Dust Jackets Required
From “Gatsby to Garp” at the Pierpont Morgan
“Gatsby to Garp,” currently on view at one of Manhattan’s most overlooked gems, the Morgan Library & Museum, is a must-see for culture vultures, booklovers and the general tourist who has a spare hour in Midtown.
The exhibit highlights the finest collection of first editions of 20th-century American literature in “private hands,” as gathered by former NYC Councilman Carter Burden. It also nicely touches on all the major bases, from Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Stein, Hughes and on to Ginsberg, Plath, Baldwin, Morrison and Irving.
Well-curated, the small room’s periphery features cases holding prized first editions, with fantastic ancillary material, sometimes containing fascinating critical commentary, as is the case with an advance reader’s copy of Song of Solomon. On the walls, oversized photographs of American giants, such as Updike, Bellow and Roth, loom next to authorial manuscripts, jottings and imagery. Those who fetish literary objects bearing the writers’ script will not be disappointed, either: Many handwritten notations, letters and ephemera are well-represented.
One element the exhibit is at pains to elucidate is American literature’s inclusive scope; at times, though, the more discerning visitor may see how this is also a confection—part of a nod to opening up a literary canon that was once not so inclusive. Remember that many of these authors often initially were not precisely welcomed by the reading community, much less by the literary establishment. That said, Howl, visible upon entry, is simply outside all compass—and was meant to be.
But the hallowed, yet broad, church of American writing is palpable, too, in the careful positioning of works. For example, a specific placement of female authors—a first edition of Plath’s The Bell Jar, along with a letter from “Sylvia” herself—dovetails nicely with the more radical, socially charged writings of James Baldwin and Richard Wright nearby. Literary movements rarely are so neatly delineated within a continuum, but it is nice to swim so smoothly through them.
Of course, literary eye candy abounds. The first taste is the world-famous 1925 first edition (in mint, original dust jacket) of The Great Gatsby. The inescapable title, we learn, actually shifted about, notably, from Trimalchio in West Egg and lastly, Under the Red, White, and Blue, but Gatsby is what Fitzgerald was stuck with at press time. A failure, sales-wise, in his lifetime, Fitzgerald’s book is generally considered to be the most significant American novel of the past century, and its iconic cover, painted by Francis Cugat, holds rich details visible up-close even through the glass: naked women curl in the eye’s irises; the dreamy, “disembodied” face, reminiscent of Daisy Buchanan, stuns; and the nude blue sky is deep with foreboding.
Such imagery still conjures, for most readers, ideas of a shattered American dream, and the conflicts between new and old money. And these persistent themes—old hat now, and possibly even hackneyed in their day—remain present and relevant now, and spill into the aesthetics and social dynamics of our time. Look at the influence, naturally, of last year’s Gatsby film adaptation on popular fashion and taste alone (Brooks Brothers’s “Gatsby” line of clothing, for example). And this relates to the exhibit’s allure: Books can be, it seems, if not judged, then enjoyed specifically because of their covers. Visit a bookworm’s Instagram page (ahem, such as mine), and you’ll understand better; however, visit the Morgan, and you’ll collapse under the weight of your own bibliophilia—if, that is, you are susceptible.
The Sun Also Rises, Catch-22, The Maltese Falcon, Rabbit Run, A Light in August, Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar, Giovanni’s Room and other heavyweight tomes rightly illustrate what the exhibit’s architrave introduction points out: “…by surveying the distinct literary movements and themes, connections emerge—sometimes unexpectedly. …By listening attentively to the many voices of the twentieth century, we may begin to consider new questions of identity, setting, and expression.”
Whether we are considering a “Lost Generation,” in Stein’s well-known phrase, the Beats, the Confessional poets, The Harlem Renaissance, or even what has been termed, mostly by contemporary English critics, “The Jewish-American novel,” these connections should not be forced. They must, indeed, emerge on their own.
It is a tribute to the exhibit’s curation that, in walking past the casements, they do, without really pushing it. They also remind us, in looking at beautiful objects, of the toll the works took on their authors, as well as the labor, often done in obscurity, involved in creating a work of art that is at once a moment’s monument to its own time and one that paradoxically finds itself removed from its time due to style, voice and sheer genius.
Visitors who stroll from the exhibit room, and under the main library’s Italianate dome, among the locked casements of Morgan’s treasury of rare books, will realize that the works featured in “Gatsby to Garp” will, centuries from now, find their place on the shelves next to their literary companions in history.
They are, we know, masterpieces in world, not merely American, literature.
“Gatsby to Garp” is at The Morgan Library & Museum through Sept. 7; the library’s main reading room and Morgan’s private study are also jewel boxes that can’t be missed, as are current visiting exhibits, along with Morgan’s private collection of art objects. For more details, including admission times and entrance fees, visit www.themorgan.org. For more images from the Morgan Library collections, visit my Instagram: @the_fc_bookworm