Careless People by Sarah Churchwell

7th Jun 2013

Careless People by Sarah Churchwell
Sarah Churchwell is the Chicago-born Professor of American Literature at the University of East Anglia. She also writes for The Guardian and The New Statesman, and is a guest critic on BBC2’s Newsnight Review.


In Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, Churchwell turns her expert attention to the diverse influences behind F Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.

In September 1922, Scott – aged 26 – returned to New York with his vivacious wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, and their young daughter, after a year abroad. The idea for his third novel, The Great Gatsby, was taking shape. Fitzgerald’s star was rising – his stories of the jazz age and its hedonistic lifestyle made him the spokesman for a new, bolder generation.

Churchwell focuses, in the main, on the last four months of 1922 – the year in which Gatsby also begins. Prohibition was in full swing – nightclubs serving illegal alcohol fed public demand. Bootleggers were among America’s highest profile criminals.

Print journalism was still the leading source of news and information. Ulysses and The Wasteland were both published that year, while ‘Hollywood’, ‘brand-name’ and ‘robot’ were among the many new terms added to the lexicon.

Sarah Churchwell brings Fitzgerald’s work to life with a wit, elegance and timeliness that The Great Gatsby, and its author, truly deserve.The most sensational news story of 1922 was that of the Hall-Mills Murders in New Jersey. In September, the bodies of Edward Hall, an Episcopalian minister, married to a wealthy heiress, and Eleanor Mills – the sexton’s wife – were discovered in their hometown of New Brunswick.

Both victims had been shot several times in the head, and love letters exchanged by the doomed couple were placed between their corpses. An elderly woman claimed to have witnessed the murders, and the bungled investigation made headlines for years afterward, though the crime was never solved.

Fitzgerald didn’t mention the Hall-Mills case as an inspiration for Gatsby, but themes of violence and class divisions permeate the novel. Through a series of vignettes, and with a keen eye for coincidence, Churchwell convincingly details the myriad events and personalities of 1922 that may have been on the novelist’s mind as his story unfolded.

Nonetheless, she warns against taking these real-life parallels too literally, citing the ultimately fruitless searches for the ‘model’ of Jay Gatsby, his mansion and wild parties.

Fitzgerald was already a heavy drinker and Zelda’s flamboyance enlivened any gathering. They moved to Great Neck, a fashionable suburb of Long Island, in late 1922. Their neighbours included writers and performers, while older, more aristocratic families lived nearby in their grand estates.

By 1924, the Fitzgeralds had moved to Europe to escape New York’s decadence. Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby initially received a lukewarm response from readers and critics, who dismissed it as a ‘novel of the season’. Fitzgerald’s later years were clouded by alcoholism and Zelda’s depression. He died in 1940, believing himself a failure.

The universal motifs of Gatsby are now more widely recognised, but its position on the brink of modernity has been neglected. Sarah Churchwell redresses the balance, bringing Fitzgerald’s work to life with a wit, elegance and timeliness that the novel, and its author, truly deserve.