Trimalchio, the original Gatsby story

artwork by Zelda Fitzgerald

Have you read Trimalchio yet? No? Don’t worry, not too many people have until recent years. It’s the first edition and working title of The Great Gatsby. It was named Trimalchio after a character in the ancient Latin text Satyricon by Petronius. In the text Trimalchio held a lavish and excessive dinner party for his guests. At the party Trimalchio proclaims:

Alas! how less than naught are we;
Fragile life’s thread, and brief our day!
What this is now, we all shall be;
Drink and make merry while you may.

You can read the completetranslated text for yourself and find the similarities between the characters. Or, here’s a free Kindle edition. Either way it’s an illuminating read.

Trimalchio was submitted by Fitzgerald for publication but never published. It was instead rewritten as The Great Gatsby.

Francis Scott Fitzgerald rewrote two complete chapters and completely revised the rest of the completed manuscript. If you have already devoured The Great Gatsby book inside out and upside down, then this is a fascinating insight into how the story was first formed and what has been altered. You’ll be left to ponder why Fitzgerald made the changes he did. As an insight into how a writer creates something, that’s fascinating.

F Scott FitzgeraldIn Trimalchio, the first two chapters are very similar to The Great Gatsby. However, chapters six and seven are very different. The narrators of both stories (Nick Carraway) feel like different characters although they have the same name. In fact, throughout the story there are many perceivable differences. It’s a bit like looking at the story through the wrong end of a telescope. You get a whole different story that seems familiar — as if your time machine has malfunctioned in some way.


artwork by Zelda Fitzgerald

Times Square by Zelda Fitzgerald

Here is a timeline of how Fitzgerald’s ideas transformed into Trimalchio and then The Great Gatsby story we know today.

1922

June: Fitzgerald gathers notes on the theme of the Gatsby storyline whilst correcting proofs for Tales of the Jazz Age – his second collection of short stories. He is quite dissatisfied with the notes on a story, set in 1885, that touches on the same themes as Gatsby.

1923

Fitzgerald has written 18,000 words so far on the themes that engulf The Great Gatsby story. He trims them considerably and turns this into a shorter story.

1924

April: Fitzgerald rewrites and reconceives the Gatsby themes into a longer form.
June: The short story Absolution is published in American Mercury. It is constructed from the 1923 story.

Fitzgerald goes on to complete the first draft of The Great Gatsby in the summer of 1924 at his home in Saint-Raphaël, France.

October: The Great Gatsby is completed and submitted for publication.

November: the title is changed to Trimalchio in West Egg. In the meantime, the text for the novel is sent to the typesetters because, well, Fitzgerald was not known for making major revisions. But some major revisions did indeed take place.

December: the title reverts back to The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, who at first was considered too vague a character, is developed and a back story emerges as to how he has gained his wealth. Meanwhile the proofs of the first submission are sent to Fitzgerald in late December.

1925

In early 1925, Fitzgerald suggests the title Trimalchio but the idea is rejected. The story is then revised and completely restructured by the writer. He rewrites chapters 6 and 7, enriches the character of Jay Gatsby and moves around some very important information.

March: the name of the novel is The Great Gatsby.

April 10: the first edition of The Great Gatsby is published.

1926

F Scott Fitzgerald AbsolutionIn February Absolution is published in his third collection of short stories called All The Sad Young Men. The story of Absolution is published following the successful publication of The Great Gatsby in 1925.

Phew-hoo, a writer’s life can get complicated, no?

You can find Fitzgerald’s Trimalchio on Amazon here and also at Waterstones. F Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories are well worth a read too.


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