When Publishing F. Scott Fitzgerald is the Family Business
Charles Scribner III on Three Generations in the Book Business
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life and career bounced between success and setbacks like the alternating current of major and minor keys in a Mozart symphony. He was born in 1896, the brink of a new century. Just as his life bridged two centuries, so does his work have a Janus-like aspect, looking back to the Romantic lyricism and epic dreams of nineteenth-century America and forward to the syncopated jazz of the twentieth. “My whole theory of writing,” he said, “I can sum up 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.”
How magnificently, if posthumously, he fulfilled that ideal. His fleeting literary fortunes—a dozen years of commercial and literary success followed by distractions and disappointments—ended in 1940 with a fatal heart attack at the age of forty-four. He was then hard at work on The Last Tycoon, the Hollywood novel he hoped would restore his faded reputation. At the time of his death his books were not, as is so often claimed, out of print with Scribners, his publisher. The truth is even sadder: They were all in stock at our warehouse and listed in our catalog, but no one was buying them.
When Fitzgerald’s daughter, Scottie, first approached the Princeton University Library and offered to donate her late father’s papers she was turned down. It couldn’t be the repository, the librarian said, for every failed alumnus author’s papers. Fortunately she gave them a second chance, several years later, to reconsider.
Today those archives are the most avidly consulted holdings of the library by scholars who come there, as if on pilgrimage, from all over the world. More copies of Fitzgerald’s books are now sold each fortnight than the entire cumulative sale in his lifetime. His novels and stories are studied in high schools and colleges across the country—indeed around the world.
I was the fourth Charles to be involved in publishing his works ever since my great-grandfather signed him up at the prodding of his young editor of genius Max Perkins in 1919. But three generations and namesakes later (ours is a redundant family) I am struck by the realization that mine was the first generation—of no doubt as many to come—to have been introduced to this author’s work in a classroom.
My grandfather, Fitzgerald’s contemporary and friend as well as publisher, died on the eve of the critical reappraisal and the ensuing revival of his works that gained momentum in the 1950s and has continued in full force down to the present. It was my father who presided over that literary apotheosis unprecedented in American letters.
There is something magical about Fitzgerald. Much has been written—and dramatized—about the Jazz Age personas of Scott and Zelda. But the real magic lies embedded in the prose, and reveals itself in his amazing range and versatility. Each novel or story partakes of its creator’s poetic imagination, his dramatic vision, his painstaking (if virtuoso and seemingly effortless) craftsmanship. Each bears Fitzgerald’s hallmark: the indelible stamp of grace. He is my literary candidate to stand beside the demigods Bernini, Rubens, and Mozart as artists of divine transfigurations.
The key to Fitzgerald’s enduring enchantment lies, I submit, in the power of his romantic imagination to transfigure his characters and settings—as well as in the very shape and sound of his prose. There is a sacramental quality, one that did not wane along with formal observance of his Roman Catholic faith. I say “sacramental” because Fitzgerald’s words transform their external geography as thoroughly as the realm within. The ultimate effect, once the initial reverberations of imagery and language have subsided, transcends the bounds of fiction. I can testify from firsthand experience.At the time of his death his books were not, as is so often claimed, out of print with Scribners, his publisher. The truth is even sadder: They were all in stock at our warehouse and listed in our catalog, but no one was buying them.
From his earliest days, Scott wanted nothing more than to be a writer: “The first help I ever had in writing was from my father, who read an utterly imitative Sherlock Holmes story of mine and pretended to like it.” It was his first appearance in print, at age thirteen. Here’s the chilling dénouement (which proves that writers are made, not born):
“I forgot Mrs. Raymond,” screamed Syrel, “where is she?”
“She is out of your power forever,” said the young man.
Syrel brushed past him and, with Smidy and I following, burst open the door of the room at the head of the stairs. We rushed in. On the floor lay a woman, and as soon as I touched her heart I knew she was beyond the doctor’s skill.
“She has taken poison,” I said. Syrel looked around; the young man had gone. And we stood there aghast in the presence of death.
No surprise that he next took to writing plays, one a summer, for a local dramatics group. At Princeton, he wrote musical comedies for the Triangle Club before he flunked out (chemistry was the culprit), joined the army, and wrote his first novel, This Side of Paradise, which was eventually adapted to the stage as a musical under the title The Underclassman.
“Start out with an individual and you find that you have created a type—start out with a type and you find that you have created nothing.” Fitzgerald started out with himself—a good choice. “A writer wastes nothing,” he said, and he proved it by mining his early years at St. Paul and Princeton to forge his early stories, poems, and dramatic skits into that witty autobiographical novel that launched his fame.
Fitzgerald’s first novel was turned down twice by my great-grandfather. But he refused to give up. Years later writing to his daughter, Fitzgerald offered the following advice: “Don’t be a bit discouraged about your story not being tops. . . . Nobody became a writer just by wanting to be one. If you have anything to say, anything you feel nobody has ever said before, you have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before.”
A couple of years later, he added some more technical advice: “All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move.” Unlike his brisk prose, I did not move; I stayed on at Princeton for two more degrees, leaving the university only when there were no more to be had, but not before I had the pleasure of teaching undergraduates. Since my field was art history, the next transition—into the family publishing business—was abrupt, but once again facilitated by Fitzgerald.
Ensconced at Max Perkins’s old desk at Scribners (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 too true to be good: the play had opened—and closed—in 1922 at Nixon’s Apollo Theater in Atlantic City.
My post-Watergate project not only justified repeated revisits to the Princeton University Library for research in the Scribner and Fitzgerald archives—the mecca for Fitzgerald scholars—but, more important, brought me into a happy working relationship with his daughter, Scottie. The play was republished during the election year of 1976 and featured as a presidential address a confection of mixed metaphors.
Fitzgerald considered his year and a half spent 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—The Great Gatsby. Both The Vegetable and Gatsby shared the theme of the American Dream (first as a spoof for a comedy, finally as the leitmotif of a lyric novel). I don’t think there has ever been a more elusive, mysterious, intriguing character than Gatsby. He’s pure fiction—and pure Fitzgerald: the hopeful, romantic outsider looking in.
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. 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. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
Who cares how James Gatz became Jay Gatsby, bootlegger or worse? Who would not want to be in such a presence? But it was years later when I met President Clinton that those sentences came to life and recorded my experience of mortal, if presidential, charisma that I could never have imagined outside the bounds of fiction. Clinton made Gatsby real. Or perhaps Gatsby prefigured Clinton?
Fitzgerald wanted his book to be a “consciously artistic achievement. . . . I want to write something new—something extraordinary and beautiful and simple + intricately patterned”— and he succeeded in spades. He later said that what he cut out of it, “both physically and emotionally, would make another novel.”
In his first letter to Perkins—summer of 1922—about his “new” novel, Fitzgerald wrote that it would “concern less superlative beauties than I run to usually” and “would center on a smaller period of time.” He was to change the period and locale as he began writing (it was originally set in the Midwest and New York around 1885), but he never abandoned his determination to limit the time frame and thus give a sharper focus to his plot and characters than he had done in his earlier two novels.
And this, I believe, was the result of his failed attempt at being a Broadway playwright. The special demands imposed by a play—a short work defined by acts and scenes, limited in time and setting—proved an ideal exercise in literary craftsmanship, which the young novelist sharpened through the long series of revisions while the play was in rehearsal.
From Fitzgerald’s long lost first draft of 1923 only a fragment survives in the form of the short story “Absolution” and two handwritten pages I discovered over four decades ago in a rare bookshop here in New York. They reveal that Fitzgerald had already settled on the essential plot and locale of the final version, but the story was told in the third person. The next year he wrote to Perkins that he was now working on a “new angle.” I’m sure he meant through the eyes of his inspired narrator Nick Carraway. (It’s worth streaming the famous Robert Redford film just to hear Sam Waterston tell the story—a generation before his fame in Law & Order.)
While writing an introduction to a new 1979 paperback edition of Gatsby, I decided to revive the original jacket—it is now an icon of the Jazz Age. Twenty years later it was enlarged, at my suggestion, into a huge poster for John Harbison’s opera The Great Gatsby at the Met. When Matthew Bruccoli discovered Cugat’s preliminary sketches for the Gatsby dust jacket in a country shop, serendipity allowed me at last to merge art history and literature. I’m a Gemini. For this once, thanks to Fitzgerald, my dual careers came into sync.
Francis Cugat is not a household name. Born in Spain on my birthday in 1893, he died in Connecticut on my dad’s birthday in 1981. He was a set designer for Douglas Fairbanks in Hollywood and decades later a consultant to Technicolor on films including The Quiet Man and The Cain Mutiny. He is better known as the brother of bandleader Xavier Cugat. He designed only one jacket for Scribners, and did not continue in that line of work. Yet his painting is the most celebrated—and widely disseminated— jacket art in twentieth-century American literature, and perhaps of all time.
After decades of oblivion, and several million copies later, like the novel it embellishes, this Art Deco tour de force has established itself as a classic of graphic art. At the same time, it represents a unique form of “collaboration” between author and jacket artist. Under normal circumstances, the artist illustrates a scene or motif conceived by the author; he lifts, as it were, his image from a page of the book. In this instance, however, the artist’s image preceded the finished manuscript and Fitzgerald actually maintained that he had “written it into” his book.
Cugat’s small masterpiece is not illustrative, but symbolic, iconic. The sad, hypnotic, heavily outlined eyes of a woman beam like headlights through a cobalt night sky. Below, on earth, brightly colored lights blaze before a metropolitan skyline. Cugat’s carnival imagery is especially intriguing in view of Fitzgerald’s pervasive use of light motifs throughout his novel, specifically in metaphors for the latter-day Trimalchio, whose parties were illuminated by “enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden.” Nick sees “the whole corner of the peninsula . . . blazing with light” from Gatsby’s house, “lit from tower to cellar.” When he tells Gatsby that his place “looks like the World’s Fair,” Gatsby proposes that they “go to Coney Island.”
Fitzgerald had already introduced this symbolism in his story “Absolution,” originally intended as a prologue to the novel. At the end of the story, a priest encourages the boy who eventually developed into Jay Gatsby to go see an amusement park, “a thing like a fair only much more glittering” with “a big wheel made of lights turning in the air.” But “don’t get too close,” he cautions, “because if you do you’ll only feel the heat and the sweat and the life.”
Daisy’s face, says Nick, was “sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth.” In Cugat’s final painting, 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. What Fitzgerald drew directly from Cugat’s art and “wrote into” the novel must ultimately remain an open question, though I believe the best candidate is not the famous billboard eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg but rather Nick’s image of Daisy, at the end of chapter 4, as “the girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs” of New York at night.
The reflected lights and ghosts of Gatsby—whether votive or festive—still transfigure Gatsby’s Island, where my family and I were transplanted in the mid-1980s after several generations on the mainland side of the Hudson River. From our new vantage point, I cannot look out over the sound without smiling at Fitzgerald’s description: “the most domesticated body of saltwater in the western hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound.”
There is no longer a dock at the beach in Lattingtown, and, as the crow flies, we are in fact several miles east of East Egg. But occasionally I catch a glimpse of a green light reflected in the water, and each time I drive through the Valley of Ashes (now the site of the Citi Field stadium) and approach the twinkling Manhattan skyline, I feel very much at home. The novel has made me a native.
One wise college professor told us that the ultimate function of art is to reconcile us to life. Fitzgerald’s prose is life enhancing; its evocative power endures. That is why I have no doubt he should be beaming still—from the other side of Paradise.
Excerpted from Scribners: Five Generations in Publishing by Charles Scribner III. Copyright © 2023. Available from Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot, a division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.