Princeton University’s Digital Project Offers New Insight into Fitzgerald’s Gatsby

Princeton University Library is excited to share the newest addition to their digital library with the world.

Baz Luhrmann, right, examines F. Scott Fitzgerald's papers. Photo Credit: Don C. Skemer.
Baz Luhrmann isn’t the only one giving audiences a new look at The Great Gatsby. After years of working towards gaining permission to digitize their vaulted autograph manuscript and corrected galleys of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, Princeton University Library is excited to share the newest addition to their digital library with the world.

Scottie Fitzgerald Lanahan, daughter of the literary master, donated the papers to Princeton University Library in 1950 on the condition that surrogates be created to preserve the originals. While facsimiles were created in the 1970s from microfilm, technology now allows for these pieces of history to have a much broader reach.

“I think anyone who loves Fitzgerald as much as we do should be able to see how the man works and look over his shoulder,” said Princeton University Library Curator of Manuscripts Don C. Skemer.

With the insight the autograph manuscript and corrected galleys provide, Skemer’s metaphor is not far off from the reality.

“It begins the same way, ‘Oh, that sounds pretty good. That sounds like the book,’ and by the time you get to page two, you have all these cross-outs and things,” Skemer said.

Fitzgerald’s process is more visible than ever through the comprehensive work of the library’s full digital studio. Over a three-week period, four to five staff members created about 600 photographs of the fronts and backs of each page so as not to miss a single notation. As Digital Initiatives Imaging Manager of the Library Roel Muñoz explained, a lot goes into the process:

Roel Muñoz works on digitizing the manuscript of Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise. Photo credit: Jennifer Cabral-Pierce.
“That’s the photography, that’s the processing of the images, that’s the creation of the derivative files, the cataloging that’s going on at the same time as the photographs are being made; programmers are putting this together so that you can turn pages,” he said.

Princeton University Library’s Gatsby materials collection already has some high-profile fans. “Baz Luhrmann said, ‘I just want to see the original, I want some inspiration,’” shared Skemer. Director Luhrmann’s new film adaptation of the novel starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan hit theaters in May.

Skemer and members of the film’s team also discussed other elements of the story’s background including the roots of the Daisy Buchanan character, Gatsby’s love interest. Carey Mulligan, who portrays Daisy in Luhrmann’s adaptation, was especially excited at the opportunity to read letters written to Fitzgerald by the woman who inspired her character, which are also a part of Princeton University Library’s collection.

Just as Fitzgerald’s daughter anticipated over 60 years ago, creating these replicas of the original documents was a necessary preservation measure. “He started writing in the nineteen-teens,” explained Skemer. “When he wrote letters, he would write on good bond paper; when he wrote manuscripts, he would just write on cheap paper he would pick up at a dime store.”

“It’s not going to last forever, the paper is going to crumble, and preserving this document is paramount,” said Muñoz. “The preservation of these types of materials, I think, is key to understanding where we’ve come from culturally and where we’re going.”

To view the online Great Gatsby materials, visit the Princeton University Digital Library. Princeton University Library’s project continues with the digitization of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s manuscript of This Side of Paradise based on his life as a Princeton student.

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