Rereading The Great Gatsby Will Turn You Into a Superfan
When most people see the word “revision,” they think of a writer making a change in a story, we hope for the better. Max Perkins persuaded F. Scott Fitzgerald that “The Great Gatsby” was a better title for his new novel than “Trimalchio in West Egg.” Good revision, guys.
Look closer at the word “revision.” The word is not “rewriting.” It is a word in which another word, “vision,” is hiding. In its etymological sense, the author is re-seeing some part of the work, and not just at the end of the process.
Although we think of revision as a writer’s act, it may be helpful to think of it as an act of reading. It was said of Max Perkins, who edited some of the greatest writers of the 20th century, that he had the ability to read a text and “see its unrealized potential,” a necessary prequel to persuading the writer to revise.
This leads me to the conviction that revision is not reserved for authors and editors. It is also a power that belongs to all readers, especially ones who undertake multiple readings of a text over time.
The most dramatic case I know comes from Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air. Fifty (50!) readings of The Great Gatsby have resulted in her book So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures in which she describes her conversion from a distracted high school senior to an unabashed advocate for Gatsby’s greatness.
Her affair with the novel did not begin well. “As a high-school senior,” she writes, “I couldn’t ‘identify’ with the bland Nick or enigmatic Gatsby; nor could I connect with golden girl Daisy, who acted too much like the mean girls in the cafeteria, flaunting their shining hair and their knowingness. I thought The Great Gatsby was a boring novel about rich people.”
Let’s do the math. Corrigan first read Gatsby at the age of about seventeen. She is now sixty years old. Her relationship with the book has lasted forty-three years (one short of my marriage). She has read it fifty times. That means she reads it about 1.2 times per year.
Scholars and critics often talk about the act of reading as a transaction, a triangle of Author — Text — Reader. Not one of the three points is fixed in time or space. Over time we may learn more about the life of a dead author that influences our reading of a text (J.D. Salinger comes to mind). Even an old text can undergo changes through scholarly or editorial amendments (I’m thinking of the poems of Emily Dickinson). When it comes to multiple readings, the reader turns out to be the most changeable of all.
The Maureen Corrigan who at the age of sixty teaches literature at Georgetown brings a different autobiography to the experience of the text than the one she brought to Gatsby as she was getting ready for her senior prom. She is in measurable ways the same person; but by another set of metrics is surely different. Here’s one way she is different: She is now a writer. Not just a writer, but an author.
A writer, it is said, grows a third eye, one that allows her to see the world as a storehouse of story ideas. That extra eye also lets her see all texts as a playground of the English language.
When does it mean, then, to read like a writer?
To answer that question, I’ll flashback to my own experience with Gatsby. I’ve lost count, but I think I have now read The Great Gatsby seven times. That puts me about forty-three readings short of Maureen Corrigan’s imposing standard.
My first time was in 1964. I was sixteen years old. I had no money beyond the quarters and dimes that came from a paper route. Although I had my eye on this little Italian girl, I had not yet been truly kissed. No money. No love. You might think that my longing for both would have prepared me for Gatsby, but you’d be wrong. Other than the curiosity of local color — I lived a few miles from the towns on Long Island that inspired East and West Egg — the novel was lost on me. When a teacher said that Gatsbywas a Great American Novel, my response was, “Really? Is that the best we’ve got?”
Flash forward from 1965 to May 17, 2013. On the last page of my well-worn edition of Gatsby, I scribbled this judgment: “This is the greatest American novel of the 20th century. So sayeth I, Roy Peter Clark, on this day of finishing it for the 6th time. 5/17/13.”
So what happened? My conversion was not a flash from the sky. It came as a slow process, an evolution of identity from seeing myself as a reader to seeing myself as a writer. I’ve described it as like getting my first pair of glasses, turning my myopia into crystal clarity. (Writing that sentence has made me think of the emblematic billboard of the eye doctor T.J. Eckleburg that stares hauntingly over Gatsby’s Valley of Ashes.)
I have a name for my metaphorical reading lenses. I call them X-ray Glasses, after a gag toy advertised in old comic books. Here’s how they work for me: One day, I heard a journalist stand up in a room and recite the last lines of The Great Gatsby from memory. It’s a famous ending with an evocation of one of the book’s most important images: the green dock light that became Gatsby’s fixation: “And as I sat there,” reflects Nick the narrator, “brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.” And then, “Gatsby believed in the green light….”
My high school English teacher, Bernard Horst, once taught us an important lesson while reading a poem by Robert Frost: “Men, sometimes a wall is not just a wall. Sometimes, it’s a symbol. Be careful, though: a symbol need not be a cymbal.”
So in my first reading of Gatsby, I must have been led to some simple understanding: that the green light was not just a green light. It meant something beyond its literal illumination. But what? Well it’s green. Money is green. Nature is green. Hope was green. (I knew this from being an altar boy.) And that was that. On to The Catcher in the Rye.
As an author I wanted to know something else: Where did that green light come from? In a re-reading it became clear that it came from the end of the first chapter, when Nick catches a glimpse of Gatsby for the first time. Gatsby is staring out at the water, his arm stretched out, trembling: “Involuntarily, I glanced seaward — and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far way, that might have been the end of a dock.”
OK, so this is cool writing. That green light — artifact and symbol — is planted at the end of the first chapter and is harvested at the end of the last. But as an author I wonder: Should a reader be expected to remember that in a single reading, or will that foreshadowing (maybe fore-lighting is better here) only come from multiple readings?
I am sitting on the Long Island railroad heading into New York City to visit my editor, and I am re-reading Gatsby, seeing it anew. I come to the scene at Nick’s house where Gatsby and Daisy are re-united for the first time. Gatsby says to her casually: “You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.” Daisy slides her arm in his and her proximity to him suddenly makes the significance of that light disappear: “Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.”
I had to recalculate. To repeat my mixed metaphor, that green light is planted at the end of chapter one. It is harvested at the end of the last chapter. But in this scene between Gatsby and Daisy it is watered. Plant — Water — Harvest. That is what good writers do.
My train is rumbling toward New York, and I realize that I am sitting less than 10 miles from Great Neck, the inspiration for Gatsby’s world. I look down for any sign of the Valley of Ashes. Then I look down at my book and am dumbstruck. That moment when Gatsby mentions the green light turns out to be on page 92 of a 180-page novel. The virtual center. What a finely wrought work of art.
This is what X-ray reading does for the writer. It reveals the strategies beneath the surface of the text that create meaning. That meaning can endure for decades and even centuries, or it can be enriched — seen with a stabbing clarity — through the re-visions of a devoted reader.
This article originally appeared on Signature.
Roy Peter Clark is senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, one of the most prestigious schools for journalists in the world. He has taught writing at every level — to schoolchildren and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors — for more than thirty years. A writer who teaches and a teacher who writes, he has authored or edited seventeen books on writing and journalism, including How to Write Short, Writing Tools, The Glamour of Grammar, and Help! for Writers. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.