In a later response to Perkins, Scott admitted that he himself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in (the nature of his business). He’d originally thought this was okay, but it was of course one of the problems Perkins picked up on.
Here is the final version that Scott came up with:
He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished – and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.
Another point Perkins made related to the mysterious nature of Gatsby’s business. He clearly had a business relationship with Wolfsheim but the reader would still be puzzled by all his wealth.
It wasn’t that Perkins wanted Fitzgerald to go into detail about the source of his money. But he thought the reader would wonder about it and that it would make sense to drop in hints here and there “that would suggest he was in some active way mysteriously engaged.“
Perkins went on to say that the total lack of an explanation “through so large a part of the story does seem to me a defect.” Even the suggestion of an explanation would do. The details of what Gatsby is engaged in didn’t need to be outlined, including whether he was an innocent tool of someone else or not. But there did need to be more evidence of his activities.
In his response letter (which can be read in Dear Scott/Dear Max), Scott said, “Gatsby’s business affairs I can fix. I get your point about them.“
And indeed in the next draft he does drop in more evidence of mysterious business activities that do not in any way undermine the mystery of Gatsby himself. The reader can fill in some of the remaining gaps themself.
In a later letter Perkins (in Dear Scott/Dear Max) brought the subject up again, referring to the fact Gatsby was supposed to be a bootlegger – a little bit here and there about the bootlegging might be what’s needed.
In the earlier draft, the story of Gatsby’s background appears in chapter eight. Perkins felt that the way it was given to the narrator departs from the narrative technique in the rest of the book. Elsewhere, “everything is told, and beautifully told, in the regular flow of it, – in the succession of events or in accompaniment with them.” Dumping the backstory where it appears in the earlier draft interrupts the flow of the novel. Perkins thought it better to sprinkle the information bit by bit through the course of the narrative.
In a later letter to Max, Scott listed his changes – that he’d brought Gatsby to life, accounted for his money, fixed up the two weak chapters (six and seven), improved his first party, and broken up the long narrative relating to Gatsby’s history.
Although Scott still dithered over the title of the book – mentioning Gold-hatted Gatsby in a March 1925 letter – he also felt that Trimalchio might have been best after all. But it was The Great Gatsby that appeared in bookstores on April 10th 1925.
Scott’s letters to Perkins show his nervousness, fear, and foreboding. He worried women wouldn’t like the book because it had no important woman in it. And he thought the critics wouldn’t like it because it dealt with the rich and “had no peasants borrowed out of Tess and sent to work in Idaho.”
He also worried that he wouldn’t sell enough to cover his debt to Scribner’s since they had often loaned him money in advance.
Even on the day of the release, Scott was picking over the faults he could still see in the novel. Nevertheless, he considered the first five chapters and parts of the seventh and eighth to be the best things he’d ever done.
Unfortunately, sales did not take off as hoped. The fact the book was around 50,000 words and therefore shorter than what the trade preferred did not help. At least two big distributors reduced their orders considerably at the last minute.
Scott reflected that the title was only fair, “rather bad than good“. And he still considered the lack of an important woman character to be an issue since “women control the fiction market at present.”
In the end, the book would establish itself as one of the greats of modern American literature and cement Fitzgerald’s reputation. But it didn’t happen overnight.
Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby – The Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald edited by James W. L. West III
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald- Perkins Correspondence – edited by John Kuehl and Jackson Bryer (out of print so check eBay)
Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg
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