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October 18, 2017

Not So Great Gatsby Titles

On this day in 1924, feeling that he had finally found the ideal title for his new novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald enthusiastically wired his editor, Max Perkins, that he was "CRAZY ABOUT TITLE UNDER THE RED WHITE AND BLUE...." Already abandoned titles had included "The High Bouncing Lover," "Among the Ash Heaps," and most recently, "Trimalchio." Not as crazy as her husband about these, Zelda (and Perkins) eventually talked him into The Great Gatsby.

A late-draft version of the novel was published in 2000 under the "Trimalchio" title. Fitzgerald was borrowing here from a character by that name in the first-century Roman story, Satyricon, thought to be written by Petronius. As "director of pleasures" for Nero's imperial court, Petronius would have had dealings with people of Trimalchio's status and style -- rich and vulgar social climbers who enjoy playing host to an endless supply of party-goers and parasites. After being carried in to dinner by his slaves, Petronius's Trimalchio likes to recline on cushions, clean his teeth with a silver tooth pick, drink "Opimian Falernia, one hundred years old," and expand:
    Just a hut once, you know---now a regular temple! It has four dining rooms, twenty bedrooms, two marble porticoes, a set of cells upstairs, my own bedroom, a sitting room for this viper (my wife!) here, a very fine porter's room, and it holds guests to any amount. There are a lot of other things too that I'll show you by and by. Take my word for it, if you have a penny you're worth a penny, you are valued for just what you have. Yesterday your friend was a frog, he's a king today---that's the way it goes."
"Under the Red, White and Blue" would have at least suggested the decline and fall of a later empire, but by any name the book did not sell when it came out in 1925. In 1927, Fitzgerald received only $153 in royalties; two years after that only $32; by the last year of his life, 1940, second-printing copies of Gatsby were still unsold, and all his books brought in only $13.13.

The critical reaction was mixed, many of the more literary publications tending to the 'modern classic' view, many in the popular press finding it "decidedly contemporary: today it is here, tomorrow--well, there will be no tomorrow. It is only as permanent as a newspaper story, and as on the surface." Gertrude Stein's letter to Fitzgerald shows her going her usual, uncategorizeable way:
    Here we are and have read your book and it is a good book. I like the melody of your dedication ["Once again to Zelda"] it shows that you have a background of beauty and tenderness and that is a comfort. The next good thing is that you write naturally in sentences and that too is a comfort. You write naturally in sentences and one can read all of them and that among other things is a comfort. . . . You make a modern world and a modern orgy strangely enough it never was done until you did it in This Side of Paradise. My belief in This Side of Paradise was alright. This is as good a book and different and older and that is what one does, one does not get better but different and older and that is always a pleasure. . . .

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