Brow Beat

The Forgotten Childhood of Jay Gatsby

In the novel that bears his name, Jay Gatsby is a rather mysterious figure, especially at first. There are rumors he killed a man, that he’s a spy. F. Scott Fitzgerald spoons out the character’s actual backstory gradually: He was born James Gatz in North Dakota, changed his name when he met a rich man with a yacht, served impressively in World War I, made buckets of money in bootlegging. We don’t learn much about Gatz’s life before that name-change, though, which he makes at age 17.

According to a couple of letters written by Fitzgerald—one to a fan, the other to his editor Maxwell Perkins—The Great Gatsby was originally going to show us Gatz as a boy. The short story “Absolution,” first published in the American Mercury in 1924 and included in Fitzgerald’s 1926 collection All the Sad Young Men, was, according to the author, “intended to be a picture of [Gatsby’s] early life,” but he “cut it because I preferred to preserve the sense of mystery.” (Or, as he put it to Perkins, “it was to have been the prologue of the novel, but it interfered with the neatness of the plan.”) And while the story that survives is not, of course, actually part of The Great Gatsby, and was revised to some  unknown extent before publication, it can, like a movie’s deleted scenes, give us a fuller picture of the choices Fitzgerald made in writing his masterpiece.

Rudolph Miller, the Dakota boy at the center of “Absolution,” is a dead ringer for a young Jay Gatsby. A “beautiful, intense little boy of 11” who sleeps “among his Alger books, his collection of cigar-bands,” and “his mothy pennants,” Rudolph is imaginative and proud. “Like all those who habitually and instinctively lie,” Fitzgerald tells us, Rudolph “had an enormous respect and awe for the truth.” In confession, he tells a priest that he is guilty of “not believing I was the son of my parents.” “You mean you thought you were too good to be the son of your parents?” the priest asks. “Yes, Father.” Rudolph’s actual father, like Gatsby’s, is a humble Midwestern man who reveres the railroad tycoon James J. Hill.

Rudolph also has an alternate identity for himself, by the name of Blatchford Sarnemington. “When he became Blatchford Sarnemington a suave nobility flowed from him. Blatchford Sarnemington lived in great sweeping triumphs. When Rudolph half closed his eyes it meant that Blatchford had established dominance over him and, as he went by, there were envious mutters in the air: ‘Blatchford Sarnemington! There goes Blatchford Sarnemington.’ ”

It is not a great leap from Blatchford Sarnemington to Jay Gatsby, except in syllables. But there are differences between their stories, too, of course—chief among them, probably, the priest that Rudolph confesses to. “Absolution” begins with that priest, Father Schwartz, who is rather taken with Rudolph’s “beautiful eyes,” and eventually has a breakdown in front of the boy. Rudolph goes to see him again, having sinned, and Father Schwartz says, “in a peculiar voice,” “When a lot of people get together in the best places things go glimmering.” He starts asking Rudolph odd questions. “Did you ever go to a party?” “Did you ever see an amusement park?” The places he then describes to the boy sound a lot like the parties Gatsby throws on West Egg.

And it’s Father Schwartz’s breakdown that finally prompts Rudolph to embrace his inner Blatchford. “There was something ineffably gorgeous somewhere that had nothing to do with God,” he concludes. This is the most intriguing aspect of “Absolution,” the idea that lingering behind The Great Gatsby is a religious imagination that has in some crucial way abandoned religion. Fitzgerald, who grew up Catholic, mostly excised that idea from the actual novel (Gatsby gets a Lutheran funeral), but it lingers in certain key passages, most notably when Gatsby decides that, after kissing Daisy, his mind will “never  romp again like the mind of God.”

Whatever you want to make of that, if anything, it’s worth reading “Absolution” this week in all the Gatsby hullaballoo. If nothing else, it’s quite a good story.

Read more in Slate about The Great Gatsby.