Great Gatsby

1 January 2017

With so much of the novel’s plot achieved through motif and symbol, with so much of its atmospheric intensity concentrated in the central images of the waste land, the grail quest, and the tragic odyssey, the fiction that Fitzgerald conceived of as a “rough” novel eventually seems to have been written as though it were a long poem. Consider the opening sentence, Nick’s invocation of the three connections that his antiself, Gatsby, can never claim. “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. One sentence decisively outlines the major chord: youth, fatherhood, and connectedness to the past. Where Nick has his connections, however, Gatsby has only “gonnegshuns. ” Though that’s the point: Nick has to expand the dimensions of the familiar and to mature emotional and material connections into compassion–and, finally, love. For the real love story lies in the friendship of Nick and Jay Gatsby. Nick’s voice is so overwhelmingly personable, so damnably charming, however, that it is easy to overlook how unnervingly subtle was the structural intelligence behind it.

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Jaded readers such as me who have always regarded Fitzgerald as a natural stylist can be forgiven for suspecting that what Bruccoli’s efforts amount to are x-rays of a butterfly’s wing. To reread the novel–in this or any edition–is to sense jointedness and symmetry under its skin. Jordan’s exposition of Gatsby’s early affair with Daisy, in chapter 4, is structurally symmetrical with Gatsby’s own account in chapter 8; the crack-up at the party in chapter 3, which foreshadows Myrtle’s death, is both structural symmetry and tonal displacement moving from low comedy to low tragedy.

The orchestration of the relationship between the three male leads, moreover, of Tom and his fading physical strength and engrossed appetites, Gatsby, in all his tragic ascendancy, and Nick, in his tragic-comic distance from both, seems arbitrary: you may overlook it, given Nick’s obsession with Gatsby. Look again and this unstable triad is the Gawain-Galahad-Perceval configuration that Fitzgerald, we know from internal evidence, most certainly had in mind.

Bruccoli’s introduction, moreover, reveals that Fitzgerald switched the order of the original chapters 2 and 4: apparently he felt it necessary to have it be the debased Tom, and not, as his original inspiration suggested, the idealist Gatsby, who should motor Nick to the Wilsons’ gas station in the waste land. Arbitrary, perhaps, but the casual arbitrariness of great art. When Nick and Gatsby do drive through the valley of ashes in chapter 4, they never get out of the car.

All that remains of Fitzgerald’s original inspiration is a glimpse of Myrtle “straining at the garage pump with panting vitality. ” Since at least one stage of intermediate drafts is missing, we’ll never know precisely the character or the closeness of the revision that ensued between the time that Fitzgerald completed the first draft in France and his last-minute work on the galley-proofs. Given our present, software-driven nostaglia for an overdocumented reality, nothing short of seeing that second draft is satisfactory.

But Bruccoli’s edition dispels any reasonable doubts that its maker was a craftsman. An indifferent copyeditor of his own work, he attacked his galleys with joy. For him writing The Great Gatsby was painful, but revising it in galley-proof was liberating. Indeed the novel became a masterpiece only through revision. The notes, which are keyed by asterisks to words and phrases, are generally satisfying and useful. Jordan Baker’s name, I have learned, conjoins the names of two cars popular at the time.

This point is valuable because the American automobile is a major element in Gatsby and because the prose grotesquely aligns Jordan with this modern element of the American Dream. Jordan, who is described as having a “hard, jaunty body” and who has an odd habit of tilting her chin skyward as though it were a hood ornament, is told by Nick that she is a rotten driver long before Daisy runs over Myrtle. Few of us need to be told that there are no nightingales in the United States or that the longest day of the year is June 21st.

That The Rise of the Colored Empires, which contains some of the stale ideas nibbling at the edges of Tom’s consciousness, was based on an actual book is unsurprising. But most of us did not know the word gypped officially entered the dictionary with this novel, that the Orderi Di Danili actually existed, and that a real but updatable meeting occurred between Fitzgerald and Arnold Rothstein, the prototype for Meyer Wolfsheim. That meeting was for Fitzgerald the imaginative focal point inspiring and propelling the novel.

The appendices contain two pages of maps and a photograph of the town of Corona taken in 1896. Corona was the model of the Valley of Ashes. Most of the editor’s fixes are minor. Fitzgerald routinely spliced lines of dialogue; Bruccoli in most cases has raked out the comma splices. Fitzgerald wanted Gatsby’s corpse to trace circles in the pool “like the leg of a compass,” not like what Fitzgerald originally wrote, a transept, or the word that Maxwell Perkins altered transept to, transit, the word that has appeared in all editions of the novel.

The big news is the emendation of a change that Edmund Wilson introduced in his 1941 edition, on the very last page: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us” is what Fitzgerald wrote. But Wilson assumed that Fitzgerald, usually a lousy speller, had written orgastic while actually intending orgiastic, and for fifty years the text has carried Wilson’s not unreasonable but considerably flatter conjecture. Bruccoli demonstrates that Fitzgerald meant what he wrote. Bruccoli’s case partly depends on evidence supplied by Wilson himself in 1965.

The root of the plot derives from the postponed union of Daisy and Jay five years earlier; the source of its tragedy is not only that the union bears no fruit but that “romantic readiness” is what history has sanctioned, not the gross satisfaction of appetites everyone in the book except Gatsby is after. The American Dream is too much an ideal ever to be consummated except in the sense to which “orgastic future” corresponds. Citation: Barbarese, J. T. “`The Great Gatsby’ And The American Dream. ” Sewanee Review 100. 4 (1992): 509. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 12 Apr. 2012.

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