The Alternate Titles of Famous Books: Who’s Afraid of Franz Kafka?

Gabe Habash -- January 19th, 2012

In his correspondence with his editor Max Perkins, F. Scott Fitzgerald waffled between Trimalchio, Trimalchio’s Banquet, Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires, The High-Bouncing Lover, Gold-Hatted Gatsby, Gatsby, On the Road to West Egg, Incident at West Egg, and Trimalchio in West Egg, before finally settling on The Great Gatsby. What’s so fascinating about these working titles is to speculate about how the legacy of Gatsby (and Fitzgerald) would be different if it had a different name. Just imagine how different the world would be if every high school sophomore in America had essays titled “The Ennui of the Upper Class in Fitzgerald’s High-Bouncing Lover.” Okay. Maybe it wouldn’t be that different. But it is fun to see how bad (and how good) some of these briefly entertained titles are.

Of Mice and Men was originally known as Something That Happened, but was scrapped when Steinbeck read Robert Burns’ To a Mouse.

Peter Benchley originally conceived Jaws as a comedy, until he started writing it and realized how badly that would turn out. If Benchley had seen his shark comedy through, perhaps the title his father suggested during its writing, What’s That Noshin’ on My Laig?, would’ve been more appropriate. Over 200 titles were considered, many of them soundly dismissed by Doubleday’s editor Thomas Congdon, including: The Jaw of Leviathan, Great White, A Silence in the Water, A Stillness in the Water, The Summer of the Shark, and The Terror of the Monster.

Finnegans Wake was originally known as Work in Progress when it was published in installments/fragments between 1924 and 1939. Joyce only told his wife Nora the name; not even his close friend Samuel Beckett was privy to the secret title that Joyce revealed upon final publication.

Gulliver’s Travels wasn’t called Gulliver’s Travels until 1735, when it was amended from Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, the title it went by when first published in 1726.

When Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? premiered in Prague in the 1960s, the title was changed to Who’s Afraid of Franz Kafka? The switch indicated that Czech authorities were welcoming Kafka back into favor in the country after previously condemning him for “degenerate individualism.”

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor was originally called The Texture of Time, when he was formulating the link between the characters of Van and Ada in the book. There’s even a video of him talking about the book in draft/notecard form, courtesy of our friend Adam Boretz over at the Listen Up blog.

The working title for Ayn Rand’s Anthem was Ego, but she switched it when she thought it gave too much of the theme away and was too blunt. In the story, the use of the word “Ego” is punishable by death.

Appointment in Samarra is a reference to an Arabian tale (mentioned in Sheppey by W. Somerset Maugham) about a servant trying to elude Death by fleeing to Samarra, only to find out Death has planned for their meeting there. Sheepey was first mentioned to John O’Hara by Dorothy Parker, and he became dead-set on calling his book Appointment in Samarra, despite the fact that everyone else hated it–his publisher, his editors, and even Parker. The working title at the time was The Infernal Grove.

Jane Austen originally wanted Persuasion to be titled The Eliots, but did not decisively pick a title before her death. Her brother and sister, Henry and Cassandra, published the book under the name Persuasion, which they chose, in 1817.

6 thoughts on “The Alternate Titles of Famous Books: Who’s Afraid of Franz Kafka?

  1. Dia

    Catch-22 was going to be named Catch-18, but because Mila-18 by Leon Uris came out just before Catch-18 (22) was to be published, the name was changed to Catch-22 to avoid confusion.

  2. Andrew Porter

    The Bridges of Madison County was published with a completely different title in the UK, where it bombed. It was reprinted with the original title, sold well.

    The first Harry Potter book, HP and the Philosopher’s Stone, was changed to …And the Sorcerer’s Stone in the USA.

  3. Michael Herrmann

    You might want to fact-check that story about Steinbeck and Joseph Heller. I believe the latter was 14 years old when Of Mice and Men was published.

    1. Gabe Habash Post author

      You’re right, Michael. The article’s been changed to reflect the influence of “To a Mouse” on Steinbeck for the title. Thanks for the catch.

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