Damned Beautiful: F. Scott Fitzgerald Unexpurgated

Taps At Reveille (1935), author's collection

On May Day 2014, the knowledge broke that Cambridge University Press's latest volume in their series of the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald would be an unexpurgated edition of Taps at Reveille (1935).

Eminent scholar and writer James L.W. West III is general editor of the Cambridge series. He prepared the restored stories based upon drafts of the stories in the Fitzgerald Papers at Princeton University. In an interview with The Guardian, West disclosed details about Fitzgerald's original stories, including use of swear words, antisemitic slurs, drug-taking, and racy scenes that had been changed for print.

Taps at Reveille was the last collection of his stories published during Fitzgerald's lifetime. Most of the stories had first appeared, from the late 1920s until 1935 in publications including H. L. Mencken's The American Mercury and The Saturday Evening Post. All are solid, most are sad, and some, like "Crazy Sunday" and "Babylon Revisited," are stunning.

Interest in England in the new edition has been more pronounced, so far, than in America. This might befuddle Fitzgerald, given the lukewarm reception of his writings in England during his lifetime. The Daily Mail came up with a headline story, referencing The Guardian's, later in the day on May 1: "Now it's the Great, Drunk Sweary Gatsby." (All I could think of was the magisterial tabloid headline in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, after overeager Romanticist Bernard Nightingale rushes out his literary discovery: "Bonking Byron Shot Poet").

Gatsby's a good model in many ways for speaking about these newly published revisions. The novel has its much-discussed racial, religious, and ethnic pejoratives, always placed by Fitzgerald on the lips of the more reprehensible characters like Tom Buchanan -- or, occasionally, the uptight and still-prejudiced Midwestern Yalie Nick Carraway. Carraway's service in World War I, what he refers to archly as "that delayed Teutonic migration," hasn't loosened him or made him more apt to accept difference. He accepts, if grudgingly sometimes, Gatsby -- but Jimmy Gatz is after all a white Midwestern guy and soldier, too.

At issue here is the longtime rule in American publishing about not publishing words thought obscene, or scenes thought to be off-color. For a progressive democracy loving free speech, America remained archaic on this point for decades. It took Judge John Woolsey and his 1933 opinion to get James Joyce's banned Ulysses (1922) released in America in January 1934; in 1948 Norman Mailer had to use a substitute soundalike word in The Naked and the Dead for his soldiers' favorite blasphemy, and "fug" got a new meaning. The New York Times first printed the word "fuck" just last year.

Fitzgerald was hardly the only popular writer publishing in mainstream outlets who was censored during the first half on the last century. Theodore Dreiser, a fellow Midwestern writer Fitzgerald admired, lost the original of his Sister Carrie (1900) to shocked editors and publishers. Ernest Hemingway had to replace obscenities or not go to press.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1921, from The World's Work (June issue)

That Fitzgerald intended some of the stories in Taps at Reveille to be brutal and unpleasant is clear. The title itself indicates that we wake up to death. The stories are about wrecked marriages, sad children and are called "The Fiend," "First Blood," and "Family In The Wind." It's also unsurprising to find Fitzgerald could use words as weapons, coarse language to create. We already knew that. The most poetic of American prose writers could be dark as dirt when he wished, and the character or circumstance suited; think only of Myrtle Wilson dying.

"Michaelis and the man reached her first, but when they had torn open her shirtwaist, still damp with perspiration, they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap, and there was no need to listen for the heart beneath. The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners, as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long."

Karen Black and Scott Wilson as Myrtle and George Wilson, The Great Gatsby (1974)
via and © Paramount Pictures 1974

In his personal letters and writing notes alike, long in print, Fitzgerald could be raw and worse. He criticized Hollywood flappers harshly in a biting little verse for their lack of reading -- and for having abortions: "Every California girl has lost at least one ovary/And none of them has read Madame Bovary." One of the most graphic, searingly self-judging critical comments ever on a writer's imaginative capacity, after all, is Fitzgerald's: "my mind is the loose cunt of a whore, to fit all genitals."

In the original of the story "Two Wrongs," the nasty main character, Bill McChesney, is a haphazard Broadway producer who drinks, blusters, swears, is fond of redheads, and mistreats his fiance -- and his girlfriend, later his wife. Her miscarriage, after a fall as she struggles to get to hospital alone, is the story's centerpiece. Bill's restored dismissing of a Jewish character as a "dirty little kyke" is like Mrs. McKee's shrill voice in Gatsby declaring "I almost married a little kyke who'd been after me for years. I knew he was below me." The ugly antisemitism is, as West rightly says, not Fitzgerald's but an ugly character's, meant to render them (and quite successfully too) unlikeable.

If you want to see what Fitzgerald really intended his writing to say, get the new edition of Taps At Reveille. For West's work we should all - including Scott Fitzgerald - be very grateful.