Letter No. 6 - Gatsby Re-Edited

When our last letter left off, we were left at a crossroads. What to do about reprinting (or not reprinting) the inflammatory word, “kyke”?

In the quest for guidance, I asked a wide range of people for their opinions and somewhat surprisingly received an equally wide range of responses. 

Notably, older folks were more inclined to keep the word as originally intended by F. Scott Fitzgerald — after all that is what he actually wrote.

Still, I wonder if Bantam Books would’ve made the same decision in 1945 to swap “guy” for “kyke” if the author didn’t happen to have already died from a heart attack five years prior? Does that mean it’s more acceptable to modify an original text provided the author is no longer living? I’m not certain that’s a good rule to follow…

Millenial Boomer Back to Back Arms Crossed Looking At Camera Sternly

Perhaps not surprisingly, those in my generation (Millennial), felt more strongly about exercising some editorial privilege and making a change. But if a change were made, should it be silent/unwritten, or should there be a note in the text, whether footnoted, or at the end of the novel? These choices would have clear aesthetic costs and benefits, potentially distracting from the story itself.

That being said, weren’t the existing edits made by Bantam (“guy”) and Penguin Books (“tyke”) also potentially distracting? To me, they certainly create some dissonance and ambiguity of meaning in the fictional context.

In Chapter 2, the shrill Ms. McKee asserts: “I knew he was below me. Everybody kept saying to me: ‘Lucille, that man’s way below you!’ But if I hadn’t met Chester, he’d of got me sure.”

Is a “tyke” or “guy” necessarily a person that’s “way below you”? In my opinion, the meaning of this dialogue, the portrayal of Ms. McKee, and by consequence the nature of all the partygoers who are in attendance at Tom Buchanan’s not-so-secret NYC apartment become flattened. Fitzgerald intends for his readers to find Ms. McKee to be coarse, crass and vulgar, and we do—just not in the intended way.

The act of intentionally—and often thoughtlessly—editing texts, which can result in their concomitant loss of meaning, in order to appear more politically correct seems to be one of the primary arguments against making changes to classic novels. 

Indeed, headlines were made roughly a decade ago when a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn was published that replaced the N-word with “slave.” While the intent of the author and publisher of this edition was to preempt censorship that would remove Twain’s work from academic curriculum, this editing choice is self-defeating insofar as it muddles the meaning of a word used dozens of times in the book. 

Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain Alan Gribben NewSouth Book Edition

The N-word and “slave” are not synonyms, in the same way “kyke” and “tyke” are not synonyms.

Along those lines, as a publisher of classic novels, the question of what I would do with Mark Twain obviously crossed my mind. Would I ever publish a book with the N-word in it? Short answer: absolutely not!

Humans, whether fictional or not, use words to describe groups of people. As our culture constantly evolves, the terms to describe groups of people can transition from derogatory to non-derogatory or vice-versa. What remains constant, to a large extent is the actual description of that group (i.e. who we picture in our minds when the word is said). 

I don’t believe that derogatory terms for groups of people should be re-printed if an equally descriptive, non-derogatory version of that term can be substituted. A slur itself exists with the purpose of insulting a person or group, not necessarily to describe them.

Like any decision-making framework, there are pros and cons to making any editorial adjustments to classic texts, but importantly here, I’m not advocating for the original edition of The Great Gatsby to be wiped from the historical record. If people want to read the original version, it’s easily accessible in written form, as well as a Tim Robbins audiobook. Perhaps some readers didn’t even know about the mid-century edits until they read this post!

Century Press was created in order to be relevant to the present era. That’s why we emphasize sustainable materials and local production. That’s why we have a new introduction from an economist discussing why The Great Gatsby rings true in 2021. And that’s why I’m exercising my editorial pen to make my own modification to the novel, and choosing to replace the derogatory term “kyke” with the non-derogatory term “Jew.” 

Agree? Disagree? Don’t know what to think? Let me know in the comments.

Oh, and if you haven't already, don't forget you save 10% off the cover price when you pre-order Gatsby today :-)


  • Ari

    I’m a Jew myself, and would much rather see the author’s original word “kyke” than any well-intentioned bowdlerization. The existence of crass antisemitism — then and now — is no secret, and anyone reading Gatsby should be adult enough to withstand the use of such slurs. Additionally, I believe it’s a terrible disservice to readers, to change an author’s words in any respect. Not only might it serve to obscure the intended portrayal of the character and his cultural setting but, in some cases, it could also silence the author’s own voice as well. No few writers have harbored antisemitic or other racist sentiments themselves, and it serves neither art nor truth to conceal such things.

  • Alex Simon

    @Chris Thanks for your comments and your perspective. I really like what you said about scribes at the Globe Theater. It brings a new window into the ever-changing relationship between words and their meanings. Thanks for your support!

  • Alex Simon

    @Robert – Thanks for bringing up ‘gypped.’ I will admit that I didn’t consider that word in particular, but of course I recognize the Gypsy/Roma offensiveness of the word. I did some more reading about the term and learned it’s really a misnomer, deriving from ‘Egyptian,’ when really the Roma are a displaced people from Northern India. Nevertheless, the term ‘Indian’ applied to Native Americans is still offensive despite being fundamentally inaccurate. Thinking about it now, perhaps I felt more strongly towards editing a noun that exists purely to insult a group versus an offensive verb. If the phrase was instead “jew down” or something comparable, I’m not certain I would have applied a similar edit as I did with ‘kyke.’ Of course, these are the gray areas of editorial changes.

  • Richard

    …And how does one handle the word “gypped” that appears just a few sentences earlier?

  • chris byart

    This is a difficult issue. I think we all agree that derogatory words are insulting in 2021. But “kyke” has a ‘cutting edge’ to it that increases the pure ignorance of the character. Jew is not necessarily ‘non-derogatory’, given alternatives contexts of the word. I understand your dilemma. Yet, I don’t think we should get hung up on single words as long as the intended meaning remains the same. Yet, we have to change the Canterbury Tales from olde English and the 2021 meaning is sometimes lost. Because Shakespeare’s plays were so popular, competing playhouses would send several scribes to the Globe theatre copying the text spoken on the stage and then acting it out in their own playhouse – not exactly the same scenario but words were change but the intended meaning remained the same. And to this day because all manuscripts were lost in a fire, who knows what the original words were? Of course, Shakespeare still got all the credit for he was the writer – before copyright was even created. Thank-you. I will place an order for the Great Gatsby.

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