Once upon a time, authors were believed to improve their work in revision. Then editorial theory fell in love with first versions, stigmatising second thoughts as impositions. The old dispensation, in which rejected drafts and variants were seen as false starts happily rectified on the road to a work’s final form, which was an incarnation of the author’s final intention, became ‘The Whig Interpretation of Literature’. This belittling tag, coined in a 1988 essay of the same name by Stephen Parrish, general editor of the monumental Cornell Wordsworth, reflected two more widespread beliefs in literary theory: that ‘language is prior to thought’ and that authorial intention is ‘not only elusive and illusory, but irrelevant’. In the case of the Cornell Wordsworth such beliefs were used to defend the publication of early versions as reading texts (a host of ‘yellow’ daffodils, for example; ‘golden’, a second thought, is relegated to the apparatus). The first versions, Parrish proclaimed, contained ‘the real Wordsworth, the early Wordsworth, generally the best Wordsworth’. Today, a third position is in ascendance. Editors, Parrish included, no longer talk of best and worst: instead, the equal validity of all versions is asserted. This third or pluralist position grows out of and reflects several recent developments: the triumph of history in the study of literature in universities, the much-heralded new dawn of hypertext, and a near universal reluctance on the part of literary academics to make judgments of value. Where exactly the publication of Trimalchio, an early version of The Great Gatsby, fits into this admittedly crude narrative, is no easy question.
This Side of Paradise (1920), Fitzgerald’s first novel, was published when he was 24. It was an instant commercial success, though its critical reception was mixed. It was followed in the same year by his first collection of stories, Flappers and Philosophers (a title derived from Scribners’ advertising slogan, originally suggested by Fitzgerald, for This Side of Paradise: ‘A Novel about Flappers Written for Philosophers’). Two years later, Fitzgerald published a second bestselling novel, The Beautiful and Damned, set in the same period (1910 to 1920) and a second collection of stories, Tales of the Jazz Age. Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, had become celebrities, and would have been rich, had they not also been suicidally profligate. This profligacy forced Fitzgerald to write too much too fast. By the time The Great Gatsby was published, he had written 120 stories, mostly potboilers for high-priced magazines (his fee in 1925 was $2500 per story); over the whole of his writing career, roughly a twenty-year period, this number had risen to 160. In a comparable twenty-year period Hemingway wrote his ‘first forty-nine stories’, as Scribners described them when they were collected in a book in 1938.
The genesis of The Great Gatsby, the work Fitzgerald hoped would bring him literary standing as well as commercial success, was complicated. In 1922 Fitzgerald took himself off to White Bear Lake in Minnesota, near his home city of St Paul, and in June of that year, while correcting proofs for Tales of the Jazz Age, began work on ‘something new – something extraordinary and beautiful and simple + intricately patterned’. This work, a novel, Fitzgerald told his editor Maxwell Perkins, would be set in 1885 in New York and the Midwest and would ‘have a Catholic element’ (Fitzgerald was raised a Catholic). In the autumn the Fitzgeralds returned east to Great Neck, Long Island, within commuting distance of New York City. In the summer of 1923 he produced 18,000 words of the novel before putting it aside. Though he continued to work on it for short stretches during the autumn, most of his time was taken up with an attempt to produce a recently published play, The Vegetable, a satire of Washington politics and the American ethos of success, his first commercial failure (it opened and closed in Atlantic City in November 1923, never reaching Broadway), and a number of pot-boiling stories.
In April 1924, Fitzgerald reported to Perkins that he was working on a new ‘angle’ on the novel, having ‘discarded a lot’ of his work from the previous summer (part of this discarded material became the short story ‘Absolution’, published in 1926 in his third short-story collection, All the Sad Young Men). The newly conceived novel would be a ‘consciously artistic achievement’, the product of ‘purely creative work – not trashy imaginings as in my stories but the sustained imagination of a sincere and yet radiant world’. In May he and the increasingly unstable Zelda moved to Saint-Raphaël on the French Riviera, partly to escape the dissipations of Great Neck (the model for Gatsby’s West Egg), described by Ring Lardner as ‘a continuous round of parties … covering pretty nearly 24 hours a day’. From their villa in San Raphaël, Fitzgerald wrote to Perkins: ‘I feel an enormous power in me now, more than I’ve ever had.’
The novel was finished in August but Fitzgerald hung onto it for several weeks, because, as he explained in a letter to Perkins, ‘Zelda and I are contemplating a careful revision.’ In other words, for Fitzgerald, ‘purely creative work’, as opposed to writing for money, was conceived of as worked at, as ‘consciously artistic’. After a succession of drafts, a final typescript (with handwritten revisions) was sent to Perkins on 27 October. This typescript, bearing the title ‘The Great Gatsby’, has disappeared, although an earlier holograph, not a fair copy, survives in the Princeton University Library (and in a 1973 facsimile, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli). According to James West, editor of Trimalchio, the typescript of 27 October constitutes a completed version: ‘Naturally he expected to see proofs, and surely he planned to do some revising on them, but there is no evidence that, on 27 October, he contemplated major rewriting or structural revisions. He had completed this version of his novel.’
When Perkins received the typescript he wrote to Fitzgerald praising the novel but also offering suggestions, nearly all of them concerning the character of Gatsby. He also sent the typescript for setting, which suggests that he didn’t expect subsequent revisions to be major (Fitzgerald’s two previous novels had been minimally revised). If the novel was to be ready for the Scribners spring list, production had to begin immediately, especially since Fitzgerald was in France and communication would be difficult. As West also points out, letterpress composition was cheaper in the 1920s than it is today; Scribners owned and operated its own printing plant, and typesetting was ‘not much different from having a stenographer make a clean typescript’.
The galleys sent to Fitzgerald, which West uses as the copytext of Trimalchio, differed from the typescript in two respects: they had been altered to conform to Scribners’ house style and bore a new title, one Fitzgerald had communicated to Perkins in a letter of early November: instead of ‘The Great Gatsby’ the novel was to be called ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’. This title was one of several Fitzgerald considered over the course of the novel’s composition, including ‘Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires’, ‘Trimalchio’, ‘On the Road to West Egg’, ‘Gold-Hatted Gatsby’ and ‘The High-Bouncing Lover’. On 18 November, after the novel had been typeset, Perkins wrote that his colleagues at Scribners were unhappy with ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’ and asked Fitzgerald for a new title. Fitzgerald promised to ‘try my best but I don’t know what I can do’, suggesting ‘maybe simply “Trimalchio” or “Gatsby”’. In mid-December he cabled Perkins that the original title, ‘The Great Gatsby’, was his choice, but in later communications he wavered, offering ‘Under the Red, White and Blue’ and the previously rejected ‘Gold-Hatted Gatsby’. Three weeks before publication, when it was too late to alter the title (the novel having already been sold in advance to the trade as The Great Gatsby), Fitzgerald wrote to announce ‘I feel Trimalchio might have been best after all.’
This is the title West has chosen for the ‘version’ he prints, which attempts to reconstruct the lost typescript of October 1924. But as his use of the title suggests, it is not so much any single extant or ‘completed’ version West means to reconstruct, as a summary of all Fitzgerald’s ‘final’ intentions prior to receiving galleys. Trimalchio may be ‘a separate and distinct work of art’, but it also is an ideal, unmediated version, ‘uncorrupted’ by the publication process. West thinks the galleys Perkins sent were unlikely to contain any verbal changes from the typescript: Perkins ‘was not an aggressive line editor … rarely made revisions “within the sentence” for Fitzgerald or for any of his other authors’. Any alterations would have been minor – changes in spelling, punctuation and word division – mostly to conform to house style. This style West pronounces ‘alien to Fitzgerald’s prose’; in place of it he substitutes the orthography, pointing, capitalisation and word division of the surviving holograph, except for obvious errors. So ‘Wolfsheim’ becomes ‘Wolfshiem’ again, ‘middle-west’ becomes ‘middle west’, ‘criticise’ becomes ‘criticize’. When dealing with substantives or word changes, however, West’s policy is less straightforward: though he leaves undisturbed ‘a few factual irregularities’ in the galleys, he incorporates Fitzgerald’s revisions of other ‘incongruities’. Only a single sentence in Trimalchio required ‘significant editorial emendation’: ‘It was only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, that was exempted from my reaction’ – which Scribners properly altered in the galleys to remove the pronoun ‘that’.
West’s rejection of house style is worth pondering. According to Matthew Bruccoli, his principal editor, Fitzgerald provides
an authentic case of an author who expected, required and embraced house styling … Fitzgerald trusted Perkins and counted on him to attend to the mechanics of his prose … It is true that his January 1925 letter to Perkins concerning the first batch of corrected galleys firmly states: ‘no changes whatsoever are [to be] made in it except in the case of a misprint so glaring as to be certain, and that only by you.’ But there is good reason to believe that Fitzgerald was referring to substantive changes only.
West’s restoration of accidentals would have mattered little to Fitzgerald (he made no attempt, for example, to restore the looser punctuation of the typescript when revising galleys); his only comments on accidentals concerned the italicising of titles (he preferred quotation-marks) and the spelling of ‘someone’ as one word. Though Fitzgerald cultivated the image of the author as Romantic genius, in his practice as a working writer he was as indebted to the publishing process as Keats, whose early works, like his own, were ridiculed for their solecisms and blunders. As Bruccoli puts it: ‘Fitzgerald had learned from This Side of Paradise that he needed all the mechanical help the publishers could provide.’
Perkins posted galleys to Fitzgerald in two batches, on 27 and 30 December, and Fitzgerald received them in January. He immediately set about rewriting the novel, taking less than two months to incorporate both Perkins’s suggestions and a number of his own, a revision, he later recalled, amounting to ‘a 1000 minor corrections’ and ‘several more large ones’. Perkins’s suggestions were characteristically acute but general. Gatsby and his career ‘must remain mysterious, of course’, but whereas the other characters are ‘marvellously palpable and vital’, he remains ‘somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never focus upon him, his outlines are dim.’ Perkins therefore suggests that Fitzgerald add ‘one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase “old sport” – not verbal but physical ones, perhaps’. He also suggests that, instead of reserving disclosures about Gatsby’s life to Chapters 7 and 8, as in the typescript (and thus Trimalchio), Fitzgerald ‘might here or there interpolate some phrases, and possibly little incidents, little touches of various kinds, that would suggest that he was in some active way mysteriously engaged’, and that he ‘might find ways to let the truth of some of his claims like “Oxford” and his army career come out bit by bit in the course of actual narrative’.
Trimalchio is both more and less explicit than Gatsby. It is less explicit in its silence in the early chapters about Gatsby’s life and career. In making the additions Perkins suggests, Fitzgerald frees the reader from a limiting or distracting curiosity. These changes also bring related structural benefits. The major structural change in the revisions involves the transference of parts of Chapters 7 and 8 to the beginning of Chapter 6; that is, immediately following the moment of communion between Gatsby and Daisy at the end of Chapter 5. This moment occurs exactly in the middle of the novel and is like the transcendent communions (‘Already with thee, tender is the night’) at the centres of Keats’s Odes: for an instant, past and present fuse in the darkened music-room, time stops, the external world of rain and loud wind vanishes. It has been suggested by Kenneth Eble that the effect of following this moment with the newly interpolated material (introduced by way of an abrupt scene change to Gatsby’s interview with ‘an ambitious young reporter’) is to prolong the preceding scene and make it reverberate in the reader’s mind.
Though Fitzgerald’s revisions place Gatsby more squarely before the reader – make him more ‘palpable’ – they do so without precluding symbolic or mythical identifications. Nowhere is this clearer than in the ‘physical’ detail Fitzgerald brings to greater prominence in his revision: Gatsby’s smile. In Trimalchio, at the end of a speech about his wartime experiences (‘every Allied government gave me a decoration – even Montenegro, little Montenegro’), Gatsby ‘lifted up the words and nodded at them with a faint smile’. In Gatsby, ‘he lifted up the words and nodded at them – with his smile. The smile comprehended Montenegro’s troubled history and sympathised with the brave struggles of the Montenegrin people. It appreciated fully the chain of national circumstances which had elicited this tribute from Montenegro’s warm little heart.’
By dwelling on Gatsby’s smile Fitzgerald makes it one of his characteristics, reinforcing an earlier interpolation in Chapter 3:
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 favour. It understood you just so 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.
The complex effect this passage elicits (partly a product of its uncertain irony) is succinctly explained in a more general comment Fitzgerald makes about Gatsby’s character in a letter to Perkins: ‘His vagueness I can repair by making it more pointed.’
If Trimalchio is less pointed in the depiction of its hero than Gatsby, in a hundred other ways it is more so – more explicit, direct, propositional. In Chapter 6 of Gatsby Tom Buchanan and two friends ride up to Gatsby’s house on horseback, are served drinks, then rudely abandon him before he can join them for dinner: ‘they trotted quickly down the drive, disappearing under the August foliage just as Gatsby, with hat and light overcoat in hand, came out the front door.’ In Trimalchio Gatsby reacts immediately: ‘“That’s funny,” he said, with disappointment in his voice. “In fact it seems sort of rude to me.”’ Nick replies: ‘“It was.”’ Later in the chapter, at one of his parties, Gatsby introduces the Buchanans:
‘Mrs Buchanan … and Mr Buchanan –’ After an instant’s hesitation he added: ‘the polo player.’
‘Oh no,’ objected Tom quickly, ‘not me.’
But evidently the sound of it pleased Gatsby for Tom remained ‘the polo player’ for the rest of the evening.
In Trimalchio we are told why. In both versions Tom later protests: ‘I’d a little rather not be the polo player … I’d rather look at all these famous people in – in oblivion.’ In the unrevised version Fitzgerald adds: ‘He meant incognito but in any case Gatsby was surprised. He felt that in placing Tom, in attesting him as a spectacular figure among these other spectacular figures, he had done him a service,’ an explanation the published work allows the reader to intuit.
Trimalchio is also more explicit in its scene-setting. At the first of Gatsby’s parties, in Chapter 3 of the published version, he requests that the orchestra play ‘Vladimir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World’, a piece the orchestra leader describes as having ‘attracted so much attention at Carnegie Hall last May’. Nick, the novel’s narrator, is vaguely superior about the piece: ‘The nature of Mr Tostoff’s composition eluded me.’ In Trimalchio the last name of the composer is ‘Epstien’ (had the name been retained in the published version it would have been ‘Epstein’), not ‘Tostoff’ and the work itself is described in a detailed paragraph. The name change is one of a number of substitutions involving ‘Jewish’ characters. As for the composition itself, it is described as beginning ‘with a weird spinning sound, mostly from the cornets. Then there would be a series of interruptive notes which coloured everything that came after them.’ These and other details make it tempting to identify ‘Vladimir Epstien’ with George Gershwin, and the ‘Jazz History’ with ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, performed at Carnegie Hall in 1924. By cutting the description and substituting a jokily off-colour name (‘Tostoff’ comes from ‘Toby Tostoff’ in Ulysses and neatly signals the work’s character), Fitzgerald forestalls documentary or à clef speculation – the sort that limits or grounds the novels of, say, Tom Wolfe.
Which is not to say that all aspects of the published work are best. Though to some it is inconceivable that a novel called ‘Trimalchio’ could have attained the renown of The Great Gatsby, the title has much to recommend it. ‘Trimalchio’ is the name of the wealthy and vulgar ex-slave in the best-known chapter of the Satyricon by Petronius (c.AD 27-66), ‘Cena Trimalchionis’, variously translated as ‘The Party at Trimalchio’s’ or ‘Trimalchio’s Feast’. Trimalchio’s feast provides what West calls ‘one of the best accounts of domestic revelry to survive from the reign of the Emperor Nero’, a reign with obvious connections to the America of the Jazz Age. Trimalchio is as obsessed with time as Gatsby, and ‘has a clock and a uniformed trumpeter in his dining room, to keep telling him how much of his life is lost and gone’. Many of his guests do not know him and insult him behind his back. Though his extravagant vulgarity is thoroughly mocked, there’s an appealing vigour, vitality, vastness about him, like Falstaff, Quixote, Gatsby. The story’s narrator, Encolpius, resembles Nick Carraway in being an observer and recorder rather than a participant in the events he describes.
Encolpius has other qualities worth noting. He has offended the fertility god Priapus, which partly explains both his impotence and his bisexuality, conditions some have seen as offering a clue to Nick’s character. As the critic Kenneth Fraser has argued, ‘the corruption of the novel originates not merely in Gatsby’s shady business connections, but also in Nick Carraway’s disingenuous sexuality,’ his teasing and blocked relations not only with his cousin Daisy and Jordan Baker, whose ‘slender and small-breasted body’ makes her look like ‘a young cadet’, but with the failed photographer Chester McKee, ‘a pale, feminine man’. At the end of Chapter 2, in both versions, a drunken Nick describes McKee in bed: ‘I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear.’ McKee, also drunk, is holding a portfolio of his photographs and murmuring their titles. At this point the narrative breaks off, like a cinematic dissolve, and Nick finds himself ‘lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station’.
The Satyricon was much in the news when Fitzgerald began work on Gatsby, in part because of an attempt in 1922 to suppress a new translation by J.M. Mitchell. Among the Modernists who were inspired by it were James Joyce, whose Ulysses was also published in 1922 and immediately recommended to Fitzgerald by his friend Edmund Wilson. Calling his novel ‘Trimalchio’ or ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’ would have signalled to his readers Fitzgerald’s ambitions for his book, his hope that it would take its place alongside the poems of Eliot and the novels of Joyce and Conrad (Fitzgerald reread the preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, with its talk of ‘a work which aspires to the condition of art’, before beginning Gatsby). When warned that no one would be able to pronounce ‘Trimalchio’ let alone identify the allusion to the Satyricon, Fitzgerald suggested a short note of explanation at the front of the book, like Eliot’s Notes to The Waste Land (1922), a work he had all but memorised.
The most startling of Fitzgerald’s revisions to the galleys concern Daisy. These, too, soften statement into suggestion. The Daisy of Trimalchio and the earlier holograph is a cruder, more culpable figure than her published counterpart. She’s snobbier and more flirtatious; we get more of her on blacks (‘My theory is we’ve got to beat them down’); Nick’s comments about her are more frequently uncomplimentary. In one respect, though, Fitzgerald’s revisions constitute a change of conception rather than emphasis. In Trimalchio Daisy actually packs her bags and is ready to run off with Gatsby; yet he sends her back to her husband, ostensibly to ‘tell him that she never loved him’. In a brilliant biographical reading of this episode’s excision, Claudia Roth Pierpont, in the New Yorker, argues that Fitzgerald cut it ‘because it makes the wreckage of Gatsby’s fantasy too clearly inevitable, why read on?’
Pierpont is right to emphasise the significance of the episode, its difference in kind from other variants: ‘At this point, Trimalchio is, briefly, a truly different book: less awash in the golden light of quixotry, more literal and harsh.’ When Nick remonstrates with Gatsby about sending Daisy back, reminding him that she’s ‘a person … not just a figure in your dream’, and that she probably doesn’t feel she owes him anything, Gatsby replies: ‘She does, though.’ Pierpont sees Gatsby’s reply as petulant and vengeful, also out of character: ‘it is not Gatsby’s voice we are hearing but Fitzgerald’s, helplessly intruding – Gatsby “started out as one man I knew and then changed into myself”, he wrote – at the very moment when he stood at the brink both of his full creative powers and of the catastrophe that would permanently deprive him of their use.’ This catastrophe was the painful disintegration of his marriage. Years later, after Zelda had been incarcerated in a mental hospital, and, in Pierpont’s words, Fitzgerald’s ‘own life and career were in pieces’, he identified September 1924 as the date at which ‘I knew something had happened that could never be repaired.’ September 1924 was precisely the time he was working flat out on the typescript of Gatsby, amid drunken rows and accusations, Zelda’s affair, her illnesses, her morphine (for ‘nervous hysteria’), her suicide attempt.
Fitzgerald’s decision to cut this episode, with its startling and inexplicable vindictiveness, is yet another manifestation both of the finished work’s ‘consciously artistic achievement’ and its consequent superiority to Trimalchio. This ‘Whiggish’ judgment has many adherents, among them the late Tony Tanner, in an essay on Gatsby in The American Mystery: American Literature from Emerson to DeLillo. For Tanner, perhaps the most distinguished of British ‘Americanists’, Fitzgerald’s revisions are ‘almost uncannily sure-handed, almost inspired’, the finished work is ‘the most perfectly crafted work of fiction to have come out of America’. Such judgments do not mean Trimalchio is without interest (though a new limited edition facsimile of the galleys, which is unaltered – and uncited by West – will be of more use to scholars). West calls Trimalchio ‘a notable literary achievement’, but no claims are made for its superiority to the published version. Still, the restoration of accidentals and the retitling imply that it is a ‘truer’, more ‘authentic’ version, thus implicitly undervaluing secondary and social processes of creation.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.