It gets the green light
Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell
‘I wanted to call it Trimalchio,‘ F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to a friend as his jazz age masterpiece was going to print, ‘but was voted down by Zelda and everybody else.’ Later still, he somewhat desperately suggested Under the Red, White and Blue, lest anyone not realise that his West Egg tragedy is about America. Fortunately for the literary ages Fitzgerald was as organised in this matter as he was with his life in general: his 11th hour oscillation could not prevent the book from being called The Great Gatsby.
When she sat down to write Careless People Sarah Churchwell may have similarly swung between rival headings. The green light; a tragic protagonist who always looks ‘so cool’; ‘boats against the current’; blue lawns: The Great Gatsby is full of motifs and metaphors and phrases that could be employed in the title of a work that examines the book’s origins and historical context. Many readers might think that the heart of the matter lies in the novel’s final passage, Fitzgerald’s ‘great meditation on the lost paradise of America’. Instead, Churchwell finds the truth earlier in the same chapter, in the moment after Nick Carraway’s final encounter with the odious and ignorant Tom:
It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…
As Churchwell describes in this fascinating and stylish history of The Great Gatsby, the novel’s ‘careless’ characters draw their prevailing characteristic from the negligence Fitzgerald witnessed at local, state and national level in 1920s America — to say nothing of his and his wife Zelda’s own shortcomings. Most of all, the carelessness that abounds in and around Gatsby’s mansion mirrors a real-life jazz age tragedy, one that the zealous media dubbed ‘the murder of the decade.’
On the night of the 14th of September, 1922, two married lovers, Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills, were murdered at what they thought was their secret rendezvous spot in rural New Jersey. As if the sensation of an adulterous church minister having a steamy affair with a repressed housewife wasn’t enough for the papers and local gossip networks, the murder scene suggested the work of a cold and calculating killer who liked his or her handiwork to send a message; not quite John Doe in Seven, but not far off. Churchwell charts the astonishingly inept investigation of this homicide and how the sordid story influenced Fitzgerald. Her research makes the link as clear as a light at the end of a dock, but, as she points out in her preface, her hypothesis is a radical one.
That so few scholars have tied the Hall-Mills murder to the drama of West Egg appears ever stranger with every parallel that Churchwell draws: both stories took place in 1922 in the same corner of the country; both were fuelled by intense love and passionate adultery; and just as the Hall-Mills case was beset by erroneous suspicions, so Jay Gatsby, though guilty of many things, is innocent of the crime for which he is gunned down. Beneath these superficial similarities are more malignant mixtures: repressive religion and tawdry romance novels; corruption and prohibition; alcohol and incompetence.
Straddling biography, history and literary criticism, Churchwell’s work is everything that the Hall-Mills investigation and Gatsby’s life were not: coherent, thorough and successful. A professor of American literature at the University of East Anglia, Churchwell writes with the precision of a scholar and the pace of an investigative journalist, and has a habit of playfully weaving Fitzgerald’s more florid Gatsby phrases into her prose (a tactic she deployed when discussing other writers in the Modern American Literature seminars I had with her at the aforementioned UEA). The result is a dazzling mosaic of jazz-age America and its rambunctious contradictions.
The most explosive paradox of the day, and one that thwarted Fitzgerald on more than one occasion, was Prohibition. While the Volstead Act (as the 18th amendment to the US Constitution was known) did succeed in reducing overall consumption of alcohol, it inadvertently created not only a criminal underclass, but also a long list of casualties. Some of the dead perished from their own frenzied intake, others (as many as 10,000, by some estimates) were poisoned by alcohol that had been deliberately denatured by a desperate government. At a social level, where previously bars had been almost exclusively male haunts, Prohibition-era speakeasies brought men and women together in a union that would long outlive the law. Fitzgerald and Zelda were two such people, and oh how they drank. Alcohol was Fitzgerald’s nectar and nemesis, a source of linguistic invention and literary inspiration. Using diaries, letters and anecdotes Churchwell charts the couple’s conspicuous consumption, the allure of bootlegging and how these toxic ingredients fuelled The Great Gatsby. ‘Drinking was a great leveller, not because it made everyone equally drunk but because it made everyone equally guilty.’
Critics often charge Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, with being unreliable. We can certainly entrust the story to Churchwell, but her evident awe at Fitzgerald’s chef-d’œuvre occasionally manifests itself in what I call the Christmas hymn syndrome. That is, the writing is beautiful, but sometimes one verse too long: ‘The menu Fitzgerald saved is valuable not because of what it teaches us about food… but because it is a relic, a trace of the past. A love of enchanted objects often leads us astray, as Jay Gatsby will learn; but it is also instinctive, clutching at the palpable for evidence of a life before us that otherwise is only storied. Without the things that survive us, there would be no history.’
Such a criticism is unlikely to perturb a writer who knows better than anyone the lukewarm reception The Great Gatsby received amongst critics upon publication in 1925. Nor should it. Just as Fitzgerald’s jazz era tale of a lost paradise slowly became required reading on modern western literature syllabi, so Churchwell’s book will soon be a source of indispensable insight for those who sit brooding on that old, unknown world.