99% of the time, a book’s dust jacket is designed after the manuscript is done. The artist internalizes a scene or trope or idea from a novel and spins it into something visual.
The story is a little different for The Great Gatsby. In a 1991 essay, publishing genius Charles Scribner III called the jacket (which he revived after 40 years of it being out of print) “the most celebrated and widely disseminated jacket art in twentieth-century American literature, and perhaps of all time.”
Strangely, Fitzgerald actually saw the cover art before his manuscript was finished. The art, created by Spanish artist Francis Cugat, apparently had a big influence on Fitzgerald. In correspondence with his editor, Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald wrote, “For Christs sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.”
Not only was the dust jacket designed before Fitzgerald finished Gatsby, it actually found its way into the book. It’s not clear what Fitzgerald meant by “written it into the book,” but Scribner provides a couple theories.
The first possibility is in Fitzgerald’s description of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s billboard. Fitzgerald describes Eckleburg’s eyes as “blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose.” This seems like a pretty dead-on description of Cugat’s cover, but some remain unconvinced.
The second possible location of Fitzgerald’s take on Cugat could be in Nick Carraway’s description of Daisy, whom he calls a “girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs” of New York in the evening. This is what Scribner suggests, but it’s possible Fitzgerald intended Cugat’s art to appear in more subtle ways, or in multiple places.
Early Cugat sketches. / Images Via USC
Fitzgerald had been so impressed and taken with Cugat’s sketches that they actually affected how he wrote. Still, he struggled with a title. The title he’d settled on was Trimalchio in West Egg, which sounds delightfully odd, but probably wouldn’t have sit well in readers’ ears. Trimalchio is a character from Petronius’ Satyricon, which is almost 2,000 years old. The publisher rejected the title, and they eventually settled on The Great Gatsby, though Fitzgerald also toyed with Trimalchio, On the Road to West Egg, Gold-hatted Gatsby, and The High-bouncing Lover.
Finally, though, of course, we got the final product, which looks like this:
Image Via USC
Unfortunately, a lot of Gatsby covers now have Leonardo Di Caprio because of the Baz Luhrman movie. Still, industrious high schoolers will be able to find copies with Cugat’s gorgeous original dust jacket. They’ll just need to keep their eyes wide open or, perhaps, one yard high.
Feature Images Via USC and PBS