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Fitzgerald’s ‘Radiant World’

The case with the story called “Winter Dreams” is stronger. Stylistically, it is fully on a level with Gatsby—well, almost—and it displays the same control of material. Young Dexter Green is a middle-class boy who works for pocket money each summer as a caddy on the local golf course, and each winter, in the fierce Minnesota cold, roams the frozen fields, imagining himself in scenes of local and imperial glory, swinging his arms to bring armies onto the field. He, or perhaps the authorial voice, has an ability to quicken both kinds of landscape into quiet, lyrical life. One day, this glory is entered by a girl, Judy Jones, a rich man’s daughter, flirtatious, perhaps wanton, desirable, fickle, self-obsessed. And by a subtle alchemy, she comes at first to dwell with the glory of wealth, then to embody, at last to replace it in Dexter’s increasingly eroticized imagination. He imagines the splendors of her mansion’s floor of bedrooms, in words which Fitzgerald (ever a thrifty husbandman of his own prose) moved bodily into an equivalent scene in Gatsby.

As Dexter enters manhood, the complex dream in which Judy and her world of social grandeur and illimitability remains with him, while he takes steps to transcend his own limited life, persuading his father to send him east to the Ivy League, where, with a subtle blend of dream and hard-headedness, he acquires the clothes and the mannerisms of Judy’s class, while realizing that he can never himself fully enter it. “His mother’s name had been Krimslich. She was a Bohemian of the peasant class and she had spoken broken English to the end of her days.” As Fitzgerald tells us, Dexter was at bottom a practical man, and he becomes rich by a touchingly imaginative blend of dream and reality, building up a chain of dry-cleaning and laundry shops, specializing in the proper treatment of the imported tweeds of upper-class men and the delicate French lingerie of the wives. At last, years later and by chance, after he is established in a New York skyscraper, he learns that Judy is married now, with a thick and unfeeling husband, tied down with the children. And she has lost her looks.

Winter Dreams” is a kind of rough sketch for the novel which Fitzgerald did not yet know he wanted to write. It is more rooted in social reality than Gatsby would be, and for that reason it has problems that Gatsby does not have, but also, as we shall see, it avoids problems that would in Gatsby loom formidably. We don’t know what Dexter did in the war, beyond learning that, like Gatsby, he “went into the first officers’ training camp.” It is most doubtful though, if, like Major Jay Gatsby, he had held off the enemy for two nights with a hundred and thirty men and sixteen Lewis guns, winning a decoration from every government, even little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea. That sounds more like his adolescent imaginings on the frozen fairways. But then it is even harder to imagine Jay Gatsby as the proprietor of a dry-cleaning shop in Black Bear.

Long ago,” Dexter says at the story’s close, “long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.” Like Gatsby, he has lived too long with a single dream, and when it shattered, he entered, as Gatsby would, a community of loss, “material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about.”

2.

Fitzgerald completed The Great Gatsby in the villa at St. Raphaël, had the typing completed, and sent it off to Perkins at the end of October. Soon after, Scott and Zelda drove to Rome, apparently because Zelda had been reading Roderick Hudson but perhaps also because the Riviera held complex and troubling memories for her. They settled into a hotel in the Piazza di Spagna, perhaps because it held associations with the dying Keats, whom Scott worshiped this side idolatry, but came swiftly to loathe the city and its inhabitants. “Pope Siphilis the Sixth and his Morons,” muttered the ex-Catholic, whom scholars tell us retained to the end something called “a Catholic sensibility.” He got drunk and was beaten up by the police.

On December 6 and 30, the galley proofs arrived from New York, and he set to work on his revisions. This may seem an odd way of proceeding, but in those primitive days of publishing, Scribners was in the fortunate position of owning its own printing plant, on West 43rd Street, close to its Fifth Avenue editorial offices. Perkins’s decision to have Fitzgerald’s novel set immediately into type presumes that he did not expect extensive revisions, and he was in any case following his customary practice: Fitzgerald’s earlier books were treated similarly, as Hemingway’s would be. More astonishingly, he “had the novels of Thomas Wolfe typeset before he and Wolfe got down to serious work on them.” Letterpress composition, back then, we are told, would not have cost much more than having a stenographer make a typescript.

We are now in the fortunate position of having available to us, and in two forms, the text as Perkins had it set into type, both of them bearing the word Trimalchio as title.2 This is the title which Fitzgerald was insisting on at the time, and it is the running head on the galleys. The first is a facsimile publication of the proofs themselves, limited to five hundred numbered copies on laid paper, resting handsomely and snugly in a box of royal blue, with more or less the proportions, although of course not the size, of a coffin. There is an afterword by Professor Matthew Bruccoli, the dean of Fitzgerald scholars, to whose work on Fitzgerald and other writers of the period we are all of us in debt. His is the one biography which can be said to supercede Mizener’s, although its title, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, may suggest that his admiration sometimes surges over the top.3 We also have Professor James West’s Trimalchio, described by Cambridge University Press as “An Early Version of The Great Gatsby.” It is a bound volume, one in the Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it is therefore easier to use than the reproduced galleys, although much less fun.

Unless you are a scholar of bibliography, which is not a fun profession, there are two reasons which make instructive a comparison of Trimalchio and The Great Gatsby. Cambridge tells us that reading the “early and complete version” is like listening to a familiar musical composition—but played in a different key and with an alternate bridge passage. It is the same work and yet a different work.” I myself am tone-deaf, unfortunately, but this seems fair enough: maybe a bridge passage is like a transition, at which Fitzgerald, as we shall see, was a master.

In the years that had followed his first publications, Fitzgerald had become a thoroughgoing professional, and the way in which he managed a major revision simply (!) by moving materials from various chapters to other chapters, on the galleys, is breathtaking, and he did it without diminishing, but rather intensifying the required moods and tonalities. He did it in two months, while turning out potboilers to cover expenses—they were broke again—and getting into more mischief with the Romans. Most of the revisions were addressed to a specific problem, which Perkins had raised with him, but there was another, more fundamental problem, which he could not quite define, not even in a well-known letter to Wilson, who had written to congratulate him:

The worst fault in it I think is a BIG FAULT: I gave no account (and had no feeling about or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Gatsby and Daisy from the time of their reunion to the catastrophe. However, the lack is so astutely concealed by the retrospect of Gatsby’s past and by blankets of excellent prose that no one has noticed it—though everyone has felt the lack and called it by another name.

And that is what everyone did. Mencken “said that the only fault was that the central story was trivial and a kind of anecdote (that is because he has admiration for Conrad and adjusted himself to the sprawling novel) and I felt that what he really missed was the lack of any emotional backbone at the height of it.” As for the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.

When Perkins read the typescript of—let us call it Trimalchio—he was shaken. “I think the novel is a wonder,” he wrote back. “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.”

The novel has rarely had a better reader, so generous yet judicious as to restore what may be a waning awe for Perkins as a great editor. His remarks focus precisely upon the book’s method and the scenes which are the most memorable and signifying. They deserve quotation at length:

You adopted exactly the right method of telling it, that of employing a narrator who is more of a spectator than an actor: this puts the reader upon a point of observation on a higher level than that on which the characters stand and at a distance that gives perspective. In no other way could your irony have been so immensely effective, nor the reader have been enabled so strongly to feel at times the strangeness of human circumstances in a vast heedless universe. In the eyes of Dr. Eckleberg various readers will see different significances; but their presence gives a superb touch to the whole thing: great unblinking eyes, expressionless, looking down on the human scene. It’s magnificent!

…I have only two actual criticisms:—

One is that 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. 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…. The other point is also about Gatsby: his career must remain mysterious, of course. But at the end you make it clear that his wealth comes through his connection with Wolfsheim…. 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…. There is one other point: in giving deliberately Gatsby’s biography when he gives it to the narrator you do depart from the method of the narrative to some degree, for otherwise almost everything is told, and beautifully told, in the regular flow of it—in the succession of events or in accompaniment with them….

The presentation of Tom, his place, Daisy and Jordan, and the unfolding of their characters is unequalled so far as I know. The description of the valley of ashes adjacent to the lovely country, the conversation and the action in Myrtle’s apartment, the marvellous catalogue of those who came to Gatsby’s house,—these are such things as make a man famous. And all these things, the whole pathetic episode, you have given a place in time and space, for with the help of T.J. Eckleberg and by an occasional glance at the sky, or the sea, or the city, you have imparted a sort of sense of eternity. You once told me that you were not a natural writer—my God! You have plainly mastered the craft, of course; but you needed far more than craftsmanship for this.

  1. 2

    In the Satyricon by Petronius, Trimalchio is a vulgar and rich ex-slave who gives gaudy banquets to derisive guests. Gatsby scholars who specialize in clocks (and there are some: Time and all that) should note Trimalchio’s water-clock.

  2. 3

    Harcourt Brace, 1981.

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