Discovering a Lesser Gatsby, Perfection’s Rough Draft

Trimalchio: An Early Version of ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by James L.W. West III. Cambridge University Press, 192 pages, $39.95.

There are many ways to love The Great Gatsby , and sometimes I feel I’ve run through them all: avid worship of the rich, romantic prose; cool appreciation for the lean structure; awe at the enduring power of the Gatsby myth, now synonymous with the promise and corruption of the American Dream. In graduate school, I concocted an elaborate interpretation of the novel based on the writing of a French literary theorist (René Girard); and later I began and quickly abandoned a novel that was unabashed, unrelieved homage to Gatsby . More recently, in deference to Moby-Dick , I stopped saying that Gatsby is the greatest American novel–I called it instead the most perfect American novel.

And now here’s Trimalchio , the novel as it was when F. Scott Fitzgerald sent it off to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, in October of 1924 (the title, an allusion to Petronius’ Satyricon , is one of several, including Trimalchio in West Egg , proposed by the indecisive author). This early version is Gatsby before the final fitting: That gorgeous pink rag of a suit is baggy in places; in that soft, rich heap of beautiful shirts, some have collars that are too loose and sleeves a touch too long. Without the benefit of the final stitching and unstitching, Trimalchio sometimes sags. There are startling weak moments when we catch Fitzgerald indulging himself, or supplying the reader with flat-footed explanations, or simply losing the rhythm of a key scene. The flawless first chapters are already in place, and also the famous, high-flying ending. Memorable lines are missing, and the plot unfolds more stiffly–but mostly it’s our beloved Gatsby . The poor fit–the rumpled look–can’t disguise the muscle of a masterpiece.

Two letters from Max Perkins to Fitzgerald are included in the Cambridge University edition of Trimalchio ; they are enthusiastic and intelligent, tactful and to the point. Perkins urged Fitzgerald to help the reader’s eye focus on Gatsby; he wondered whether the blank mystery of Gatsby’s wealth shouldn’t be partly illuminated, if only with “the suggestion of an explanation”; and he proposed that a little of Gatsby’s hidden past be disclosed before the crack-up, before the gush of confession in the penultimate chapter.

Fitzgerald took Perkins’ suggestions and worked a series of small, beautiful miracles. Want to see Gatsby more clearly? His smile, entirely absent from Trimalchio , flashes unforgettably in Gatsby : “It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it … It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.”

The author did more than merely follow his editor’s advice: He tinkered almost everywhere. Already on the second page he made a deft, poetic substitution, changing “the abortive sorrows and unjustified elations of men” to “the abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men”–I like the echo of abortive sorrows in shortwinded , and how that brief flutter of air does its sorry best to lift elations .

In The Crack-Up there’s a letter Fitzgerald sent to his friend John Peale Bishop soon after the publication of The Great Gatsby ; in the letter, Fitzgerald writes modestly about his ability to edit his own work: “I’m afraid I haven’t quite reached the ruthless artistry which would let me cut out an exquisite bit that had no place in the context. I can cut out the almost exquisite, the adequate, even the brilliant–but a true accuracy is … still in the offing.” To me it seems that he cut from Trimalchio with thrilling precision. His pruning made a huge difference: Gatsby became a marvel of compression, its lavish prose exactly controlled.

Two contiguous examples. Gatsby shows up at Nick’s weather-beaten bungalow in his gorgeous car (weeks later, with Daisy behind the wheel, this same automobile will kill Myrtle Wilson; newspapers will call it the “death car”). In the final version, the two-sentence description of Gatsby’s vehicle is at once lush and tight: “It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and super-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns. Sitting down behind many layers of glass in a sort of green leather conservatory, we started to town.” In Trimalchio , those two sentences are separated by a line of dialogue. Gatsby makes a vulgar boast: “‘Handsomest car in New York,’ he informed me. ‘I know it’s pretty gay, but what’s the use of riding around in a big hearse?’” This doesn’t jibe with Gatsby’s habit of forming “elegant sentences” or his strained attempt at “correctness”; the bragging is redundant and batters too brutally our sympathy for Nick’s prodigal neighbor; and the hearse (heavy foreshadowing of the “holocaust” to come) is redundant, too: Nick and Gatsby pass another hearse, this one “heaped with blooms,” on their way into Manhattan.

In the early version, once they’re on their way, Gatsby asks Nick a bald question: “Have you ever had what’s known as an affaire de coeur?” This sounds the wrong note: Gatsby should have no interest, even faked, in the love life of others, and he shouldn’t be trotting out French phrases. Nick’s answer disappoints, so Gatsby tries again: “I’ll have to begin in a different way. Let me ask you this: What’s your opinion of me anyhow?” In the revised version, the same scene begins with just the right jolt: “‘Look here, old sport,’ he broke out surprisingly, ‘what’s your opinion of me, anyhow?”

On the whole, the Gatsby of Gatsby talks less–and is more often “surprising.” In Trimalchio he tells Nick, “‘I might be a great man if I could forget that once I lost Daisy. But my career has got to be like this–’ He drew a slanting line from the lawn to the stars.” It was only later that Fitzgerald invented for him the mind-boggling pronouncement about Daisy perhaps loving her husband when they were first married: “‘In any case,’ he said, ‘it was just personal.’” Most of what Fitzgerald cut from the novel isn’t bad at all–some of it’s even “exquisite.” But what he added (without any prompting from Perkins) is priceless.

The Cambridge edition of Trimalchio is for scholars and Fitzgerald fanatics: Only if you know the finished text very well is it rewarding to read an early version. And unfortunately, the Cambridge edition will likely disappoint its target audience. It begins with an astounding bit of carelessness, a short chronology that gets two dates wrong (both are clearly typographical errors, but in a scholarly edition that’s worse than shoddy). And the introduction is breezy and vague about the scope of the changes Fitzgerald made. The editor, James L.W. West III, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University who has also produced “original” versions of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt , doesn’t offer, for example, to compare the word count of Trimalchio and The Great Gatsby .

But at least Trimalchio has shown me a new way to love Gatsby . In my teens I identified with the characters: In heady, hopeful moments I was Gatsby, though mostly I was Nick–”within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life”– and on a few sodden occasions, I was Owl-eyes, the drunk who admires the “absolutely real” books in Gatsby’s library, the only guest at the rain-soaked funeral. Now I play the part of Scott Fitzgerald. Or anyway I audition: I comb the finished text as though I’d just been sent galley proofs; I look for further cuts, a change here, a fix there–”a true accuracy.” (As though I could succeed where Fitzgerald thought he’d failed!) Like the Dutch sailor who beholds the fresh green breast of the new world, I’m compelled into a vast aesthetic contemplation: I dream of The Great Gatsby as it might have been, greater still–

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Adam Begley is books editor of The New York Observer.