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Why Everybody Hated ‘Tender Is the Night’ in 1934 | August 1, 2007

From Malcolm Cowley’s introduction to the corrected 1951 edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (boldface ours; hyphen in “copy-edited” his):

It is not too late . . . to correct the mistakes in spelling and punctuation, and sometimes in grammar and chronology, that disfigure the first edition of Tender. On this mechanical level the book was full of errors; in fact, a combination of circumstances was required to get so many of them into one published volume. Fitzgerald had a fine ear for words, but a weak eye for them; he was possibly the worst speller who ever failed to graduate from Princeton. His punctuation was impulsive and his grammar more instinctive than reasoned. Maxwell Perkins, his editor, was better in all these departments, but had an aristocratic disregard for details so long as a book was right in its feeling for life. Since Fitzgerald was regarded as one of his special authors, the manuscript was never copy-edited by others. The author received the proofs while his wife was critically ill. He worked over them for weeks, making extensive changes and omitting long passages, but he was in no state to notice his own errors of detail. Scores of them slipped into the first edition and, though they were unimportant if taken separately, I suspect that they had a cumulative effect on readers and ended by distracting their attention, like flaws in a window through which they were looking at the countryside.

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9 Comments »

  1. Well, then, Newt Gingrich (cf. the post on his “novel” below) is in good company. He’s a regular F. Scott, that guy!

    I could write volumes on the “aristocratic disregard” remark, but that would be boring.

    Comment by redsquirrel — August 1, 2007 @ 4:59 pm

  2. I don’t know why but I just love these 2 sentences:
    “His punctuation was impulsive and his grammar more instinctive than reasoned. Maxwell Perkins, his editor, was better in all these departments, but had an aristocratic disregard for details so long as a book was right in its feeling for life.”

    Utterly fabulous! But I loved hearing the grammatical story about Tender. I wonder if the 1st edition of Tender is an often sought out rare book for the zaniness alone, or not, perhaps it’s too painful too read.

    Comment by bookwormbethie — August 1, 2007 @ 6:27 pm

  3. The first part is okay, but the “aristocratic disregard” crack makes me mad. The editor is supposed to be the gatekeeper for the standards of language. If such things are too trifling to consider, then get out of the publishing game. You can correct grammar, or at least the spelling, and still retain the spirit of a work. And Fitzgerald’s “impulsiveness” and “instinctiveness” were probably due more to drunkenness than to artistic sensibility.

    Comment by redsquirrel — August 1, 2007 @ 7:41 pm

  4. Hey now, you’re talking about one of the greatest editors of all time, the guy who discovered and nurtured both Fitzgerald and Hemingway (and Thomas Wolfe and many others)–and, as such, totally shaped modern American literature. I think the “aristocratic” crack was probably partly tongue in cheek and partly Malcolm Cowley doing a little hatin’. At the very least, an editor’s neglect circa 1934 is hardly the same thing as an editor’s neglect circa 2007.

    Something I didn’t know about “Tender,” though, is that the first edition is very different from later ones. Cowley moved passages according to notes that were found in Fitzgerald’s copy of the book after his death: Most significantly, pages 151-212 of the 1st ed. were moved to the very beginning of all later printings. I’m looking forward to reading the novel (I’ve never read it before) and finding, 61 pages in, the telltale original opening lines…

    Comment by willenvelope — August 1, 2007 @ 8:12 pm

  5. Hmph. I’m not even really blaming Perkins–his job was to spot talent, not to clean up manuscripts. I guess I just get frustrated at the attitude that famous writers should be allowed to bully their publishers into releasing error-riddled books. Plus I’m crabby today.

    Comment by redsquirrel — August 1, 2007 @ 8:24 pm

  6. Re #3: But that’s the point, the language & tone of what Cowely wrote in from the 30s, and it just reads beautifully. Granted my statement is a bit ironic since the 1st edition of Tender is riddled with mispellings & grammar errors.

    And I’m not quite sure what you mean by standards of language, certainly you are referring to the upholding the fine grammatical points of the language as well as perserving the regional dialects.

    Comment by bookwormbethie — August 1, 2007 @ 8:34 pm

  7. He *was* good at spotting talent–apparently he had to put up quite a fight to sign both Fitzgerald and Hemingway to stodgy Scribner–but to this day he also has a reputation for cleaning up problematic manuscripts. “The Great Gatsby” and “Look Homeward Angel” were both supposedly in really rough shape until he got his hands on them. I’m sure he did more with “Tender” than Cowley gives him credit for…although maybe Fitzgerald was such a mess by ’34 that Perkins wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as he once had been.

    Comment by willenvelope — August 1, 2007 @ 8:44 pm

  8. I’ve been carrying around a biography of Perkins for years and haven’t gotten around to reading it. Perhaps I should–it may shed light on this issue.

    Comment by redsquirrel — August 1, 2007 @ 9:24 pm

  9. Well, duh…

    Comment by willenvelope — August 3, 2007 @ 4:01 am


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