F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, now generally recognized as the closest approximation to “The Great American Novel” and a staple of the high school curriculum, is embarking on yet another new life. Today, a film adaptation opens starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Baz Luhrmann, and it has already been described as one of the most stylish movies ever made. Three previous movies and one television drama based on Gatsby reflect their time periods as much as they do the Twenties.
The film has sent the paperback edition soaring to the top of the Amazon best-seller list. Yet the first edition (1925) was only a modest success, as Fitzgerald notes in a letter in the Ransom Center’s collection. Although his literary reputation went into a swoon in the late 1930s and 40s, the novel was reprinted from time to time, though it was rarely regarded as an American classic. More than a decade after the author’s early death in 1940, biographical and critical re-evaluations finally established The Great Gatsby’s permanent place in the canon of modern fiction. In the above slideshow, a group of editions from the Ransom Center’s collections shows its progress from first edition to the current movie mass-market tie-in. Not for the first time in its history and probably not for the last, Gatsby has been born again.
A case of materials related to The Great Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald are on display in the Ransom Center lobby through June 9.
Please click on thumbnails for larger images.
Image: The first edition of The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner’s, 1925). The dust jacket by Francis Cugat incorporates several themes of the novel, while maintaining a certain ambiguity. The eyes most likely belong to Daisy, “the girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs” of Jay Gatsby’s consciousness. The jacket was completed before the novel, and Fitzgerald was so fond of it that he claimed he wrote it into his book. Today, intact dust jackets are exceptionally valuable; both of our copies have been repaired.
The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows
“Curiouser and curiouser!” is what Alice cries when she suddenly stretches to more than nine feet tall, “like the largest telescope that ever was,” in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. An illustration by John Tenniel depicts this moment from the opening of Chapter II, which can be seen in one of the images etched into the windows of the Harry Ransom Center. In the drawing, we see Alice’s large, startled eyes and open mouth expressing her surprise at her predicament. Most suggestive of her increasing height is the greatly disproportionate length of her neck, whose Victorian collar, though stretched upward, remains properly buttoned. Tenniel succeeds in manifesting Carroll’s playful imagination within this bizarre image, yet he retains a delicate beauty in the artful rendering of her hands and the folds of her apron and puffed sleeves. Tenniel was as appreciative as Carroll himself of the aesthetic beauty of childhood, and his pairing of humor with grace matches the author’s own intent for his title character. A mixture of playfulness with sincere, human perplexities is central to Carroll’s Alice books, which—like telescopic Alice—have grown so popular that they remain not just favorites in literature but are ingrained into much of our culture.
The man behind the pseudonym Lewis Carroll is the Oxford mathematics lecturer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. On July 4, 1852, Carroll and his friend Robinson Duckworth took the three daughters of his dean—Lorina, Alice, and Edith Liddell—for a boat ride on the river. For their entertainment, he invented stories as they rowed, including characters based on each of the boat’s passengers. Carroll folded the girls’ excited suggestions into the plotline and improvised the rest. Once the excursion was over, ten-year-old Alice requested that Carroll write down the story for her, so she might always be able to read it. After her insistent pestering, he did write it down, and two-and-a-half years later he presented Alice with a leather-bound manuscript, including his own illustrations, as a Christmas gift. The Liddell girls loved the manuscript, and as more children read the story, Carroll discovered its wide appeal. Literary friends, having delighted in reading the author’s drafts of the tale, urged him to publish. In October of 1863, Carroll secured the commitment of London publisher Alexander Macmillan to have his book printed.
Although at first he intended to refine and use his own drawings for the book, Carroll finally acknowledged his sketches’ limitations and set out to commission the work of a talented illustrator. The head caricaturist of Punch magazine, John Tenniel, was an obvious choice because of his renowned reputation and aesthetic sensibilities that matched Carroll’s own. Introduced by a mutual friend—the eminent dramatist Tom Taylor—Carroll met with Tenniel in January 1864 and petitioned him to create the artwork for his book. In the subsequent months, Carroll eagerly worked to expand and polish his texts, readying them for printing. Tenniel’s progress, however, was slow, and several planned deadlines passed before his blocks were completed. A first run of 2,000 copies was printed in June 1865, and a sample was delivered to Macmillan. Carroll was pleased with the finished product, and according to his diary (July 15, 1865), he inscribed “20 or more copies of Alice to go as presents to various friends.” Yet Tenniel was not satisfied with the print quality of his images and requested that the books be run again. Although the printing costs were at Carroll’s own expense, he agreed to scrap the first run and hire a new printer. Carroll had already distributed almost 50 copies, though, so he begged for their return. Ultimately, he received back all but 15. He tore out the inscription pages and then donated the books to a children’s hospital. Only 23 copies of this abandoned first edition exist today, one of which resides at the Ransom Center. The second batch of printed books pleased both author and illustrator, so Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, now dated 1866, was at last released. Children and adults alike were drawn to the delightful fantasy of Carroll’s words and Tenniel’s imagery, and the novel became an instant success. By 1872, Carroll published a sequel—Through the Looking-Glass—again with illustrations by Tenniel. The Alice books grew to immense popularity, helping to solidify the careers of both Carroll and Tenniel. Carroll continued to publish new stories, verse, and scholarly treatises, and he remained at Oxford until his death in 1898. Tenniel went on to have a prolific career as a cartoonist at Punch and was knighted in 1893 for his contributions as a cartoonist, the first one in his profession to be so recognized.
As for the Alice books, they continue to thrive long after the passing of their creators. Now translated into over 70 languages and adapted across many forms of media, from theater to coloring books, Carroll’s fairy tale enjoys a lasting influence. As biographer Morton N. Cohen has stated, “Next to the Bible and Shakespeare, they are the books most widely and most frequently translated and quoted.” Whereas most children’s literature before it had primarily been written as moral instruction, Carroll’s stories of Wonderland broke tradition by “champion[ing] the child in the child’s confrontation with the adult world,” Cohen claims. As new generations emerge, Carroll’s story remains relevant and comforting in its message of overcoming the obstacles inherent in childhood and beyond.
The Ransom Center holds several collections related to Lewis Carroll and the Alice books. The Warren Weaver collection contains first editions of Carroll’s poetry, fiction, and scholarly writings on mathematics and logic, as well as translations of the books into several languages and some of Carroll’s personal correspondence. One of the rare books in this collection is a copy of the original 1865 edition called the “India Alice,” which made its way from a Victorian hospital in England to a used bookshop in Bangalore, India, before resurfacing in 1961. The Byron and Susan Sewell collection comprises twentieth-century editions of the Alice books, as well as secondary adaptations, parodies, and nonfiction that the original publications inspired. Such a rich assortment of materials provides an unparalleled opportunity to understand the genesis of this cherished tale and the man who imagined it.
Ransom Center volunteer Amy Kristofoletti wrote this post.
Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.
Please be aware that Photo Friday will be on hiatus during the summer, but will return in September.
R. Colin Tait, a Ph.D. candidate at The University of Texas at Austin, has used the Ransom Center’s Robert De Niro collection as the basis for his dissertation, “Robert De Niro’s Method: Acting, Authorship and Agency in the New Hollywood (1967–1980).” Tait argues that De Niro has been a major intellectual and creative contributor to the world of film and acting and writes about his research in the De Niro archive. Tait shares how the papers reveal the actor’s commitment to his craft with examples of his “meticulous research, collaborations with directors, and extreme bodily transformations.”
In the above video, Tait discusses De Niro’s place in the film canon.