Friday, October 05, 2012
Max Perkins, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the birth of a novel
Lovers of The Great Gatsby may get a charge out of this account of how it was written and revised. Actors in this little play:
Max Perkins, editor at Scribners
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The account comes from Max Perkins, Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg pp. 60-67
By April, 1924, F. Scott Fitzgerald had fallen away from his third novel a dozen times. Maxwell Perkins thought he should buckle down and get it finished. But he was tactful. Scribners was preparing its fall list, Max told him, and he wanted Scott's novel on it. That got the author absorbed in his work once again, a work that he was deliberately undertaking for the enrichment of his craft more than his bank account. It was called Among the Ash-Heaps and the Millionaires. He replied that he had every hope of finishing it by June. But, he told Max, "You know how these things often come out. And even if it takes me 10 times that long I cannot let it go out unless it has the very best I'm capable of in it or even as I feel sometimes, something better than I'm capable of." Fitzgerald was pleased with much of what he had written the preceding summer, but the book had been interrupted so many times that it was jagged. He smoothed the uneven writing down and cut away whole sections of manuscript-in one case 18,000 words, from which he salvaged a short story, "Absolution”.
Religious overtones darken this story of a poor young Midwestern boy who, confused by his first sexual stirrings and romantic desires, finds solace in an imaginary alter ego. Perkins read it in the American Mercury and wrote Fitzgerald, "It showed a more steady and complete mastery, it seemed to me. Greater maturity might be the word. At any rate, it gave me a more distinct sense of what you could do."
Scott said in a letter to Perkins "I've—well, almost deteriorated in the 3 years since I finished The Beautiful and the Damned. . . If I'd spent this time reading or traveling or doing anything—even staying healthy—it'd be different but I spent it uselessly—neither in study nor in contemplation but only in drinking and raising hell generally."
"If I ever win the right to any leisure again, Scott vowed, "I will assuredly not waste it as I wasted the past time. . . . So in my new novel I'm thrown directly on purely creative work—not trashy imaginings as in my stories but the sustained imagination of a sincere and yet radiant world. So I tread slowly and carefully and at times in considerable distress. This book will be a consciously artistic achievement & must depend on that as the 1st books did not."
"I understand exactly what you have to do," Perkins replied, "and I know that all these superficial matters of exploitation and so on are not of the slightest consequence alongside the importance of your doing the very best work the way you want to do it, that is according to the demands of the situations." So far as Scribners was concerned, he assured Fitzgerald "you are to go ahead at your own pace and if you should finish the book when you think you will, you will have performed a very considerable feat, even in the matter of time, it seems to me."
Perkins told Fitzgerald that he did not like the title Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires and that if he had another, Scribners could prepare a jacket and hold it in readiness, thereby gaining several weeks if the book should be written in time for the fall. "I do like the idea you have tried to express," Perkins explained. "The weakness is in the words 'Ash Heap' which do not seem to me to be a sufficiently definite and concrete expression of that part of the idea." Perkins had only the vaguest knowledge of the book and its protagonist, but one title Fitzgerald had thrown out some months earlier stuck with him. He told Scott, "I always thought that The Great Gatsby was a suggestive and effective title."
The book was only a little over 50,000 words long. When Perkins received the finished manuscript he tore into the novel and read it in one sitting, even though Perkins was known to usually be a slow reader. Immediately he cabled, THINK NOVEL SPLENDID. He meant much more than that and wrote Fitzgerald the next day:
I think the novel is a wonder. I'm taking it home to read again and shall then write my impressions in full; but it has vitality to an extraordinary degree and glamour, and a great deal of underlying thought of unusual quality. It has a kind of mystic atmosphere at times that you infused into parts of Paradise [Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise] and have not since used. It is a marvelous fusion, into a unity of presentation, of the extraordinary incongruities of life today. And as for sheer writing, it is astonishing.
After another few days Perkins wrote Fitzgerald "I think you have every kind of right to be proud of this book. It is an extraordinary book, suggestive of all sorts of thoughts and moods."
Now we get to the suggestions Perkins made as an editor to improve the book: Perkins pointed out that “Gatsby is somewhat vague. This may be something of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken.”
Couldn't he be physically described as distinctly as the others, and couldn't you add one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase "old sport," not verbal, but physical ones, perhaps. I think that for some reason or other a reader—this was true of Mrs. Scribner and of Louise—gets an idea that Gatsby is a much older man than he is, although you have the writer say that he is a little older than himself. But this would be avoided if on his first appearance he was seen as vividly as Daisy and Tom are, for instance. . .
Perkins knew that Gatsby's career must also remain mysterious but he did not want Fitzgerald to shortchange the reader. "Now almost all readers are going to be puzzled by his having all this wealth and are going to feel entitled to an explanation," he wrote Scott. "To give a distinct and definite one would be, of course, utterly absurd." Max went on:
You might here and there interpolate some phrases, and possibly incidents, little touches of various kinds, that would suggest that he was in some active way mysteriously engaged. You do have him called on the telephone, but couldn't he be seen once or twice consulting with people at his parties with people of some sort of mysterious significance, from the political, the gambling, the sporting world, or whatever it might be. I know I am floundering, but that fact may help you to see what I mean. The total lack of an explanation through so large a part of the story does seem to me a defect:—or not of an explanation, but of the suggestion of an explanation. . . But if some sort of business activity of his were simply adumbrated [obscure, vaguely foreshadowed] . . .
Perkins could not help recalling Fitzgerald’s once telling him he was not a “natural writer.” “My God!” Max now exclaimed. “You have plainly mastered the craft, of course, but you needed far more than craftsmanship for this.”
“Your wire and your letters made me feel like a million dollars,” Scott replied from Rome. Fitzgerald said that he would rather have Max like his book than anyone he knew; and he thought that all the editor’s criticisms were valid.