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Posts Tagged ‘The Great Gatsby’

The first time I saw the Eiffel Tower, I stopped in my tracks, astounded. It’s so BIG! For some reason, in my mind, it stood much smaller over Paris. But walking toward it, seeing it close up, standing under it and looking up, the thing is massive. Thousands upon thousands of pieces of iron — each had been perfectly cut and angled, then riveted together in a lacy pattern. When it was completed in 1889, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world at the time. At 984 feet, it nearly doubled the up-until-then tallest structure, the 555-foot tall Washington Monument (which opened in 1888).

Paris

That’s me on the left in my awesome wide 1970s pants, my mom, and my little sister in front of the Eiffel Tower circa 1974.

I’m currently reading a book titled Eiffel’s Tower (Jill Jonnes, Penguin, 2009) about the building of the tower, which went up iron piece by iron piece during 1887 through 1889 as the focal point for the Exposition Universelle, the World’s Fair in 1889.

But as it was ascending — the four legs at the base going up separately and slowly uniting at the first platform — Parisians were not too fond of it. They feared that it would draw lightning, change the weather, or fall over (indeed, without the intensive and minute calculations of Gustave Eiffel, it well may have). Many tried to stop it. A letter signed by several important Parisians said this (with a slight insult to America):

For the Eiffel Tower, which even commercial America would not have, is without a doubt the dishonor of Paris. Everyone feels it, everyone says it, everyone is profoundly saddened by it, and we are only a weak echo of public opinion so legitimately alarmed. When foreigners visit our Exposition, they will cry out in astonishment, “Is it this horror that the French have created to give us an idea of their vaunted taste?” . . . And for the next twenty years we will see cast over the entire city, still trembling with the genius of so many centuries, cast like a spot of ink, the odious shadow of the odious column of bolted metal. (27)

Ouch.

It was supposed to be temporary, the tower; then it was given a reprieve to stand for twenty years. And that was in 1889. Clearly, the tower has come to symbolize Paris itself and, if the plethora of Eiffel Towers on everything from lamps to stationery to jewelry is any indication, it has become a well-loved icon. (I have little Eiffel Towers everywhere. Ahem.)

The point is that Gustave Eiffel kept building. He believed in his structure; he saw the beauty when those watching its slow ascent across the Parisian skyline couldn’t see it.

Thinking of nay-sayers, I’m reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald. When The Great Gatsby hit fitzgeraldthe shelves in April 1925, a review of the book in the St. Louis Dispatch said, “Altogether it seems to us this book is a minor performance. At the moment, its author seems a bit bored and tired and cynical. There is no ebullience here, nor is there any mellowness or profundity. For our part, The Great Gatsby might just as well be called Ten Nights on Long Island” (Reach).

In June of 1925, the author Edith Wharton weighed in, fancying herself a better editor than Maxwell Perkins: “To make Gatsby really Great, you ought to have given us his early career (not from the cradle—but from his visit to the yacht, if not before) instead of a short resume of it. That would have situated him & made his final tragedy a tragedy instead of a fait divers for the morning papers” (Reach).

By the time Fitzgerald died in 1940, he had made a little over thirteen dollars in royalties on the book.

But like the Eiffel Tower, The Great Gatsby has become an icon to later generations.

The point? Don’t give up on what you’re doing — your book, that poem, the painting, whatever creation is before you. Don’t worry about the nay-sayers. If you believe in it, if you’re doing what you perceive is your best work, then just keep on doing it.

You just never know what will happen.

Jonnes, Jill. (2009.) Eiffel’s Tower. New York: Penguin.
Reach, Kirsten. “Ten Nights on Long Island: The Great Gatsby’s Early Reviews,” 9 May 2013, mhpbooks.com/ten-nights-on-long-island-the-great-gatsbys-early-reviews/. Accessed 24 Jan. 2017.

 

 

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As I noted in last week’s post, I want to talk about the role editors play–and how vitally important they are. We can thank Maxwell Perkins for believing in F. Scott Fitzgerald and helping get his debut novel published. In his book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, A. Scott Berg describes the relationship between Perkins and Fitzgerald and quotes some of the correspondence back and forth as Fitzgerald worked on his novels.

After the great commercial success of This Side of Paradise, the publisher was ready and willing for more (funny how that works . . . ). Fitzgerald wrote short stories and another book for Scribner’s, and eventually he told Perkins about his next project, a book titled Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires. Perkins didn’t like the title. Fitzgerald had thrown out several other ideas, and The Great Gatsby was one, but Fitzgerald preferred Trimalchio in West Egg.

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

When the manuscript finally landed on Perkin’s desk, Fitzgerald sent a letter explaining that he wanted his latest title, but he wasn’t altogether happy with the middle of the book. “Do tell me the absolute truth, your first impression of the book, & tell me anything that bothers you in it” (64). Perkins reported that he loved it, but “said he had several points of criticism, all of which stemmed from his dissatisfaction with the character of Gatsby himself” (65). Perkins felt that he could spot Tom Buchanan if he met him on the street, but Gatsby’s character was vague. Perkins suggested that Fitzgerald describe Gatsby as distinctly as he had described Tom and Daisy.

Perkins also understood that Gatsby’s past needed to maintain a certain air of mystery, but Perkins didn’t want to shortchange the readers. He suggested that Fitzgerald pepper in some phrases that would give the reader some clues, “The total lack of an explanation through so large a part of the story does seem to be a defect” (65). That caused a problem at the novel’s fulcrum–the scene in the Plaza Hotel. Tom calls Gatsby’s bluff, but it wasn’t effective because the reader didn’t know what the “bluff” was.

Perkins wrote to Fitzgerald, “I don’t know how to suggest a remedy. I hardly doubt you will find one and I am only writing to say that I think it does need something to hold up to the pace set, and ensuing.” Perkins was also concerned that the parts of Gatsby’s past that Fitzgerald did divulge were all dumped together in one spot. Perkins suggested, “I thought you 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,” although he added, “The general brilliant quality of the book makes me ashamed to make even these criticisms” (66).

Fitzgerald began his revisions–from the title page. He went back to the title Perkins had liked, The Great Gatsby. He responded to everything Max suggested. He broke up the block of information about Gatsby’s past and sprinkled the details into earlier chapters. He made Gatsby’s claim of his time at Oxford come up in several conversations. And one key change:

Again stimulated by something Perkins had said, Fitzgerald worked a small wonder with a certain habit of Gatsby’s. In the original manuscript Gatsby had called people “old man,” “old fellow,” and a number of other affected appellations. Now Fitzgerald seized upon the one Perkins had liked so much, adding it a dozen times, making it into a leitmotive. The phrase became so persistent a mannerism that in the Plaza Hotel scene it provoked Tom Buchanan into an outburst: “That’s a great expression of yours, isn’t it? All this ‘old sport’ business. Where’d you pick that up?” (69)

Through the process of writing, Perkins encouraged, advised, and offered suggestions, but always knew that the brilliance lay with the author. He simply wanted to make what was already great that much better. In the end, Fitzgerald wrote that it was Maxwell Perkins who helped him write a book he was proud of.

That’s what we editors do. We try to take what’s already brilliant and make it that much better. We hope we can help authors publish books that they, too, can be proud of.

You authors out there, have you worked with an outstanding editor? I’d love to know who that person is so we can all learn from the best!

 

 

 

 

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So as it turns out, if it weren’t for an editor, there might not have been The Great Gatsby.

Yay for editors!

I have decided that–while it’s terrific to review books and interview authors–I’m going to go a slightly different direction in my blog in the coming weeks. I’m going to study up on some great editors from the past, and I’m going to interview some great editors of the present.

Because, well, I’m an editor. I know what it takes to work in the salt mines of editing manuscripts to make the good–the great–that much better. I know what it means to study typeset pages until your eyes cross, making sure no typos slip through because I want the author to look good. I know what it means to be in the background and let the author have the credit (as it should be).

I just want to bring some of these people out of the shadows and learn from them and, in so doing, pass along some info to you, my readers, and to the students in my editing classes.

After my last post about teaching editing, Rich Adin (who writes the blog “An American Editor“) commented, “We can teach people to be editors like me; we cannot teach people to be an editor like Maxwell Perkins. Perkins had that rare gift that made him the Michelangelo of editing.” Thanks so much for that comment, Rich, because that sent me on a quest to learn from the best.

perkinsAnd that sent me to A. Scott Berg’s book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978).

Seriously, I’m so excited about what I’m reading I can barely stand it.

Maxwell Perkins (1884-1947) was the editor at Charles Scribner’s and Sons for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. The book is filled with quotes from correspondence between Perkins and these writers and anecdotes of how he worked with them–cajoling them, encouraging them, offering insight and advice on the big picture of each manuscript, and advocating for them at the meetings of the editorial board.

Mind officially blown.

No, I will never be Max Perkins–and, no, I cannot teach anyone to be Max Perkins. The next Max Perkinses will arise from folks with that internal “gift” that is, simply put, God-given.

But I want to learn from the best and pass along to my students what they, too, can learn from the best.

And for my students out there–I tell you this all the time–you probably won’t start out as full-fledged editors. Max didn’t even study literature or writing in college (Harvard); instead, he studied economics. But his real love was words, and it was a freshman English instructor who, as Berg puts it, “certainly . . . developed Max’s editorial instincts” (32). After graduation, Max went to work writing for The New York Times as the writer who hung around all night and picked up the “suicides, fires, and other nocturnal catastrophes” (33).

His first job at Charles Scribner’s and Sons was in the advertising department where he spent four and a half years before ascending to the hallowed fifth floor–the editorial floor.

And, students, guess what he did there . . .

He was a proofreader!

For the most part, Maxwell Perkins’s duties as an editor were limited to proofreading galleys–long printed sheets, each containing the equivalent of three book pages–and to other perfunctory chores. Occasionally he was called upon to correct the grammar in a gardening book or arrange the selections in school anthologies of classic short stories and translations of Chekhov. The work demanded little creativity. (12)

But then here’s what happened. A regular Scribner author named Shane Leslie became friends with a young author from Minnesota. Leslie sent this young author’s manuscript to the editors at Scribner. It got passed from editor to editor (no one liked it) until it ended up on Perkins’s desk. While he liked it, he was forced to write to the author and decline it (the lowly proofreading editor didn’t have much sway at first). But Perkins saw something in the young man’s writing, and the rejection letter held out some hope and encouragement to the young man who went to work revising and revising and revising.

The manuscript came back much improved, and Perkins went to work doing everything he could (and it was a lot) to get Scribner’s to publish it. At one tense editorial meeting, he said, “My feeling is that a publisher’s first allegiance is to talent. And if we aren’t going to publish talent like this, it is a very serious thing” (15-16).

The young author was F. Scott Fitzgerald. The book was This Side of Paradise (Scribner’s 1920).

What about The Great Gatsby? More on that next week.

Suffice it to say, Maxwell Perkins is my new editorial hero. And I’m his newest student.

 

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I have plenty to do to keep myself out of trouble this summer, what with fish to feed and gardens to weed and cats who keep having kittens and a research project to finish and a syllabus to write, not to mention the great time to be had at the Midwest Writers Workshop at the end of July.

But what is summertime about if not reading? I’ve been focused on the books I’m reading for my classes, and in the fall I’ll be up to my ears in Shakespeare and the English Romantics, so I’m enjoying this little window to choose my own reading. I got inspired by my summer intensive class where I read:

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

The Blithedale Romance–Nathanael Hawthorne
Their Eyes Were Watching God–Zora Neale Hurston
The Great Gatsby–F. Scott Fitzgerald
Frankenstein–Mary Shelley
The Awakening–Kate Chopin
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn–Mark Twain

I also reread Crime and Punishment (just for fun) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Now I have decided to devote this summer to revisiting some classics. Here’s what’s on my reading list for the remainder of the summer (so far):

Moby Dick

Moby Dick

Moby Dick–Herman Melville
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer–Mark Twain
The Scarlet Letter–Nathanael Hawthorne
The House of the Seven Gables–Nathanael Hawthorne
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man–James Joyce
Uncle Tom’s Cabin–Harriet Beecher Stowe
Walden–Henry David Thoreau

So what are some of your favorite classic books?

And how about a little challenge. . . . What if I asked you to tweet the classics?

Join me at #tweettheclassics on Twitter (@LindaEdits) and see if you can condense a classic work into about 100 characters (you need to save enough room to add the hashtag and at least some of the book title).

Here’s what I have so far:

In class, we talked about how Dr. Frankenstein (remember the creator is Frankenstein; the monster is not named) is so narcissistic, so self-absorbed, that he willingly lets the monster dash about the countryside killing people because he’s unwilling to deal with the consequences of his actions. In the end, Dr. Frankenstein is more like a monster than the monster himself.

Here’s another one:

Everyone was so willing to party for free at Gatsby’s house, but, despite Nick’s Carraway’s best efforts, “nobody came” to his funeral. Not even Daisy, the object of Gatsby’s obsession. You’d think she could have torn herself away for a few moments? You’d think that the obvious fact that Jay Gatsby took the bullet (literally) for her killing a woman might have softened her narcissistic little heart? But no.

Speaking of narcissists:

I had never read The Awakening before. Edna Pontellier is such a complex character, but I have to say I’m glad she isn’t in my circle of friends or family. Sure, she’s trying to be empowered. Sure, she’s trying to find herself. Sure, this was the timeframe when women didn’t have the opportunities that we take for granted (they couldn’t yet vote, for pete’s sake). But her self-centeredness grates on me.

So here’s my challenge to you. Can you tweet the classics? Either sum up the book in those few characters or tweet a favorite (short) line. Put the title of the book with a hashtag and “tweettheclassics” with a hashtag. I have a column on my Tweetdeck so I can see what we get! I’ll feature some in future blog posts. I’ll be adding more of my own as well.

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