Skip to main content


Almost a Masterpiece

By James L. W. West III | HUMANITIES, January/February 2000 | Volume 21, Number 1

Reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's Trimalchio, an early and complete version of The Great Gatsby, is like listening to a well known musical composition, but played in a different key and with an alternate bridge passage. A theme that one usually hears in the middle movement is now heard in the last. Familiar leitmotifs play through the work but appear at unexpected moments. Several favorite passages are missing, but new combinations and sequences, recognizably from the hand of the composer, are present. To the knowledgeable listener it is like hearing the same work and yet a different work.

Fitzgerald scholars have long known about the existence of an underlying version of The Great Gatsby, but the text of this version has never been formally published or assessed. Now, seventy-five years after the initial first appearance of Gatsby, this ur-text is to be issued for the first time by Cambridge University Press. It will appear under the title Trimalchio as a volume in the Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Editorial work on the project was supported by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and by a travel grant from the American Philosophical Society.

Fitzgerald composed the novel during the spring and summer of 1924. Much of the work was done while he and his wife, Zelda Sayre, were living in Saint-Raphael on the French Riviera. By September Fitzgerald had finished a complete hand-written draft; by late October he had in hand a fully revised typescript. This document he mailed to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Charles Scribner's Sons in New York. Perkins was enthusiastic about the novel: "It's magnificent!" he wrote to Fitzgerald. But Perkins had suggestions for revision, most of them centering on the character of Jay Gatsby. Perkins wanted Fitzgerald to supply more physical detail about the hero ("The reader's eyes can never quite focus upon him," he complained), and Perkins wanted to know about Gatsby's past earlier in the story. Perhaps, he suggested, Gatsby's career could "come out bit by bit in the course of actual narrative."

Fitzgerald took these criticisms to heart, and when galley proofs came to him in January 1925, he executed a complicated revision and restructuring of the book. He rewrote Chapters VI and VII entirely and moved much material about Gatsby's past to earlier positions in the novel. He polished the prose extensively, cut several lengthy sections, and introduced some new passages to the novel, including the memorable description of Jay Gatsby's smile in Chapter III. This work, done in Rome and Capri, occupied Fitzgerald for almost six weeks. When he had finished the revisions, he had changed his narrative profoundly.

During these weeks he also fretted about the title. Throughout the making of the novel, Fitzgerald had difficulty deciding what to call it. Besides "The Great Gatsby," he considered "Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires," "Trimalchio," "Trimalchio in West Egg," "On the Road to West Egg," "Gold-hatted Gatsby," and "The High-bouncing Lover." "Trimalchio," the title he almost chose for the published book, was the name of the ostentatious party-giver in the Satyricon of Petronius.

The typescript that Fitzgerald mailed to Perkins in October was entitled "The Great Gatsby," but by early November Fitzgerald was instructing his editor to call the novel "Trimalchio in West Egg." In mid-December Fitzgerald shifted back to "The Great Gatsby" but continued to waver, suggesting "Gold-hatted Gatsby" and "Under the Red, White and Blue" in later communications. Three weeks before publication he remained dissatisfied: "I feel Trimalchio might have been best after all," he wrote, but by then it was too late.

The revised text was formally published on April 10, 1925, under the title The Great Gatsby. Reviews were favorable, sales moderate. Fitzgerald continued his literary career, publishing Tender Is the Night in 1934 and Taps at Reveille in 1935. He began The Last Tycoon, his Hollywood novel, in 1939, but left it unfinished at his death in 1940. Most of the obituary writers mentioned This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald's popular 1920 bestseller, as his best-known work. Only a few eulogists praised The Great Gatsby.

In the decades that followed, however, The Great Gatsby became famous--and enduring. The novel captures the spirit of the gaudy 1920s and contains some of the most insightful writing that Fitzgerald, or anyone else, ever produced on the topics of money and success. Today The Great Gatsby may well be the most widely read work of fiction written by an American in the twentieth century. The novel still sells more than three hundred thousand copies a year and, recently, was placed quite high on end-of-the-century lists of great English-language novels, both here and in Great Britain, usually occupying the second spot from the top, just behind James Joyce's Ulysses.

Trimalchio, by contrast, is virtually unknown. Besides Fitzgerald and Zelda, Perkins and his wife, a few members of the Scribners firm, and a handful of literary scholars, no one has ever read it. The Cambridge edition will recover the text of Trimalchio and make it available to teachers and critics. Happily, the novel survives in its entirety: the typescript that Fitzgerald mailed to Perkins, and that served as setting copy for the galleys, was apparently discarded; but the complete text is extant in Fitzgerald's revised galley proofs, which are among his papers at Princeton University Library. Fitzgerald reworked those galleys thoroughly, but he did not discard or destroy any part of the underlying typeset text. Thus the narrative of Trimalchio can be extracted from the revised galleys.

The galley text was set in house-style by the Scribners compositors, who introduced a layer of anglicized punctuation and spelling alien to Fitzgerald's prose. But by comparing the punctuation and orthography of the galleys with the same features of the surviving manuscript, also at Princeton, one can recover and restore the texture of Fitzgerald's handwritten draft. This draft uses American spellings and employs a more open system of punctuation than one finds in the galleys. The resulting text, which will have its debut in the Cambridge volume, is as close to the lost ur-novel as it is possible to come by using modern editorial methods.

Trimalchio is not the same story as The Great Gatsby. They are similar: The first two chapters of both books are almost identical; both novels have nine chapters and are narrated by Nick Carraway; both explore the effects of money and social status on human behavior and morality. The green light stands at the end of the Buchanans' dock in both novels; Dan Cody and Meyer Wolfshiem are in both texts; Jay Gatsby gives his fabulous parties and uses the term "old sport" in both narratives. Trimalchio and The Great Gatsby both include the famous guest list for Gatsby's parties, and there is money in Daisy's voice in both novels.

There are crucial differences, however. Chapters VI and VII of Trimalchio are quite different from the corresponding chapters in Gatsby; elsewhere Trimalchio contains several lengthy passages that do not appear in Gatsby. Nick Carraway is not the same in Trimalchio: he is more snobbish, less likable and self-deprecating. He also more obviously controls the narrative, deciding what he will allow readers to know and what he will withhold.

Nick's love affair with Jordan Baker is traced in greater detail in Trimalchio, and we see more clearly why they are drawn to each other. Jordan's personality is more fully revealed: She, like Nick, is not as attractive a character, and the two of them are more clearly complicit in Daisy's affair with Gatsby, and in the wreckage that follows. The reader is more aware in Trimalchio of Gatsby's courting of celebrities--and of Tom and Daisy's aversion to them. The confrontation between Tom and Gatsby in the Plaza Hotel is handled differently in Trimalchio (Gatsby is less convincingly defeated), and the mechanics of moving the characters from Long Island to central Manhattan is managed in a less roundabout way.

Most importantly, the unfolding of Jay Gatsby's character is timed and executed in a wholly different fashion in Trimalchio. He remains shadowy and indistinct for a longer time; he gives Nick a few hints about his background, but not many. His past is a mystery until after Daisy runs down Myrtle Wilson while driving his yellow car. Some hours later, distraught and exhausted, Gatsby reveals his past to Nick in a beautifully rendered early-morning conversation--a sort of confessional scene. In a novel as intricately patterned and skillfully written as this one, all of these differences matter.

There is a tradition in Fitzgerald studies that The Great Gatsby became a masterpiece in revision. This new edition of Trimalchio does not challenge that opinion. Fitzgerald improved the novel in galleys; The Great Gatsby is a better book than Trimalchio. But Trimalchio is itself a remarkably good novel, and different enough from Gatsby to deserve publication on its own.

Scholars, teachers, and students will have new things to talk about. (Most of us think we know by now approximately what the green light stands for.) Literary critics will be able to study the novel that Perkins read in October 1924 and to question whether the advice he gave Fitzgerald was sound. Students will see the same cast of characters but will observe them through an alternate set of lenses and filters. Readers will have a new party at Gatsby's to study--a masquerade affair in Chapter VI--and will see Fitzgerald's hero, Jay Gatsby, revealed in a more direct way.

Trimalchio is a notable literary achievement. The handling of the plot is sure-handed; the writing is graceful and confident. The novel will provide its audience with new understanding of Fitzgerald's working methods and fresh insight into his creative imagination. The text of Trimalchio will be put into play, not only for comparison with The Great Gatsby but for assessment and interpretation as a separate, distinct work of art.

The Earlier Revelry: "Trimalchio's Feast"

Trimalchio, a freed slave who has grown wealthy, hosts a lavish banquet in the Satyricon, an early example of the novel by the Roman author, Petronius. In translations, the chapter is usually called "The Party at Trimalchio's" or "Trimalchio's Feast." It is not certain when Fitzgerald read the Satyricon--perhaps while he was a student at Princeton, more likely after he had left the university and become a professional writer.

Historians consider "Trimalchio's Feast" to be one of the best surviving accounts of domestic revelry from the reign of Nero. The chapter is narrated by a character named Encolpius, who, like Nick Carraway, is a detached observer and recorder rather than a participant. The chapter is cast as a banquet scene, a common convention of classical literature. These banquets were occasions for mild jesting and for conversations about art, literature, and philosophy.

Trimalchio's party is a parody of the convention: most of the guests are inebriated and are disdainful of learning; their crude talk, in colloquial Latin, is mostly about money and possessions. Trimalchio himself is old and unattractive, bibulous and libidinous. His house, however, is spacious and impressively furnished; his dining room contains a large water-clock; his servants are dressed in expensive costumes. Trimalchio's banquet is elaborate and showy, with entertainments that are carefully rehearsed and staged. There are numerous courses of food and drink and several rounds of gifts for the guests, many of whom have drifted in from the street and do not know Trimalchio. They speak disparagingly of him when he leaves the room.

Trimalchio's feast becomes progressively more vinous; it ends with a drunken Trimalchio feigning death atop a mound of pillows, his hired trumpeters blaring a funeral march. The noise brings the city's fire crew; they kick in the door and cause chaos with water and axes. Encolpius and his friends escape into the night without bothering to thank their host or bid him farewell.

About the Author

James L. W. West III is Distinguished Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, where he is a fellow in the Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies. His most recent book is William Styron, A Life (Random House, 1998), which was also supported by an NEH fellowship. West is general editor of the Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Funding Information

This article is adapted in part from the introduction and historical commentary for Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby (Cambridge University Press, 2000).