We get all manner of books on writing around here and they tend to blend together but the offerings from Tin House always stand out. They've just published The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House, which includes terrifically useful essays from the likes of Dorothy Allison. Rick Bass, Aimee Bender, Jim Krusoe, Antonya Nelson and Jim Shepard. The collection also includes a bonus lecture CD. But what immediately caught our eye is Susan Bell's terrific essay on revisions, using The Great Gatsby as her example. Bell is most recently the author of The Artful Edit, which no less a language authority than William Safire called "original" and "helpful." Bell and Tin House have graciously allowed her essay, "Revisioning The Great Gatsby" to be serialized here this week on four parts, and we'll be giving away a copy of The Writer's Notebook come Friday.
We all know The Great Gatsby. We were forced to read it for high school English. And like most books thrust upon students as another cut in the key that would release them from the prison of formal education, it has an ambiguous luster. We remember we liked it, but we’re not sure if our admiration was sincere or derived from a desire to please the teacher—and get out.
An informal survey of my acquaintances suggests that few adults have read Gatsby lately. When I reread it in the spring of 2002, at the age of forty-three, I hadn’t looked at it in almost thirty years. My early readings of Gatsby had been supplanted by images of Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, film having usurped literature, as Fitzgerald himself predicted it would.
I was reminded of this eminent yet largely ignored novel when I read the biography of Max Perkins, by A. Scott Berg. At the time, I was writing a book on the philosophy and practice of editing, and the legendary Perkins was my touchstone. He and Fitzgerald enjoyed one of history’s most rewarding editor-writer collaborations. Berg gives a fine account of how Perkins and Fitzgerald, together, refined The Great Gatsby. I reread the novel just to see how it matched Berg’s account of its making. It floored me. I hadn’t expected it to be that good. Its every sentence and event feel necessary. Fitzgerald succeeds at the unlikely fusion of ultramodern prose—taut, symbolic, elliptical—and gorgeous lyricism: ornate, fluid descriptions of parties, for example, that rival Tolstoy’s descriptions of war. Finally and heroically, Fitzgerald manages to maintain compassion for a humanity he portrays in the most sinister terms.
My interest was editing, though, not just writing, and the author’s painstaking edit of Gatsby distinguishes it. It is a tour de force of revision. So much so that critics, who rarely mention the edit of a book, commented on the quality of Gatsby’s rewriting, not just its writing, in reviews. For H. L. Mencken, the novel had “a careful and brilliant finish. . . . There is evidence in every line of hard and intelligent effort. . . . The author wrote, tore up, rewrote, tore up again. There are pages so artfully contrived that one can no more imagine improvising them than one can imagine improvising a fugue.” Gilbert Seldes agreed: “The Great Gatsby is a brilliant work, and it is also a sound one; it is carefully written, and vivid; it has structure, and it has life. To all the talents, discipline has been added.” Careful, sound, carefully written, hard effort, wrote and rewrote, artfully contrived not improvised, structure, discipline: all these terms refer, however obliquely, not to the initial act of inspiration, but to editing.
Organization and clarity do not dominate the writing process. At some point, though, a writer must pull coherence from confusion, illuminate what lives in shadow, shade what shines too brightly. Gatsby is the cat’s meow case study of crossing what Michael Ondaatje calls “that seemingly uncrossable gulf between an early draft of a book . . . and a finished product”—in other words, editing.
In autumn 1924, Fitzgerald sent Perkins the Gatsby manuscript. The editor diagnosed its kinks, then wrote a letter of lavish praise and unabashed criticism. “And as for the sheer writing, it is astonishing,” wrote Perkins. “The amount of meaning you get into a sentence, the dimensions and intensity of the impression you make a paragraph carry are most extraordinary.” A crucial problem, though, was the hero’s palpability. Perkins explained:
Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken.
Gatsby’s vagueness was intentional, according to Fitzgerald’s December 1 reply: “[Gatsby’s] vagueness I can repair by making more pointed—this doesn’t sound good but wait and see. It’ll make him clear.” To make Gatsby too clear would make him too human and unheroic. Fitzgerald wanted to clarify Gatsby’s vagueness, not Gatsby himself. But in a fascinating turnabout, on December 20 the author wrote again, this time to confess that the vagueness was not altogether intentional:
I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in & you felt it. If I’d known & kept if from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure I’m going to tell more.
Although Gatsby needed to be enigmatic, his mysteriousness had to suggest something precise behind it, and Fitzgerald had to figure out what that was. He needed to do as good actors do: learn his character’s whole history to show only a small piece of it.
Fitzgerald used two techniques to discover the full expanse of Gatsby’s character: real life models and visual aids. In a letter to Perkins, he wrote:
. . . after careful searching of the files (of a man’s mind here) for the Fuller case and after having had Zelda draw pictures until her fingers ache I know Gatsby better than I know my own child. . . . Gatsby sticks in my heart. I had him for awhile then lost him & now I know I have him again.
Fitzgerald had modeled Gatsby on his neighbor in Great Neck, Edward Fuller. Fuller was involved in various scams, including fraudulent stock dealing. Gatsby, wrote Fitzgerald, “started as one man I knew [Fuller] and then changed into myself.” When pressed to develop Gatsby further, Fitzgerald went back to the idea of Fuller and set out to learn more about his model’s real-life crimes and attitudes. The old nut goes, “Write what you know,” but often a writer is clearer about what he doesn’t know and must learn about. One easily gets lost in oneself. The detached concentration that research demands may have helped Gatsby come clear in Fitzgerald’s eyes.
(Essay continues tomorrow.)