Behind every work of art is a crumpled paper trail of terrible false starts, dead ends and
rejected discarded drafts intended for the wastebasket. Working titles in particular reveal what an artist originally thought of his or her creation before it ever saw the light of day. This map retrieves some of these titles and compares the influences and crafts of those who chucked them in the first place.
Picture William Faulkner bent over his Remington Model 12, tapping out the title of his soon-to-be tour de force about the Compson family: “Twilight.” Back then, this time of day still inspired feelings of contentment and reflection. Today you can’t read the word without thinking of befanged teens. But what if Faulkner had kept his working title for The Sound and the Fury? Could he have saved the world from the Twilight vampire saga?
The real blame for blood-drooling heartthrobs falls on Bram Stoker. His novel Dracula inspired myriad vampire tales, including the dead-awful shoot-’em-up flick The Dead Undead (2010), which borrows Stoker’s working title. Both “Twilight” and “The Dead Un-Dead” reflect an in-between state: neither light nor dark, neither dead nor alive. Faulkner took his ultimate title from Macbeth’s “life’s but a walking shadow” soliloquy (act 5, scene 5), underscoring the role of shadows in his novel. Incidentally, shadows have served as indispensable imagery for all vampire tales from Dracula to Twilight (2005). Faulkner lit upon his perfect title and snuffed out his working one, which was heard no more—until its resurrection in tales about sex-starved high school–age vampires.
Authors rarely show anything but reverence for William Shakespeare. Southern Gothic demiurge William Faulkner, one of Shakespeare’s supreme admirers, filled his writings with Shakespearean imagery and symbolism. This is particularly true of the novel originally called “Twilight” that he retitled The Sound and the Fury after a line from Macbeth. In 1962 Faulkner declared that all writers “yearn to be as good as Shakespeare.”
As it happens, Shakespeare’s fiercest critic is every bit as renowned—and loquacious—as Faulkner. In his scathing essay “Tolstoy on Shakespeare,” Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy revolts against “the false glorification of Shakespeare,” which “compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him nonexistent merits.” Given his distaste for the Bard, what inspired Tolstoy to give his Napoleonic epic War and Peace the working title “All’s Well That Ends Well”—an unabashed homage to one of Shakespeare’s best-known comedies? The damning discovery comes from Tolstoy’s posthumously published diaries. Luckily for Tolstoy, no evidence has been found confirming Jerry Seinfeld’s allegation, made in an episode of his sitcom Seinfeld, that War and Peace’s original title was “War, What Is It Good For?”
The Sound and the Fury began as a short story called “Twilight.” As its characters and storyline grew more complex, William Faulkner dropped its crepuscular title and expanded it into the experimental novel that has come to embody literary modernism. Faulkner’s work employs two textbook modernist techniques: stream of consciousness prose and multi-perspective narration (a different narrator relates each of its four sections). Fellow modernist T.S. Eliot composed “The Waste Land” in a similarly multivoiced fashion, as embodied by the poem’s working title, “He Do the Police in Different Voices.” These “different voices” are more than a mixture of perspectives; they are also the literary ghosts whispering through every line. Eliot alludes regularly to his forebears, chiefly William Shakespeare, Faulkner’s title source for The Sound and the Fury. Even Eliot’s working title is an allusion. In a scene from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1865), child minder Betty Higden praises the orphan Sloppy for his thespian flair in reading the crime beat: “Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the police in different voices.” Perhaps the modernist’s condition is just that: an orphan searching among many voices for his own.
Ghosts, vampires and other reanimated life-forms have long haunted us, but the term undead wasn’t used to describe these creepers until Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (originally “The Dead Un-Dead”). T.S. Eliot depicts a figuratively undead landscape in his poem on the decay of civilization “The Waste Land,” which opens with “breeding lilacs out of the dead land” and later describes feeling “neither living nor dead.” But an earlier draft, titled “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” salutes Stoker directly, re-creating the disturbing image from Dracula, common on its early covers, of the Count crawling down a castle wall facedown: “The shrill bats quivered through the violet air / Sobbing, and beating wings / A man…of abnormal powers / I saw him creep head downward down a wall.” In another of Eliot’s lines, a man, flat on his back, states matter-of-factly, “It seems that I have been a long time dead.” But Eliot and his editor, poet Ezra Pound, ultimately killed off all Dracula allusions in the final draft, save for these revised lines: “And bats with baby faces in the violet light / Whistled, and beat their wings / And crawled head downward down a blackened wall.”
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (working title: “The Dead Un-Dead”) belongs to the genre of “invasion literature” popular mainly in Britain from the 1870s until the start of World War I. The genre exploited the empire’s deep-seated paranoia of foreign invasion by employing villains with foreign accents and “barbaric” customs, exemplified by Stoker’s bloodsucking Transylvanian, Count Dracula. In the 1960s Britain invaded back. The most commercially successful British Invasion song, with a Guinness-record 2,000-plus recorded versions, is the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” Paul McCartney conceived the song’s melody one night while he was sleeping, initially using the three-syllable working title “Scrambled Eggs” to fit the song’s opening melodic phrase. But had it been his neck aching instead of his stomach growling, McCartney might have found himself humming “Drac-u-la.” Indeed, while “Yesterday” was leading the U.S. Billboard charts in October 1965, McCartney, in cartoon form, was in Transylvania battling the Count himself on an episode of the animated television series The Beatles. Perhaps their tiff was due to a strain of invasion paranoia lingering in the Brit’s blood. Or maybe Dracula resented McCartney’s betrothal, earlier in the episode, to an alluring “baby in black” named Vampiress.
According to Paul McCartney, the melody to the Beatles hit “Yesterday” came to him while he was sleeping. He woke up, sat down at the piano and sang a three-syllable working lyric, “scrambled eggs,” over the opening tune. More lyrics followed: “Scrambled eggs / Oh, my baby, how I love your legs.” Only when the focus shifted from breakfast to breakup did the song find its proper tone. But McCartney never forgets a past relationship; he returned to his muse of yesteryear with the 1979 Wings album Back to the Egg.
John Steinbeck, whose method for preparing eggs involved dropping the whites and shells into the pot as his coffee brewed, originally called Of Mice and Men “Something That Happened.” He found his novella’s ultimate title in Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse” (1785): “The best laid schemes of mice and men go often awry, and leave us nothing but grief and pain.” Burns’s next stanza however, distinguishes mice and men by their instinctual response to plans gone awry. Mice never dwell on the past, and thus they are unaffected by grief, while men “backward cast [their] eye, / On prospects dreary” as McCartney does, longing for yesterday.
In “To a Mouse,” Robert Burns writes, “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go often awry”—a working draft of the adage “Shit happens.” John Steinbeck’s original title for Of Mice and Men, “Something That Happened,” reads like a comically mundane past-tense version of this bumper-sticker wisdom. But the novella, a simple story about a tragic duo, becomes a profound parable on the human (and rodent) condition when it borrows Burns’s poetic wisdom for its title. Lennie and George’s fate, like all men’s, is not in their hands—it simply happens.
Sometimes things go awry for the better. Fate forced two last-minute title changes upon Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s World War II satire. “Catch-18,” the manuscript’s title for eight years, was scrapped to avoid numerical confusion with Leon Uris’s recently published WWII novel Mila 18; likewise, “Catch-11,” Heller’s next working title, yielded to the 1960 film Ocean’s 11. From this impossible situation sprang Catch-22. Critics, however, still scorn the pretentiously simplistic name of Heller’s sophomore novel, Something Happened (1974), reminiscent of Steinbeck’s working title for Of Mice and Men. Fate did not intervene with Something Happened as it did with Heller’s debut. Title-wise, nothing happened.
Searching for the perfect title is like a quest for the Holy Grail—sacred, laborious and often futile. The Lancelot-spirited John Steinbeck found his golden chalice (one of many in his trophy case of brilliant titles) with Of Mice and Men, defeating the unknightly working title “Something That Happened.” Incidentally, Steinbeck was a Grail scholar: He spent the last 20 years of his life modernizing the King Arthur tales, and he wove the theme of the unattainable throughout his stories. Lennie and George’s futile quest for a plot of California land in Of Mice and Men is Steinbeck’s Depression-era Grail quest.
Nomadic farmers like Lennie and George were forced west in the 1930s by the Dust Bowl, a Midwestern blight in which drought-stricken land and high winds mingled to form crop-ravaging dust storms. In Arthurian legend, a curse that makes a land barren is known as the “Wasteland” motif. T.S. Eliot found his Grail in this motif, as well as the title and theme for his masterpiece, “The Waste Land”—but not until he vanquished the working title “He Do the Police in Different Voices.”