Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Book Review: Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby
Sarah Bartlett Churchwell

Sarah Churchwell, author of Careless People, is a writer’s writer and F. Scott Fitzgerald is her writer. If you love Scott and Zelda, the jazz age, and The Great Gatsby and want to know more, Churchwell will take you to the center of the scene where the Fitzgeralds romped, New York and the south of France in the early twenties. The gossip is juicy. Careless People is literary criticism and the scandalous tales are wound together with thoughtful analysis, but the gossip is juicy, nonetheless. Fitzgerald has always been understood as a writer of his time and place, with characters drawn from people he knew and settings based on places he knew. Churchwell takes a fresh look at Scott and Zelda at the center of the scene that inspired Fitzgerald’s great novel.

In the early twenties Jazz was new and the word jazz was still associated with sex. Radio was new. Mass ownership of automobiles was still new. Traffic laws barely existed and traffic signals meant different things in different places. Sometimes green lights meant go, but elsewhere they meant stop, something Fitzgerald’s tragic hero never got. Cocktails ruled in the way pot and acid ruled the oddly similar but downscale scene in mid-sixties New York and San Francisco. Prohibition and illegality just added zest and glamor to drunken excess. Zelda more than once stripped naked to liven up a gathering. The Fitzgeralds were often in the press for their wild cavorting and Fitzgerald was hailed as the bard of his age, as he is today.

Everyone’s news came from the papers and from the start Fitzgerald was hailed for writing straight out of the headlines of his day. This book covers the crucial years of 1922 and 1923 when the Fitzgeralds were living in Great Neck on the north shore of Long Island, a millionaire’s playground with skyscrapers in view on the horizon. Fitzgerald was gathering material for his great novel set in the same locale but re-named West, and East, Egg. Churchwell has read the newspapers of these days and correlated them with the Fitzgerald’s diaries and correspondence, and those of the great writers among their friends. The headlines of those years told sensational stories that were re-worked into many parts of The Great Gatsby—in particular the Hall-Mills murders just outside of New York in New Jersey. We follow the development of that case as we follow the daily lives of Scott and Zelda, and the formation of the great novel in Fitzgerald’s mind. Our news of them comes from Scott and Zelda’s diaries, and also from the letters and memoirs of their writer friends: Ring Lardner, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Edmund Wilson, and Sherwood Anderson.

Churchwell directly addresses the question, “Was Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald himself?” in the following way:

“Both Fitzgerald and Carraway tended toward judgmentalism, but, correlatively toward idolatry. Both were susceptible to glamor, and both were anxious about its capacity to corrupt. Both enjoyed material luxury but were also moralists who worried about its spiritual poverty. And both moved to Long Island in 1922, where they would live through an extraordinary sequence of events. Not the same events, not identical, but their symmetry tilts toward the feeling of a design. For those who could sense the design as well as Fitzgerald, symmetry begins to shade toward prophecy. Art, cannot, perhaps, impose order on life – but it teaches us to admire even the unruliest of revelations.”

David Blake
Fiction Department
Central Library

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