“So we beat, boats against the tide, constantly brought back into the past.” It is one of the most memorable literary awards in history, the end of F Scott Fitzgerald’s defining 20th-century novel, Gatsby the magnificent.
Yet that famous ending will be lost on many readers thanks to the proliferation of substandard editions, one of which loses the last three pages and instead ends tantalizingly halfway through a paragraph.
Experts warn that the freedom for anyone to reproduce or reinvent books once they are out of copyright corrupts classic texts – all in an effort to make a quick buck.
Gatsby the magnificent from 1925 is the quintessential novel of the hedonistic jazz age, the story of the mysterious wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan. It entered the public domain on January 1, 2021, after 95 years of copyright protection.
by Ernest Hemingway The sun also rises, his 1926 novel about disillusioned expatriates in post-war France and Spain, emerged from copyright protection last month. by William Faulkner The sound and the fury and John Steinbeck Grapes of Wrath are among the classics that will soon follow.
Alarmed by shoddy editions of Gatsby the magnificent inspired a study by James West, editor of the Cambridge edition of the works of F Scott Fitzgerald and Emeritus Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University.
He said Fitzgerald would have been “appalled” by lower editions: “The composition of Gatsby the magnificent was his finest hour. It’s a delicate work of literature and you hate to see it treated so roughly.
In his study, to be published next month in the Review of F Scott FitzgeraldWest contrasts the emphasis on accuracy of Fitzgerald’s editor, Scribner, with the “embodied textual instability” of today.
He looked at 34 new print editions published in the last year, by established, independent publishers and some that do not mention location or publisher, although there are others digital: to pick up a share of annual sales. While still under copyright, Scribner’s sold around half a million copies a year, which is remarkable for a backlist title.
Much to his dismay, 17 editions dropped Fitzgerald’s dedication to his wife, Zelda: “Her name has been erased – a serious problem…because she was Fitzgerald’s muse.” She was partly the inspiration for Daisy Buchanan.
Instead, one edition is dedicated to people only its publisher would recognize: “Dedicated to Logan and Olivia Barbrook/May your lives be filled with wonderful stories, great adventures and happily ever after, Love Mummy.”
The cover of the first edition – artist Francis Cugat’s painting of a woman’s eyes hovering over an amusement park – is “probably the most famous jacket in all of American literature”, said West said, with Fitzgerald particularly wanting her, saying he “wrote her in the book.” He may have inspired details such as Doctor TJ Eckleburg’s “blue and gigantic” eyes.
It has appeared on numerous reprints of the novel, but not new editions. West despairs of a cover featuring “a languid-looking woman” whose style of dress was probably meant to suggest the novel’s 1920s setting, but instead recalls Aubrey Beardsley, who died in 1898. Another depicts a couple next to which looks like “a Dodge”. Charger, the muscle car in vogue in the 1980s”.
West writes that his text is also “weird”. “Fitzgerald’s words appear to have been translated into another language and then rendered into English by an ancient computer.”
A passage begins: “Anyway, Miss Baker’s lips curled…”
Fitzgerald’s original reads: “Anyhow Miss Baker’s lips fluttered.”
Its last three pages are missing, even though the novel’s ending “makes sense of the book,” West said. “Maybe they just ran out of pages.”
Although Gatsby the magnificent fell into the public domain in the UK in the early 1990s, shoddy editions have appeared since the expiration of US copyright.
Professor Kirk Curnutt, whose specialties include Hemingway and Fitzgerald, said: “Whenever a text falls into the public domain, there is some anxiety about what will happen next. I don’t think the anxiety was as intense as when Gatsby the magnificent There are many public domain editions of gatsby it’s just awful.
He believes that corrupted editions of The beautiful and the damned, Fitzgerald’s 1922 novel about a couple awaiting an expected inheritance, contributed to its “critical diminishment”. Several editions even got the title wrong, appearing as The Beautiful and the Damned, he despaired: “A pretty big mistake.”
Asked what Hemingway would think of such editions, Robert Trogdon, another scholar, said, “I don’t think he would be happy to see new errors introduced into his volumes. He was very upset with the edits that Jonathan Cape, his British publisher, made to his works out of decorum.
Verna Kale, associate editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, said: “It can be good for a work to enter the public domain, as it can actually breathe new life into a work that might otherwise have been lost. But works like Winnie the Pooh Where The sun also risesworks that do not risk obscurity, may in fact be damaged by careless editing.