The Craft of Revision: The Great Gatsby
Kenneth E. Eble

“With the aid you’ve given me,” Fitzgerald wrote Maxwell Perkins in December, 1924, “I can make Gatsby perfect.” (The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Andrew Turnbull (New York. 1963), p. 172.) Fitzgerald had sent the manuscript of the novel to Scribner’s in late October, but the novel achieved its final form only after extensive revisions Fitzgerald made in the next four months. The pencil draft and the much revised galley proofs now in the Fitzgerald collection at Princeton library show how thoroughly and expertly Fitzgerald practiced the craft of revision. (This study is based on an examination of the original pencil draft and the galley proofs in the Fitzgerald collection in the Princeton Library and subsequent work with a microfilm copy of this material. I am indebted to the University of Utah Research Fund for a grant which enabled me to study the materials at Princeton. to Alexander P. Clark, curator of manuscripts, for his indispensable help in making this material available, and to Mr. Ivan Von Auw and the Fitzgerald estate for permission to use this material.)


The pencil draft both reveals and masks Fitzgerald’s struggles. The manuscript affords a complete first version, but the pages are not numbered serially from beginning to end, nor are the chapters and sections of chapters all tied together. There are three segments (one a copy of a previous draft) designated “Chapter III,” two marked “Chapter VI.” The amount of revising varies widely from page to page and chapter to chapter; the beginning and end are comparatively clean, the middle most cluttered. Fitzgerald’s clear, regular hand, however, imposes its own sense of order throughout the text. For all the revisions, the script goes about its business with a straightness of line, a regularity of letter that approaches formal elegance. When he is striking out for the first time, the writing tends to be large, seldom exceeding eight words per line or twenty-five lines per page. When he is copying or reworking from a previous draft, the writing becomes compressed — but never crabbed- and gets half again as much on a page.

An admirer of Fitzgerald — of good writing, for that matter — reads the draft with a constant sense of personal involvement, a sensation of small satisfied longings as the right word gets fixed in . place, a feeling of strain when the draft version hasn’t yet found its perfection of phrase, and a nagging sense throughout of how precariously the writer dangles between the almost and the attained. “All good writing,” Fitzgerald wrote his daughter, “is swimming under water and holding your breath.” (The Crack-Up, p. 304.)

At the beginning of the draft, there appears to have been little gasping for air. There at the outset, virtually as published, is that fine set piece which establishes the tone of the novel with the creation of Nick Carraway and his heightened sense of the fundamental decencies. As one reads the first chapter, however, the satisfaction of seeing the right beginning firmly established soon changes to surprise. The last page of the novel — “gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world.” (All citations hereafter are from the Scribner Library edition of The Great Gatsby.) — was originally written as the conclusion of Chapter I. Some time before the draft went into the submission copy, Fitzgerald recognized that the passage was too good for a mere chapter ending, too definitive of the larger purposes of the book, to remain there. By the time the pencil draft was finished, that memorable paragraph had been put into its permanent place, had fixed the image of man holding his breath in the presence of the continent, “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

The three paragraphs which come immediately after, the last paragraphs of the novel, grew out of one long fluid sentence which was originally the final sentence of Chapter I in the draft: “And as I sat there brooding on the old unknown world I too held my breath and waited, until I could feel the motion of America as it turned through the hours — my own blue lawn and the tall incandescent city on the water and beyond that, the dark fields of the republic rolling on under the night.” Fitzgerald expanded this suggestion into a full paragraph, crossed out the first attempt, and then rewrote it into three paragraphs on the final page of the draft. There, almost as it appears in the novel, is the green light on Daisy’s dock (“green glimmer” in the draft), the orgiastic future (written “orgastic”), (Arthur Mizener points out that Fitzgerald corrected the spelling from “orgastic” to “orgiastic” in his own copy of the book (The Far Side of Paradise. Boston. 1951, p. 336, n. 22). Yet Fitzgerald’s letter to Maxwell Perkins, January 24, 1925. defends the original term: “’Orgastic’ is the adjective for ’orgasm’ and it expresses exactly the intended ecstasy. It’s not a bit dirty” (Letters, p. 175). The word appears as “orgiastic” in most editions of the novel, including the current Scribner’s printings.) and that ultimate sentence. “So we beat on, a boat [changed to „boats“] against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” So the draft ends, the last lines written in a “bold, swooping hand,” as Fitzgerald described Gatsby’s signature, a kind of autograph for the completed work.

The green light (there were originally two) came into the novel at the time of Daisy’s meeting with Gatsby. “If it wasn’t for the mist,” he tells her, “we could see your house across the bay. You always have two green lights that burn all night at the end of your dock.” Fitzgerald not only made the green light a central image of the final paragraph, but he went back to the end of the first chapter and added it there: “Involuntarily I glanced seaward — and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock” (pp. 21-22).


Throughout the pencil draft, Fitzgerald made numerous revisions which bring out his chief traits as a reviser: he seldom threw anything good away, and he fussed endlessly at getting right things in the right places. The two parties at Gatsby’s house, interesting as illustrations of Fitzgerald’s mastery of the “scenic method,” are equally interesting as examples of how he worked.

The purpose of the first party as it appears in the draft (Chapter 111 in the book) was chiefly that of creating the proper atmosphere. Though Gatsby makes his first appearance in this section, it is Gatsby’s world that most glitters before our eyes. The eight servants (there were only seven in the draft), the five crates (only three in the draft) of oranges and lemons, the caterers spreading the canvas, the musicians gathering, the Rolls-Royce carrying party-goers from the city, are the kind of atmospherics Fitzgerald could always do well. The party itself as it unfolds in the draft reveals a number of intentions that Fitzgerald abandoned as he saw the possibilities of making the party vital to the grander design of the novel.

Originally, whether from strong feelings or in response to his readers’ expectations, he took pains to bring out the wild and shocking lives being lived by many of Gatsby’s guests. Drug addiction was apparently commonplace, and even more sinister vices were hinted at. A good deal of undergraduate party chatter was also cut from the draft. What a reader of the novel now remembers is what Fitzgerald brought into sharp relief by cutting out the distracting embellishments. “The Jazz History of the World” by Vladimir Tostoff (it was “Leo Epstien” [sic] originally; Fitzgerald deleted a number of “Jewish” remarks from the draft) was described in full. When Fitzgerald saw the galleys he called the whole episode “rotten” and reduced the page-and-a-half description to a single clause: “The nature of Mr. Tostoff’s composition eluded me…” (p. 50). By the time the party scene had been cut and reworked, almost all that remained was the introduction of Gatsby’s physical presence into the novel and the splendid scene of Owl-Eyes in Gatsby’s high Gothic library.

Among the many excisions in this party scene, one seemed far too good to throw away. In the draft, it began when Jordan Baker exchanges a barbed remark with another girl;

“You’ve dyed your hair since then,” remarked Miss Baker and I started but the girls had moved casually on and were talking to an elaborate orchid of a woman who sat in state under a white plum tree.

“Do you see who that is?” demanded Jordan Baker interestly. [I use Fitzgerald’s spelling here and elsewhere in quoting from the draft.]

Suddenly I did see, with the peculiar unreal feeling which accompanies the recognition of a hitherto ghostly celebrity of the movies.

“The man with her is her director,” she continued. “He’s just been married.”

“To her?”


She laughed. The director was bending over his pupil so eagerly that his chin and her mettalic black hair were almost in juxtaposition. “1 hope he doesn’t slip,” she added. “And spoil her hair.” It was still twilight but there was already a moon, produced no doubt like the turkey and the salad out of a caterer’s basket. With her hard, slender golden arm drawn through mine we decended the steps. . . .

It is a fine scene, and the girl with the dyed hair, the moon, and the caterer’s basket can be found on page 43 of the novel, so smoothly joined together that no one could suspect, much less mourn, the disappearance of that “elaborate orchid” of a woman. But, of course, she did not disappear. The scene was merely transported to the second party where the actress defined the second party as Owl-Eyes defined the first:

“Perhaps you know that lady,” Gatsby indicated a gorgeous, scarely human orchid of a woman who sat in state under a white-plum tree. Tom and Daisy stared, with the particularly unreal feeling that accompanies the recognition of a hitherto ghostly celebrity of the movies.

“She’s lovely,” said Daisy.

“The man bending over her is her director.” (p. 106)

Two pages later, at the end of the second party, we see her again:

It was like that. Almost the last thing I remember was standing with Daisy and watching the moving-picture director and his Star. They were still under the white-plum tree and their faces were touching except for a pale, thin ray of moonlight between. It occurred to me that he had been very slowly bending toward her all evening to attain this proximity, and even while 1 watched I saw him stoop one ultimate degree and kiss at her cheek.

“I like her,” said Daisy. “I think she’s lovely.”

But the rest offended her… (p. 108)

One can almost see the writer’s mind in action here. The scene was first created, almost certainly, from the rightness of having a “ghostly celebrity of the movies” at the party. It first served merely as scenery and as a way of hinting at the moral laxity of Gatsby’s guests. The need to compress and focus probably brought Fitzgerald to consider cutting it out entirely though it was obviously too good to throw away. By that time, perhaps, the second party scene had been written, another possibility had been opened up. Maybe at once, maybe slowly, Fitzgerald recognized that the scene could be used to capture Daisy’s essential aloofness which was to defy even Gatsby’s ardor. It may well be that this developed and practiced ability to use everything for its maximum effect, to strike no note, so to speak, without anticipating all its vibrations, is what separates Fitzgerald’s work in The Great Gatsby from his earlier writing, what makes it seem such a leap from his first novels.

Among the many lessons Fitzgerald applied between the rough draft and the finished novel was that of cutting and setting his diamonds so that they caught up and cast back a multitude of lights. In so doing, he found it unnecessary to have an authorial voice gloss a scene. The brilliance floods in upon the reader; there is no necessity for Nick Carraway to say, as he did at one point in the pencil draft: “I told myself that I was studying it all like a philosopher, a sociologist, that there was a unity here that I could grasp after or would be able to grasp in a minute, a new facet, elemental and profound.” The distance Fitzgerald traveled from This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned to The Great Gatsby is in the rewriting of the novel. There the sociologist and philosopher were at last controlled and the writer assumed full command.


Rewriting was important to Fitzgerald because, like many other good writers, he had to see his material assume its form — not in the idea of a character or a situation — but in the way character and situation and all the rest got down on paper. Once set down, they began to shape everything else in the novel, began to raise the endless questions of emphasis, balance, direction, unity, impact.

The whole of Chapter II in the finished novel (Chapter III in the draft) is an illustration of how the material took on its final form. That chapter begins with Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes brooding over the ash heaps and culminates in the quarrel in Myrtle’s apartment where “making a short deft movement. Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand.” Arthur Mizener first pointed out that the powerful symbol introduced in this chapter — Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes — was the result of Fitzgerald’s seeing a dust jacket portraying Daisy’s eyes brooding over an amusement park world. “For Christ’s sake,” he wrote to Perkins, “don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.” (The Far Side of Paradise p. 170. The entire letter is to be found in Letters, pp. 165-167.) The pencil draft indicates that the chapter — marked Chapter III in the manuscript — was written at a different period of time from that of the earlier chapters. The consecutive numbering of the first sixty-two pages of the novel (the first two chapters) shows that for a long time Fitzgerald intended Chapter II as it now stands in the novel to be the third chapter.

In substance, the chapter remained much the same in the finished novel as it was in the draft. But, in addition to moving the chapter forward, Fitzgerald transposed to the next chapter a four-page section at the end describing Nick’s activities later in the summer. Summing up Nick’s character at the end of the third chapter gave more point to his concluding remark: “I am one of the few honest (”decent“in the draft) people that I have ever known” (p. 60). Bringing the Eckleburg chapter forward meant that the reader could never travel to or from Gatsby’s house without traversing the valley of ashes. And ending the second chapter where it now ends meant that the reader could never get to Gatsby’s blue gardens where “men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars” without waking up waiting for a four o’clock train in Penn Station.

But putting a brilliant chapter in place was only part of the task Fitzgerald could see needed to be done once the material was down on paper. Within that chapter, Fitzgerald’s pencil was busily doing its vital work. The substance was all there: Tom and Myrtle and Nick going up to New York, the buying of the dog, the drinking in the apartment, the vapid conversations between the McKees and sister Catherine and Myrtle, the final violence. But some little things were not. The gray old man with the basket of dogs did not look like John D. Rockefeller until Fitzgerald penciled it in between lines: the mongrel “undoubtedly had Airedale blood” until Fitzgerald made it “an Airedale concerned in it somewhere”; and finally, the pastoral image of Fifth Avenue on a summer Sunday — “I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a great flock of white sheep turn the corner” — this didn’t arrive until the galleys.


The appearances of Gatsby, as might be expected, are among the most worked-over sections in the draft. Even when the manuscript was submitted, the characterization was not quite satisfactory, either to Fitzgerald or to Maxwell Perkins. The “old sport” phrase which fixes Gatsby as precisely as his gorgeous pink rag of a suit is to be found in only one section of the pencil draft, though it must have been incorporated fully into his speech before Fitzgerald sent off the manuscript. “Couldn’t you add one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase ’old sport’ — not verbal, but physical ones, perhaps,” Perkins suggested.( Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwe/l E. Perkins, ed. John Hall Wheelock (New York, 1950), p. 39.) Fitzgerald chose the most elusive of physical characteristics — Gatsby’s smile. How he worked it up into a powerfully suggestive bit of characterization can be seen by comparing the pencil draft and the final copy. Gatsby is telling Nick about his experiences during the war:

Rough Draft

“I was promoted to be a major/ and every Allied government gave me a decoration — /even Bul Montenegro little Montenegro down on the Adriatic/Sea!”

He lifted up the w Little Montenegro! He lifted up the words/and nodded at it them with a faint smile. My incredulity had/ had turned to facination now; Gatsby was no longer a it was/ person he was a magazine I had picked up on the casually train like and I was reading the climaxes of all the stories/ it contained only in a magazine.

Final Version

“I was promoted to be a major, and every Allied government gave me a decoration — even Montenegro, little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea!”

Little Montenegro! He lifted up the words and nodded at them — with his smile. The smile comprehended Montenegro’s troubled history and sympathized with the brave struggles of the Montenegrin people. It appreciated fully the chain of national circumstances which had elicited this tribute from Montenegro’s warm little heart. My incredulity was submerged in fascination now; it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines, (pp. 66-67)

The smile is described in even fuller detail in a substantial addition to galley 15 (page 48 of the novel). One can virtually see Fitzgerald striking upon the smile as a characteristic which could give Gatsby substance without destroying his necessary insubstantiality.

Gatsby is revised, not so much into a real person as into a mythical one: what he is is not allowed to distract the reader from what he stands for. Without emphasizing the particulars of Gatsby’s past, Fitzgerald wanted to place him more squarely before the reader.(Fitzgerald wrote in response to Perkins’s criticism: “His (Gatsby’s) vagueness I can repair by making more pointed — this doesn’t sound good but wait and see. It’ll make him clear.” In a subsequent letter, he wrote: “…Gatsby sticks in my heart. I had him for awhile, then lost him, and now I know I have him again” — Letters, pp. 170, 173.) Many of the further changes made in the galley proofs were directed toward that end. In the first five chapters of the galleys, the changes are the expected ones: routine corrections, happy changes in wording or phrasing, a few deletions, some additions. But at Chapter VI the galley proofs become fat with whole paragraphs and pages pasted in. Whole galleys are crossed out as the easiest way to make the extensive changes Fitzgerald fell were necessary. Throughout this section, he cut passages, tightened dialogue, reduced explicit statements in order to heighten the evocative power of his prose.

The major structural change brought the true story of Gatsby’s past out of Chapter VIII and placed it at the beginning of Chapter VI. Chapter V, the meeting between Gatsby and Daisy, was already at the precise center of the novel.(Fitzgerald called this chapter his “favorite of all” (“To Maxwell Perkins,” circa Dec. 1, 1924, — Letters, p. 170.) That scene is the most static in the book. For a moment, after the confusion of the meeting, the rain, and his own doubts. Gatsby holds past and present together. The revision of Chapter VI, as if to prolong this scene in the reader’s mind, leaves the narrative, shifts the scene to the reporter inquiring about Gatsby, and fills in Gatsby’s real past. “I take advantage of this short halt.” Nick Carraway says, “while Gatsby, so to speak, caught his breath” (p. 102). The deliberate pause illustrates the care with which the novel is constructed. The Gatsby of his self-created present is contrasted with the Gatsby of his real past, and the moment prolonged before the narrative moves on. The rest of Chapter VI focuses on the first moment of disillusion, Gatsby’s peculiar establishment seen through Daisy’s eyes.

The rewriting so extensive, in this chapter is as important as the shifting of material. The draft at this point has five different sets of numbers, and these pieces are fitted only loosely together. The Gatsby who finally emerges from the rewritten galleys answers the criticisms made by Maxwell Perkins and, more important, satisfies Fitzgerald’s own critical sense. “ACTION is CHARACTER,” Fitzgerald wrote in his notes for The Last Tycoon. His revisions of dialogue, through which the novel often makes its vital disclosures and confrontations, shows his adherence to that precept. The truth of Gatsby’s connection with Oxford was originally revealed to Nick Carraway in a somewhat flat, overly detailed conversation in which Gatsby tries to define his feeling for Daisy. Most of that conversation was cut out and the Oxford material worked into the taut dialogue between Tom Buchanan and Gatsby in the Plaza Hotel which prefaces the sweep of the story to its final action.(Mizener points out that Fitzgerald was revising almost up to the day of publication. The revision of this section came some time around February 18, 1925. when Fitzgerald cabled Maxwell Perkins: “Hold Up Galley Forty For Big Change” (The Far Side of Paradise, p. 164: p. 335, n. 63). Fitzgerald returned the proofs about February 18th. In a letter to Perkins, he listed what he had done: “I) I’ve brought Gatsby to life. 2) I’ve accounted for his money. 3) I’ve fixed up the two weak chapters (VI and VII). 4) I’ve improved his first party. 5) I’ve broken up his long narrative in Chapter VIII” — Letters, p. 177.)

In the draft, Gatsby reveals his sentimentality directly; he even sings a poor song he had composed as a boy. In the novel, a long passage of this sort is swept away, a good deal of the dialogue is put into exposition, and the effect is preserved by Nick’s comment at the end: “Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality…” (p. 112). In the draft, Gatsby carefully explains to Nick why he cannot run away. “’I’ve got to,’ he announced with conviction, ’that’s what I’ve got to do — live the past over again.’” Substance and dialogue are cleared away here, but the key idea is kept, held for a better place, and then shaped supremely right, as a climactic statement in a later talk with Nick: “’Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ’Why of course you can!’” (p. 111). In the draft, much of Gatsby’s story is told in dialogue as he talks to Nick. It permits him to talk too much, to say, for example: ’“Jay Gatsby!’ he cried suddenly in a ringing voice. There goes the great Jay Gatsby! That’s what people are going to say — wait and see.’” In the novel even the allusion to the title is excised. Gatsby’s past is compressed into three pages of swift exposition punctuated by the images of his Platonic self, of his serving “a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty,” and of Dan Cody and “the savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon” from which he had come. Finally, in the draft, the undercurrent of passion and heat and boredom which sweeps all of them to the showdown in the Plaza is almost lost. Instead of going directly to the Plaza that fierce afternoon, they all went out to the Polo Grounds and sat through a ball game.

Of the changes in substance in this section — and in the novel — the most interesting is the dropping of a passage in which Gatsby reveals to Nick that Daisy wants them to run away. Daisy, elsewhere in the draft, reveals the same intentions. Perhaps Fitzgerald felt this shifted too much responsibility upon Daisy and made Gatsby more passive than he already was. Or perhaps his cutting here was part of a general intention of making Daisy less guilty of any chargeable wrong. Earlier in the draft, Fitzgerald removed a number of references to a previous romance between Daisy and Nick, and at other points he excised uncomplimentary remarks. The result may be contrary to expectation — that a writer ordinarily reworks to more sharply delineate a character — but it was not contrary to Fitzgerald’s extraordinary intention. Daisy moves away from actuality into an idea existing in Gatsby’s mind and ultimately to a kind of abstract beauty corrupted and corrupting in taking on material form.


After Chapter VI and the first part of Chapter VII. to judge both from the draft and the galleys, the writing seemed to go easier. The description of the accident with its tense climax — “her left breast was swinging loose like a flap” — is in the novel almost exactly as in the pencil draft. “I want Myrtle Wilson’s breast ripped off” — he wrote to Perkins, “it’s exactly the thing. 1 think, and I don’t want to chop up the good scenes by too much tinkering.” (Letters, p. 175) Wilson and his vengeance needed little reworking, and though the funeral scene is improved in small ways, as is the conversation with Gatsby’s father, no great changes occur here. The last ten pages, the epilogue in which Nick decides to go back West, are much the same, too.

In these last pages, as in the rest of the manuscript, one can only guess at how much writing preceded the version Fitzgerald kept as the pencil draft. “What I cut out of it both physically and emotionally,” he wrote later, “would make another novel!” (Introduction to Modern Library edilion of The Great Gatsby (New York, 1934), p. x.) The differences in hand, in numbering of pages, in the paper and pencils used, suggest that much had preceded that draft. Few of the pages have the look of Fitzgerald’s hand putting first thoughts to paper, and fewer still — except those obviously recopied — are free of the revision in word and line which shows the craftsman at work.

These marks of Fitzgerald at work, the revelation they give of his ear and his eye and his mind forcing language to do more than it will willingly do, run all through the manuscript.

The best way of summarizing what Fitzgerald did in shaping The Great Gatsby from pencil draft to galley to book is to take him at his word in the introduction he wrote in 1934 for the Modern Library edition of the novel. “I had just re-read Conrad’s preface to The Nigger, and I had recently been kidded half haywire by critics who felt that my material was such as to preclude all dealing with mature persons in a mature world. But, my God! it was my material, and it was all I had to deal with.” What he did with it was what Conrad called for in his Preface, fashioned a work which carried “its justification in every line,” and which “through an unremitting, never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences” aspired to “the magic suggestiveness of music.”

Published in American Literature magazine XXXVI (November 1964), pp. 315-326. Text scanned from F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Criticism, ed. by Kenneth Eble (New York: Mcgraw-Hill, 1973).