On this day in 1924, feeling that he had finally found the ideal title for what would become his most famous 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 any of these, Zelda Fitzgerald (and Perkins) eventually talked him into The Great Gatsby.
“Under the Red, White and Blue” has faded into literary history, but a late-draft version of The Great Gatsby was published in 2000 under the “Trimalchio” title. Fitzgerald was borrowing here from a character of that name described in the first-century Roman book 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 type — rich and vulgar social climbers who, like Gatsby, enjoy playing host to an endless supply of partygoers and parasites. After being carried in to dinner by his slaves, Petronius’ Trimalchio likes to recline on cushions, clean his teeth with a silver toothpick, 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…. Take my word for it, if you have a penny you’re worth a penny, you are valued for just what you have.
“Under the Red, White and Blue” would have at least suggested the decline and fall of a later empire, though it might not have dissuaded those contemporary critics who dismissed Gatsby as “only as permanent as a newspaper story, and as on the surface.” Gertrude Stein’s letter to Fitzgerald shows that, in her singular way, she appreciated his accomplishment:
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….
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.