BY GRACE MCQUADE
“Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind. It forces you to stretch your own… there’s no substitute for one human mind meeting another on the page of a well-written book.”
Those were the eloquent words Charles Scribner III shared while referencing his late father at the start of a talk he recently gave at the Nassau County Museum of Art, one of many inspired events the museum is hosting this season to coincide with the exhibit, Anything Goes: The Jazz Age.
The name Scribner has graced bookshelves for more than a century and a half. Since its founding in 1846, the publishing company, known for many years as Charles Scribner’s Sons, has introduced the works of literary icons including Hemingway, Wharton, Wolfe, and Vonnegut, as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald, the subject Scribner’s lecture.
In his introduction, Museum Director Charles Riley called this fourth generation Scribner and Princeton graduate “a speaker of another time… of a better time.”
That proved true as Scribner delivered an artfully composed talk about Fitzgerald and his close connection to the author who masterfully depicted the magical era in which he lived.
“Fitzgerald’s life and career bounced between success and setbacks like the alternating current of major and minor keys in a Mozart symphony,” Scribner said.
Born in 1896 on the cusp of a new century, Scribner described Fitzgerald’s work as reflecting both “the romantic dreams and lyricism of 19th century America” and “the syncopated jazz of the 20th.”
“From his earliest days, Scott wanted nothing more than to be a writer,” said Scribner. He saw his first mystery in print at the age of 13, and wrote musical comedies for Princeton University’s theatre troupe, the Triangle Club, before flunking out. “Chemistry was the culprit,” Scribner revealed.
So Fitzgerald joined the army and wrote his first novel, “This Side of Paradise,” his youthful ode to Princeton, infusing “the greenery and gothic spires with a spirit, with a soul, with life,” Scribner said.
Scribner’s great-grandfather turned the book down twice, but after several revisions he signed Fitzgerald up in 1919 under the guidance of the talented young editor, Maxwell Perkins. The book was published the following year and was a literary success.
Scribner recalls the first time he read this novel when he was a freshman at Princeton in 1969. Not fond of the “big impersonal place” compared to his boarding school, he said, “Well, for me it was not love at first sight,” referring to his early days at the university, “but thanks to Fitzgerald it was love at first reading.”
During his sophomore year, Scribner read Fitzgerald’s short story, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” saying, “… when I first encountered that literary jewel … it was an evening train ride from Princeton to Philadelphia and that commute was converted into a fantastic voyage fueled, I have to confess, by a little pewter flask I brought along.”
Upon earning degrees in art history and transitioning into the family business, Scribner said that Fitzgerald continued to inspire his life when he started out as a fledgling editor.
“Ensconced at Max Perkins’ old desk at Scribner’s, which I was given because the senior editor complained that it ran her stockings, I dreamed up as my first book project in 1975 a revival of Fitzgerald’s obscure and star-crossed play ‘The Vegetable, or From President to Postman,’ which featured a presidential impeachment.”
Ironically, the play opened at Nixon’s Apollo Theatre in Atlantic City. Unfortunately for Fitzgerald, it quickly closed. Scribner said the following about the supposed failure, “Fitzgerald considered his year and a half on ‘The Vegetable’ a complete waste, but I disagree for he followed it with a new novel written with all the economy and tight structure of a successful play.”
This book was “The Great Gatsby,” the bittersweet story of a newly minted millionaire desperate for a love he can no longer have.
“Both ‘The Vegetable’ and ‘Gatsby’ shared the theme of the American dream, first as a spoof for a comedy, then a light motif for a lyric novel,” Scribner said.
Fitzgerald shared the idea for his new novel with Perkins in 1922. “I want to write something new, something extraordinary, and beautiful, and simple, and intricately patterned,” Scribner quoted Fitzgerald saying.
“He succeeded in spades,” Scribner said, but not without a number of changes to the manuscript on its road to publication.
The novel many have come to associate with the North Shore of Long Island during the Roaring Twenties was actually originally set in the Midwest and New York around 1885, Scribner said. The setting may have changed when Fitzgerald began to write the first draft in 1923 in the house he and his wife Zelda were renting at the time in Great Neck.
The following year, Fitzgerald wrote to Perkins that he was working on a new angle in Gatsby’s story. “I think he meant by that through the eyes of that inspiring narrator Nick Carraway,” Scribner said.
Then seven months before publication, Perkins commissioned the artist Francis Cugat to design the book cover. The initial sketches included images of the Long Island Railroad, faces like balloons in the sky, and carnival lights, which Scribner said most likely influenced Fitzgerald’s pervasive use of light throughout the novel, specifically Carraway’s descriptions of Gatsby’s place lit up like the World’s Fair and Daisy Buchanan’s “bright eyes.”
“In Cugat’s final picture,” Scribner says, “we see her celestial eyes enclose reclining nudes and her streaming tear is green like the light that burns all night at the end of her dock reflected in the water of the sound that separates her from Gatsby.”
The original artwork of this iconic image is the showpiece of The Jazz Age exhibit that Scribner calls “imaginative.”
Despite his story’s evolution, Scribner said that “Fitzgerald never abandoned his determination to limit the timeframe, giving sharper focus to the plot and characters than he’d done in his two earlier novels.”
The novel’s title, however, was the subject of frequent debate, going from “Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires,” to “Trimalchio in West Egg” after Fitzgerald’s sojourn in Rome in the fall of 1924, to “Under the Red, White and Blue” when he was in Paris a mere three weeks before publication date.
Too late to make the change, Perkins’ favorite title, which he said was “effective and suggestive,” was restored, and “The Great Gatsby” was published on April 10, 1925.
“The reviews were mixed,” Scribner said. The New York World called the book “a dud.” The renowned critic H.L. Mencken thought the story was inferior, but said “there are pages so artfully contrived that one can no more imagine improvising them than one can imagine improvising a Bach fugue.”
In its first year of publication, “Gatsby” didn’t achieve the commercial success of his first two novels, “This Side of Paradise” and “The Beautiful and the Damned.”
And in the years to come, time wasn’t on Fitzgerald’s side. The Jazz Age soon ushered in the Great Depression, and the party times led to bread lines, Scribner said, making Fitzgerald’s story filled with flappers and lavish galas “politically incorrect.”
“His fleeting literary fortunes, a dozen years of commercial success followed by distractions and disappointments… it all ended in 1940 with a fatal heart attack at the age of 44,” Scribner said. “He was then hard at work on ‘The Last Tycoon,’ the Hollywood novel he hoped would restore his reputation.”
Through the years, the Scribner sons each did their part to support Fitzgerald and his literature. Scribner’s grandfather not only published Fitzgerald, he was his contemporary and close friend. Scribner’s father oversaw a resurgence of interest in Fitzgerald in the 1950s when the country was booming again. And Scribner not only reissued Fitzgerald works decades later, he also revived the original “Gatsby” book cover, one of the most celebrated pieces of art in American literature now on display in Roslyn.
Today, the places made famous by Fitzgerald are much different, says Scribner. The Valley of Ashes that he so vividly described in “Gatsby” is Citi Field. The house on Manhasset Bay in Sands Point that is believed to be the model for the Buchanans’ estate has been torn down. And Riley, in his opening remarks, lamented that Scribner’s historic office building on Fifth Avenue is now a Lululemon.
What hasn’t changed, however, since the middle part of the last century is the continued fascination in Fitzgerald. “More copies of Fitzgerald books are now sold every fortnight than the entire cumulative sales of his lifetime,” Scribner said, and his books are widely translated in many languages.
Princeton University Library’s archives of Fitzgerald’s papers, once turned down, are the most widely consulted holdings by scholars from across the globe.
There have been five big screen adaptations of “The Great Gatsby” from the 1926 silent film to the 2013 rap-rock opera starring Leonardo DiCaprio, although Scribner’s favorite is the lesser-known BBC/A&E version featuring Toby Stephens, the son of “Downton Abbey’s” Maggie Smith.
And Fitzgerald’s novels and stories are still studied in high schools and colleges around the world.
For Scribner, the key to Fitzgerald’s enduring enchantment “lies in the power of his romantic imagination to transfigure his characters and settings, as well as the very shape and sound of his prose… the ultimate effect, once the initial reverberation of imagery and language have subsided, transcends the bounds of fiction,” he says.
Fitzgerald summed up his own theory of writing in one sentence: “An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.”
So perhaps Fitzgerald’s lasting legacy lies with young readers of today and tomorrow.
While teaching a freshman class at New York University several years ago, Scribner discussed what makes a classic novel and asked the class if they thought “The Great Gatsby” was overrated.
One student raised his hand and said yes because his idea of a classic was a long, 600-page saga like “Gone with the Wind.”
When Scribner proceeded to ask the student what he thought Fitzgerald was missing to prevent “Gatsby” from being included in this category, he responded, “Well, you know, he left out those long boring sections you have to read through before you get to the next moment.”
“So that’s a classic,” Scribner said… as we look hopefully into the future.
For more information about The Jazz Age exhibit, which will be on view through July 8, and upcoming events at the Nassau County Museum of Art, go to www.nassaumuseum.org.