In between drinking bouts, F. Scott Fitzgerald had enough lucidity and self-regard to recognize the achievement of “The Great Gatsby.” To his respected editor, Maxwell Perkins, he wrote, “I think my novel is about the best American novel ever written.” Later, after lukewarm reviews, he refined his assessment. “ ‘Gatsby’ was far from perfect in many ways,” he wrote, “but all in all it contains such prose as has never been written in America before.”
That gorgeous prose still weaves an undeniable enchantment. The latest to fall under its spell is the scholar Sarah Churchwell, whose own seductive style borrows liberally from the novel. In “Careless People,” a title lifted from Fitzgerald’s famous description of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Churchwell seeks to re-embed “The Great Gatsby,” set in 1922 and published three years later, in the context of its times. Grounded in archival evidence, but also richly speculative, her book is delightful reading for lovers of the novel and a provocative introduction for everyone else.
Churchwell’s avowed mission, as she recognizes, is tinged with irony. Contemporary critical appraisals of “The Great Gatsby” tended to dismiss it as a time-bound snapshot of the Jazz Age. Those early critics, transfixed by the novel’s dead-on portrait of their era, missed Fitzgerald’s grander ambitions, what Churchwell calls his “transcendent meanings.”
As any high school student now knows, the tale of Jay Gatsby’s self-invention, corruption, and romantic illusions morphs into a critique of America itself, always seeking the “orgastic future” while “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Today, Churchwell writes, “We tend now to focus on those universal meanings, letting our myths and misapprehensions of the 1920s take the place of facts about Fitzgerald’s world.”
Churchwell, professor of American literature and public understanding at the University of East Anglia and author of “The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe,” seeks to peel away those myths (no, the Charleston would not have been danced at Gatsby’s parties), while pinpointing Fitzgerald’s influences. Some of these are obvious: the fanciful mansions of Great Neck (the Long Island town where Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, lived for a time); the 1920s culture of gaudy parties, bootlegging, and loosening sexual mores; and the rise of underworld figures such as the gambler-mobster Arnold Rothstein.
Churchwell is especially fascinated by the now-forgotten double murder of an adulterous New Jersey couple, which dominated newspaper headlines in 1922. Both Edward W. Hall, a “well-to-do Episcopal minister,” and Eleanor Reinhardt Mills, who sang in his New Brunswick church’s choir, were married to other people. They died near an abandoned farm with their love letters littered around them, and the scandal triggered a botched investigation, bizarre trial testimony, and an onslaught of tourism to the site — everything but a solution to the crime.
Churchwell, as she herself concedes, is not the first to link the high-profile case to the composition of “The Great Gatsby.” But she makes much of the novel’s apparent thematic and factual debts to that crime and its investigation, which raised issues of adultery, class difference, and mistaken identity.
“Careless People” began as “the biography of a book,” Churchwell writes. It spiraled into a sometimes unwieldy, often fascinating reconstruction of “a remarkable moment in America’s history, at the dizzying center of which stood Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, trying to navigate their unsteady way through it.”
As a result, Churchwell’s narrative has three principal strands: an account of the murder investigation, biographical information about Scott and Zelda, and a smart critical reading of the novel itself.
Highly sympathetic to Fitzgerald, Churchwell declines to regard the couple’s turbulent marriage from a (now familiar) feminist perspective, with a stress on Fitzgerald’s egotism and his wife’s blighted ambitions. Instead, she emphasizes the genetic roots of Zelda’s mental illness (most likely bipolar disorder) and Fitzgerald’s essential loyalty and regard for her.
Where proof of her assertions is lacking, Churchwell typically compensates with heightened prose — a questionable tactic for which she makes no apology. Just as “The Great Gatsby” is “a hymn to language,” she writes, so, too, her book “is also sometimes about language.”
“Filaments of fact and fiction shed different lights on each other, and also throw shadows back on us,” she argues, writing about murkiness with characteristic elegance. “Instead of trying to be definitive, what follows mixes explication with intimation, trying to suggest how inspiration might have worked.” So Churchwell simultaneously invites criticism and deflects it.