(There is a Spanish version of this entry HERE)
The Great Gatsby is nowadays considered Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, and one of the best novels published in what has been called “the American century”. (On a side note, when such expressions are coined it usually means that the Golden Age has passed, and the American century might be over…)
So, as a youtuber might say, “respect!”
In fact, when it was first published, Gatsby was a flop in Fitzgerald’s so far up and rising career. In its first year it sold less than twenty thousand copies, one third of what its author had expected. The reviews weren’t enthusiastic either. Some critics liked it a lot; others, not so much. In brief, when it came out, the world shrug its shoulders at the new work by the author of This Side of Paradise.
The saddest part is that Fitzgerald was fully aware of the wonderful book he had penned. He had hoped the novel would cement his position among the greatest American writers of all times. How disappointed he must have been!
But let’s rewind a little the whole thing. Fitzgerald has just finished the manuscript. His editor, the legendary Maxwell Perkins is done correcting the novelist’s atrocious spelling and has strongarmed him into giving it one last rewrite to get it ready for publication. All that remains to work out is the title.
Okay, to cut a story short, Fitzgerald has written a novel about a mysterious and charismatic millionaire named Gatsby, who tries to seduce his first love with outrageously lavish parties that are the talk of the whole town. Unfortunately, the gal is married to another rich guy, a brute with absolutely no charm who is responsible for the death of a poor girl he was having an affair with. The evil rich guy dastardly manoeuvers so that Gatsby is blamed and eventually murdered for that woman’s death. And the story’s narrator, who has witnessed the whole thing from the outside, reflects on how unfair and odious life is even in this new continent that seemed so pure and full of promise when the first Europeans arrived.
So… how do we title it?
The brainstorming of Scott Fitzgerald and his editor
‘Well, the hero’s name is Gatsby. Let’s call it Gatsby.’
‘Yeah, that’s great, but… dunno… Gatsby….’
-‘Or Trilby, by George du Maurier, about a gal named Trilby. Though it’s true the only thing peoples¡ remember about that novel is Svengali the mysterious mentor/hypnotizer who turns the girl into a music prodigy. In fact, some people think the title of the novel is Svengali…’
‘I don’t know. Gatsby? Really?’
-Aw right… let’s try the impressionistic title. What about Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires? It suggests the industrial cityscape of New York and the rich folks’ mansions where action takes place.’
‘Who’s gonna remember that title? “Morning, do you have a novel called Among Ash-Heaps and… uh… Millionaires? “Gee, I’m sorry, it just sold out…”‘
‘Okay, okay, I’ve got something more memorable: Trimalchio.
‘Holy shit, what’s that? A sexual position?’
‘*Sigh* Trimalchio is the name of a character in the book Satyricon by Petronius, a Roman writer of the first century A.D. In the novel, Trimalchio is a freedman who has got rich through nefarious deals, and now is the host of great banquets where he displays his wealth and his lack of taste. Trimalchio stands for “nouveau riche”. It fits Gatsby like a glove.
‘It is, isn’t it?’
‘…but for the fact that nobody knows who the f**k Trimalchio is. because no one without a master’s degree in Latin literature has read the Satyricon in 500 years!!!!! I mean, come on, could you please try to sound a little less Ivy League, for Pete’s sake?’
‘You’re Ivy League too, Max.’
‘So will be the six guys who buy your book. I’m trying to make a living here!’
‘Well, it work for Shaw with Pygmalion. And Joyce and his Ulysses.’
‘Look Scott, if you hadn’t died in 1940, you’d know that they changed Shaw’s title from Pygmalion to My Fair Lady. Plus they added songs.’
-‘You want them to add songs to your masterpiece?’
‘Well, then think up another title. Pronto.’
-‘Okay, you’re gonna like this one better: Trimalchio in West Egg‘. (Editor’s note: West Egg is the fictional town in Long Island where the story takes place) Intriguing, huh?’
‘Stop already with that fucking Trimalchio!’
‘You surprise me, Max. You forgot to insert the ***s’
-‘I don’t care!’
-‘All right, all right, jeez, what a temper. Let me see… let me see… On the Road to West Egg?’
‘Under the Red, White and Blue? It would add a patriotic flavor to it, wouldn’t it? Patriot blood runs through my veins. Did I ever tell you a relative of mine wrote The Star-Spangled B–‘
‘That’s better, but it would hurt international sales. Which Red, White and Blue do you mean, they’ll ask. The French will think it’s their flag. Same with the British. It’ll be confusing.’
‘I think I got it: Gold-Hatted Gatsby.’
‘Sounds like a Dr. Seuss book.’
‘I declare, I’m running out of titles, old sport!’
‘Come on, Scott, try harder. Think of posterity…’
‘The High-Bouncing Lover!’
-‘On second thoughts, don’t try so hard, kid. Honestly…’
-‘Uggggh. Let’s see… when I was a teenager I read a French book about a charismatic boy in a board school. It was called Le Grand Meaulnes. What if I call mine The Great Gatsby and we forget about it?’
‘The Great Gatsby…’
‘I know, it’s lame…’
-‘No, no, I think… it fits. The. Great. Gatsby. It’s both ironic and earnest, because Nick the narrator thinks he was a great guy, whereas the rest of the people forget him as soon as he dies.
‘Come to think of it, I still prefer Trimalchio in West Egg.’
-‘Zelda, say something, by God, before he ruins us all…
-‘No, wait, I changed my mind! ¡Under the Red, White and Blue, and that’s my final decision!’
-‘The Great Gatsby sounds like the cat’s meow, baby…’
‘No, no, no! You two are stymieing my creativity’
‘ “Stymieing?” Really? Do you even know how to spell that, Scott?’
‘I wrote this novel, and I’m the ONLY ONE who knows what title works best for it! Period!
The rest is history.
1: All the titles mentioned above are real. Fitgerald did consider each and every one of them at some point. It is also real that the writer died thinking he should change Gatsby‘s title to Under the Red, White and Blue.
Let’s keep it in mind: Choosing a good title is also a matter of taste, and if everybody had good taste, fashion wouldn’t exist.
2: All the illustrations except the Petronius engraving and the cover of the book are by the great J.C. Leyendeker, who was the star artist of the Saturday Evening Post until the arrival of Norman Rockwell. His slick and smart look is probably the mental image the original readers had of Gatsby, Daisy, Nick and the rest of posh people in the novel. This advertising pictures dated before 1925 are in public domain, according to Wikipedia.
Besides the Post, Leyendecker is usually connected to the advertising campaigns of Arrow shirts . And anyone who’s read the book will remember how much Gatsby liked shirts…