F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel about America and aspiration is now in the public domain, so new editions, as well as a graphic novel and a zombie adaptation, have gotten the green light.
If you’ve been planning to read (or reread) “The Great Gatsby,” your biggest challenge now might be deciding on which edition.
Every Jan. 1, books, songs, movies and other copyrighted works more than 95 years old enter the public domain. This year, that includes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, first published in 1925, as well as the Virginia Woolf novel “Mrs. Dalloway.”
Now, in addition to the “Gatsby” edition published by Scribner, which had held the rights since the novel first appeared, readers can choose versions with introductions by John Grisham (Vintage Classics), Min Jin Lee (Penguin Classics), Malcolm Bradbury (Everyman’s Library) and Wesley Morris, a critic at large for The Times (Modern Library). In March, Norton Critical Editions will publish the novel with an introduction and annotations by the Harvard scholar David J. Alworth.
Four of those editions are issued by imprints at one publisher, Penguin Random House. Tom Perry, the publisher of Modern Library, said that some decisions about what to bring under his division’s umbrella, like “The Great Gatsby,” are easier than others.
“Deciding to publish ‘Gatsby’ or ‘A Passage to India’ didn’t require a lot of mulling over,” he said. “While we are spending more time trying to expand the current classics canon by finding more overlooked books and under-published voices, like the poetry of Chika Sagawa or ‘There Is Confusion,’ by Jessie Redmon Fauset, to not publish these 20th-century classics when they become available would be like not putting ‘Moby-Dick’ on the 19th-century shelf.”
If you prefer reinvention to reinterpretation, the lapse of copyright protection also means that writers and artists can mine the characters and plots of a work for their own purposes without having to ask permission or pay a fee. K. Woodman-Maynard, for example, has adapted “Gatsby” into a graphic novel (Candlewick Press). The illustrator Adam Simpson has created extensive art for a new edition (Black Dog & Leventhal). Independently published variations on the novel include “The Gay Gatsby,” by B.A. Baker, and, in the tradition of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” “The Great Gatsby Undead,” by Kristen Briggs. (From the promotional copy: “Gatsby doesn’t seem to eat anything, and has an aversion to silver, garlic and the sun, but good friends are hard to come by.”)
The most ambitious early entry in the reimagining game might be “Nick” (Little, Brown), a novel by Michael Farris Smith that tells the life of Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald’s narrator, before he arrived on Long Island and became caught in Gatsby’s orbit. The book follows his harrowing experiences in World War I and time later spent in New Orleans.
Smith first read “Gatsby” when it was assigned to him as a teenager (“I truly didn’t get it,” he said) and again in his 20s (“I started to feel it”), a period in which he was often living abroad, including in Paris. But it wasn’t until 2014, after Smith had published his first novel, that Fitzgerald’s work fully grabbed him.
Smith related to Carraway’s detachment and disillusionment. “The moment that really spoke to me,” he said, “was when he was about to turn 30, and he was expecting a ‘decade of loneliness.’ That struck me right in the heart, because I was that age when I came home and I had decided I wanted to write. My friends had found jobs, gotten married, had children. I felt like an alien.”
Struck by just how little the reader comes to know about Carraway, Smith remembers thinking, “It would be really interesting if someone were to write his story.” He immediately set out to do that, writing the novel five years ago, not telling his editor or agent.
“I didn’t want to hear it was impossible,” Smith said. “I just knew I was emotionally invested in it and I wanted to do it. I didn’t even think about the copyright issue, to be honest. I just assumed it was expired.”
It wasn’t. And while it was set to expire this year, Smith knew it was potentially subject to further changes in the law. “I’ve sat here every year thinking, ‘Is the copyright going to change?’ I didn’t know if it would be five years, 10 years, 20 years, whatever,” he said.
Often cited as a — if not the — great American novel, the new editions of “Gatsby” allow for fresh analysis, nearly a century later, of what our ideas of “American” now entail. Morris, who received the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2012, parses the book’s themes using references to blackface, industrialization, “capitalism as an emotion,” silent films, reality television and, uniting these strands, what it means to “perform versions of oneself.” (Morris writes, “Fitzgerald had captured that change in the American character: Merely being oneself wouldn’t suffice.”)
Lee, a National Book Award finalist who moved to the United States from South Korea when she was 7, described herself as someone who’s “always approached books as a way to learn more about America.” Because of her formative experiences, “I always identify with the marginal people,” she said. “That’s the way I can immediately understand where I would be. When I read about Myrtle, I can totally see her.”
To her mind, the book’s cleareyed view of money and class is still a rarity. “We can talk about race all day and night in the 21st century,” Lee said, “but not money.”
As a young reader relatively new to the United States, she did read the book as a cautionary tale, but mostly about trusting and falling in love with the wrong people. “I didn’t think of it as ‘The American dream isn’t true,’” she said. “I just thought, ‘Don’t be like Gatsby.’”