Lower Manhattan in 1928

Recently, I had occasion to be reminded of this passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby (1925):

With fenders spread like wings we scattered light through half
Long Island City–only half, for as we twisted among the
pillars of the elevated I heard the familiar
“jug–jug–SPAT!” of a motorcycle, and a
frantic policeman rode alongside.

“All right, old sport,” called Gatsby. We slowed
down. Taking a white card from his wallet, he waved it before the
man’s eyes.

“Right you are,” agreed the policeman, tipping his
cap. “Know you next time, Mr. Gatsby. Excuse ME!”

“What was that?” I inquired.

“The picture of Oxford?”

“I was able to do the commissioner a favor once, and he
sends me a Christmas card every year.”

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders
making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city
rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built
with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the
Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in
its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the
world. . . .

“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this
bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . .

We don’t teach The Great Gatsby in our Writing New York class, though we do assign Fitzgerald’s elegiac short essay, “My Lost City,” written ten years later. Most of our students have read Fitzgerald’s novel in high school, and one of the goals of our course is to expose students to works that are less familiar to them. But I think I’ll cite that Queensborough Bridge moment next year.

Fitzgerald was worried about the way in which the novel, his third, would be received. In a letter dated April 10, 1925, Fitzgerald wrote to Max Perkins, his editor at Scribners, “The book comes out today and I am overcome with fears and forebodings.” He worried that women wouldn’t like it. He thought that the hotel scene, which needed to be “strong,” was instead “hurried and ineffective.” He thought that the funeral scene was “faulty.” And he was particularly dismayed by these faults because he believed that “the first five chapters and parts of the 7th and 8th are the best things I’ve ever done.”

He added a postscript to the letter:

I had, or rather saw, a letter from my uncle had seen a preliminary announcement of the book.

“it sounded as if it were very much like his others.”

He said:

This is only a vague impression, of course, but I wondered if we could think of some way to advertise so that people who who are perhaps weary of assertive jazz and society novels might not dismiss it as “just another book like his others”. I confess that today the problem baffles me — all I can think of is to say in general to avoid such phrases as “a picture of New York life” or “modern society” — though as that is exactly what the book is its hard to avoid them. The trouble is so much superficial trash has sailed under those banners. Let me know what you think.

I don’t know what Perkins wrote back  (if anything), but Fitzgerald’s letter puts me in mind of Shakespeare’s plays, which refine their sources to such an extent that most readers or theatergoers have little reason to remember that those sources exist.

I rarely have occasion to cross the Queensborough Bridge these days,
and I’m not sure I approve of its new paint job. But I know the feeling
that Fitzgerald is describing: I experience it on those approaches to
LaGuardia airport when the plane flies north the length of Manhattan
before curving around to the airport and even when crossing some of the other bridges into the borough.

The mystery and beauty of New York. I’ll be talking about that next week with Woody Allen’s film Manhattan, which contains an even more iconic representation of the Queensborough Bridge than Fitzgerald’s.

[The picture above comes from tne NYPL’s Digital Gallery.]