“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” It is one of the most memorable literary payoffs in history, the end of F Scott Fitzgerald’s defining novel of the 20th century, The Great Gatsby.
Yet this famous ending will be lost to many readers thanks to the proliferation of substandard editions, one of which loses the last three pages and instead finishes tantalisingly halfway through a paragraph.
Experts are warning that the freedom for anyone to reproduce or reimagine books once they are out of copyright is corrupting classic texts – all for the sake of making a quick buck.
The Great Gatsby of 1925 is the quintessential novel of the hedonistic jazz age, the story of the mysteriously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan. It entered the public domain on 1 January 2021, after 95 years of copyright protection.
Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, his 1926 novel about disillusioned expatriates in postwar France and Spain, came out of copyright protection last month. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath are among classics that will follow soon.
Alarm over the poor-quality editions of The Great Gatsby has inspired a study by James West, general editor of the Cambridge Edition of the Works of F Scott Fitzgerald and emeritus professor of English at Pennsylvania State University.
He said that Fitzgerald would have been “appalled” by inferior editions: “The composition of The Great Gatsby 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 F Scott Fitzgerald Review, West contrasts the focus on accuracy of Fitzgerald’s publisher, Scribner, with today’s “textual instability incarnate”.
He pored over 34 new print editions released in the past year, from established and independent publishers and some that list neither the place nor publisher, although there are further digital ones: “Six are competently done, but the rest are rather careless, done just to pick up a slice of the yearly sales. While it was still in copyright, Scribner’s sold about half a million copies a year, which is remarkable for a backlist title.”
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.”
One edition is instead dedicated to individuals that only its publisher would recognise: “Dedicated to Logan and Olivia Barbrook/ May your lives be filled with wonderful stories, great adventures and happily-ever-afters, Love Mummy.”
The first edition’s cover – 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”, West said, with Fitzgerald particularly wanting it, saying that he had “written it into the book”. It may have inspired details such as Doctor TJ Eckleburg’s “blue and gigantic” eyes.
It appeared on the novel’s numerous reprints, but not on the new editions. West despairs over one cover with “a languid-looking woman” whose dress style was probably meant to suggest the novel’s 1920s setting, but is instead reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, who died in 1898. Another depicts a couple next to what resembles “a Dodge Charger, the muscle car popular during the 1980s”.
West writes that its text is also “bizarre”. “Fitzgerald’s words appear to have been translated into another language and then rendered back into English by an antic computer.”
One passage begins: “Anyway, Miss Baker’s lips frizzed …”
Fitzgerald’s original reads: “At any rate, Miss Baker’s lips fluttered.”
Its final three pages are missing, even though the novel’s ending “drives home the meaning of the book”, West said. “Maybe they just ran out of pages.”
Although The Great Gatsby went into the public domain in the UK in the early 1990s, the shoddy editions have emerged since the US copyright expired.
Professor Kirk Curnutt, whose specialisms include Hemingway and Fitzgerald, said: “Any time a text goes into the public domain, there’s some anxiety about what’s going to happen. I don’t think the anxiety has been as intense as when The Great Gatsby went in. There are a lot of public domain editions of Gatsby that are just awful.”
He believes that corrupt editions of The Beautiful and Damned, Fitzgerald’s 1922 novel about a couple awaiting an expected inheritance, have 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 how Hemingway would feel about such editions, Robert Trogdon, another scholar, said: “I don’t think he’d be pleased with new errors being introduced into his volumes. He was very upset with the changes that Jonathan Cape, his British publisher, made to his works for the sake of propriety.”
Verna Kale, associate editor of the Hemingway Letters Project, said: “It can be good for a work to enter the public domain because it can actually give new life to a work that might have otherwise been lost. But works like Winnie-the-Pooh or The Sun Also Rises, works that are not at risk of obscurity, can actually be damaged by careless editing.”