The Creation of “Tender is the Night”
by Malcolm Cowley

Fitzgerald had saved most of his papers, and his daughter, Mrs Samuel J. Lanahan, has given them to the Princeton University Library. There the various drafts of Tender Is the Night are kept in six big blue cartons, with some additional folders of notes, in the air-conditioned basement of the Manuscript Room. The drafts and notes and false beginnings would repay a closer study than the present editor has been able to give them. They reveal how an author who was not a born novelist, but rather a romantic poet with a gift for social observation, a highly developed critical sense, and a capacity for taking infinite pains, went about the long task of putting his world into a book.

Opening the cartons one after another we can trace the novel in its different versions and trace each scene or chapter through its successive stages: larva, pupa, imago. First there will be notes and observations on the chapter to be written and perhaps a schedule of working hours; then a manuscript pencilled by Fitzgerald in his high, narrow, hasty and unformed, but quite legible scrawl; then a typescript made by his secretary and corrected by the author, with pages crossed out and others written in; then there will be a second typescript—and often this will be rejected as a whole, with the author starting over from the beginning, in pencil, and making new corrections before giving his work to the copyist.

It is possible to distinguish three separate versions of the novel. The first is the Melarky version, which was started on the Riviera in the late summer of 1925. In April of the following year Fitzgerald wrote to his agent, Harold Ober, “The novel is about one-fourth done and will be delivered for possible serialization about January 1st. It will be about 75,000 words long, divided into 13 chapters, concerning tho this is absolutely confidential such a case as that girl who shot her mother on the Pacific coast last year.” The background of the novel would be the Riviera, Paris, and Rome. The hero would be Francis Melarky, a young technician from Hollywood with a domineering mother. Francis would fall in love with a woman like Nicole Diver, would go on too many wild parties, would lose control of himself, and would kill his mother in a fit of rage. He would be pursued and punished for the crime, although it seems that the author never decided exactly how be was going to die. Fitzgerald wrote several drafts of four long chapters of the Melarky version and they are in the blue cartons at Princeton. Apparently there was once a draft, now lost or destroyed, of four additional chapters.

The second or Rosemary version of the novel is undated, but it has connexions with two of Fitzgerald’s published stories—“The Rough Crossing” (1929) and “One trip abroad” (1930)—and it must have been written at about the same time. The events of the first two chapters, which are the only ones preserved in the blue cartons, take place on a luxury liner bound for Europe. Lewellen Kelly, as Fitzgerald spelled the new hero’s name, is a famous young moving-picture director who has become dissatisfied with his work in Hollywood; he is taking his wife, Nicole, for a two years’ vacation in Europe, although he also plans to make some pictures there. Rosemary and her mother appear in this manuscript for the first time. They are travelling in the cheapest class, tourist third, but the mother has Rosemary dress in her best gown and steal into first class through the engine room, so that Kelly will see her and give her a screen test. There is the promise that all the characters will meet again on the summer Riviera… Kelly and his wife reappear in the story “One trip abroad” and there they undergo a process of deterioration that is very much like Dick Diver’s.

The third or Dick Diver version of the novel was started from a new plan early in 1932 and was carried through to the end. It fills most of the space in the six blue cartons, not only because it is longer but also because it exists in more stages than the other versions: besides the notes for it, the early drafts in pencil, the first and second typescripts, and the corrected carbons, there are also galley and page proofs from Scribner’s Magazine and proofs of the published book with Fitzgerald’s revisions, which had no end. Paul Valery once said that a work of art is never finished, but merely abandoned. Fitzgerald was unwilling to abandon Tender Is the Night and even after the novel had appeared in Scribner’s, complete in four instalments, he worked over it until the last moment, missing his little mistakes but trying to strengthen the big effects; he omitted half a dozen scenes, shortened many others, and inserted page after page of typescript into the galley proofs.

Although the three versions differ widely from one another, we feel no doubt in reading them that they are stages in writing a single novel. The essential theme is the same in all three: an ambitious young American goes to Europe and is ruined by his contact with the leisure class. All three have the same backgrounds—although we make our first visit to Switzerland in “One Trip Abroad”—and all have the contrast between hard-working Hollywood people and the idle rich. Most of the persons mentioned in the first version reappear in the last, even if some of them have changed their names not once but twice: thus, Abe North was originally Abe Grant and then became Abe Herkimer, while keeping the same traits. On the other hand, Nicole Diver loses some of the traits that she had possessed when she was Dinah Piper and borrows some new traits from her namesake of the Rosemary version, Nicole Kelly. At first these little transformations are confusing to follow; but as one continues to read through the early manuscripts the characters become as familiar as a close group of friends and behave as we have known our friends to do—some of them changing in front of our eyes, some dropping out of sight, and some—like Albert McKisco, for example—remaining always and reassuringly the same. They have adventures that Fitzgerald describes in one version and omits in another. The file of manuscripts gives us the picture of a complete little world; the finished novel gives us only segments of that world, but they are chosen in such a fashion as to imply the rest of it.

Fitzgerald was both a miser and a spendthrift in his use of material. His first drafts of the various scenes, though interesting in conception, were sometimes as bald in the telling as boys’ stories by Horatio Alger or G.A. Henty. Almost always, however, they would contain a few telling phrases or a gesture that revealed character, and Fitzgerald tried never to throw those good things away. They would reappear in the rewriting of the scene, together with other good phrases that had occurred to him; and if the scene was abandoned they would be copied into his notebook for future use. He saved bits and pieces, like an old man saving ends of string. There is a remark of Abe North’s—“Tired of friends. The thing is to have sycophants”—that appears in different scenes scattered through half a dozen manuscripts. On the other hand, Fitzgerald could also be madly improvident. Having reworked a scene many times and having thickened it with the fragments of other scenes, he was capable of throwing it away because his narrative had to move faster or because he judged that the finished episode, no matter how effective in itself, was not essential to the broader effect at which he was aiming.

The novel in its various stages had a whole series of titles. In the first of Melarky version it was called at different times The Boy Who Killed His Mother, The Melarky Case, Our Type, and The World’s Fair. The second or Rosemary version apparently had no title, although a short story that grew out of it was “One Trip Abroad.” The final version was called The Doctor’s Holiday, then Doctor Diver’s Holiday, and this last title was retained—Arthur Mizener tells us—until just before the novel began to run in Scribner’s Magazine. The phrase “tender is the night” comes from the fourth stanza of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” Except for the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” that was Fitzgerald’s favourite poem and one “which I can never read through without tears in my eyes,” he wrote to his daughter.

The book is dedicated to Gerald and Sara Murphy, wealthy friends of the Fitzgeralds who entertained them at the Cap d’Antibes in 1925. Fitzgerald’s plan for the background of the novel was to make it “one in which the leisure class is at their truly most brilliant and glamorous such as Murphys.”


Next: Tender Is The Night, Book 1 by F. Scott Fitzgerald