Zsuzsa Sütő graduated from the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Email:
Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby
London: Virago, 2013.
After releasing her acclaimed book on Marilyn Monroe (2004), Sarah Churchwell (professor at the University of East Anglia) published Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby (2013), which achieved a similar success. In this biography, the author composes a narrative which indeed reads like a novel. Flawlessly truthful to the atmosphere of the sparkling Jazz Age, Churchwell does more than simply list the circumstances of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel of the Roaring Twenties: she provides readers with a detailed description of the lives of the “golden” couple, Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda Sayre starting from 1922 to their deaths in 1940 and 1948, respectively.
In the Preface, Churchwell introduces a written outline of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The writer jotted down his ideas in the form of descriptive titles about what he intended to include in each chapter. Churchwell uses these notes to structure her book, developing the main themes of Careless People from chapters inspired by Fitzgerald’s brainstorming titles. Following the titles, the book is composed of three parallel plotlines twined together: one discussing the life of the Fitzgeralds, one keeping in step with contemporary news items that reflect the era, the reports and rumours of the age which might have affected the writer, and the other attempts to read the The Great Gatsby by considering the first two plots. The sources Churchwell uses are mostly newspaper and magazine articles, as well as diary and ledger excerpts, not to mention a number of notes and letters by historical persons. Thus, the atmosphere of the bacchanal Jazz Age is brought to the reader not just through the voice of Churchwell, but also through photographs, drawings, manuscripts and newspaper excerpts.
As Churchwell describes it, the life of the Fitzgeralds resembles the author’s second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned. As his oeuvre depicts the decadence and ignorance of his generation, the couple’s lifestyle was the epitome of this frame of mind. Besides their artistic aspirations, they were mostly notorious for carelessly spending money and being constantly intoxicated. Their story in the book begins with the couple moving from Midwest New York to a bourgeois bungalow in Great Neck and their joyrides to Astoria with their red Rolls-Royce. As Fitzgerald is disturbed by his perpetual drunkenness and incessant partying, they move to France with their daughter so that he can write his (later, most acknowledged) novel. After publishing The Great Gatsby, they travel back and forth between Europe and America until Zelda is hospitalized and treated for her bipolar disorder. Churchwell’s book also concentrates on their discordant but passionate relationship: Scott and Zelda were fervent lovers but, paradoxically, this sentiment was often induced by jealousy. Both of them had their motives to be jealous, and Churchwell does give us a detailed outline of their affairs and relationships. Supporting her analysis with historical evidence, she exposes their saucy intricacies and also some typical incidents that have occurred, which actually turn out to be mere gossips. Their love is immortalized through the Fitzgeralds’ letters to each other, which are also assimilated into this book.
Scott and Zelda were the stars of the twenties and their exhibitionist behaviour made them more and more popular on Long Island. Zelda, the flagrant flapper was conscious about the fact that literature is not the only marketable good for writers; she believed their fame can be exploited for publicity as well. Her witty observations were a source of inspiration for her husband. When creating female characters in his stories, Fitzgerald added Zelda’s quips into their mouths. Churchwell cites a number of quotations from Zelda’s diary which Fitzgerald has borrowed. Besides Zelda’s casual aphorisms, Fitzgerald’s prose becomes a hotbed of neologisms, and Churchwell analyses the American writer’s coined words and portmanteaus even on the linguistic level.
From a literary point of view, it is Churchwell surveys Fitzgerald’s contemporary critics and this allows her to speculate about the effect these had on the reception of The Great Gatsby when it was published in 1925. Even though the novel was a success, the public response was far from understanding or appreciative, and, accordingly, pitiful accusations were featured in many reviews. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald was very open with his contemporary writers and critics: he read them voraciously, lauded most of them and sometimes received praise from them, too. He followed the current literary trends and was familiar with the works of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Luigi Pirandello, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, John Steinbeck, Edith Wharton, Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemingway. Churchwell illustrates the relationship between Fitzgerald and Hemingway quite well by building up a contrast between Fitzgerald’s compliments on the latter’s writings, while Hemingway, who accepted the praise, had his sarcastic thoughts on Fitzgerald. As Churchwell mentions, Fitzgerald’s favourite writer was John Keats, whose poems he read constantly while he was writing, celebrating the talents of the Romantic poet in his letters to his literary friends and his daughter, as well. Fitzgerald’s best friends within the craft were John Dos Passos and Ring Lardner, with whom he was spending plenty of quality time.
Moreover, Churchwell sees similarities even between Albert Einstein’s scientific endeavours and Fitzgerald’s novel. At first, this idea might seem odd, but the writer manages to loosen the boundary between physics and literary history and thus finds a way to genuinely enlighten us with her observations.
Another interesting thread in the book is the coverage of current news events that preceded the writing of The Great Gatsby that had peculiar reverberations in the public consciousness and in Fitzgerald’s mind. One sensational story was the murder case of Eleanor Mills and Edward Hall, the death of an adulterous couple, who cheated on their spouses and violated the social and moral code with their illicit love. The long trials, the endless lists of culprits and probable eyewitnesses created an amalgam of mystery, neglect, conjectures, and fallacious thinking, with the explicit aim to make the crime scene a tourist attraction. In Churchwell’s telling, the case thickens as the probable witnesses are exposed to be consciously hiding facts from the authorities and creating juicy lies. At the end of the book, Churchwell unveils the main similarities between the murder case and the fascinating world of The Great Gatsby, and makes thrilling speculations about what might have served as a source of inspiration for Fitzgerald.
As to be expected of an era of debauchery and bootlegging, murders and mayhem were not restricted to this single case. Although, according to Churchwell, this was the most controversial case in the newspapers, sustained through many years, the Jazz Age was rife with other heinous incidents and felonies. Car accidents, especially hit-and-runs occurred frequently, suicides were common news, and â€accidental’ shootings were rather fashionable and seldom punished. Lynching, personal revenge and other vigilante acts were considered as acceptable means of enforcing the law. In my understanding, however, Churchwell sees the carelessness of the age mostly in the reckless violation of the Volstead Act. Bootleggers were thriving in New York, but not all of them served pure alcohol. The dishonest production practices of this secret business were conducted under gloomy covers and the liquor sold on the underground market was laced with toxic ingredients, which caused malicious side effects to the consumer. Churchwell closely analyses these issues by bringing detailed examples and proof to the public’s discontent. The period was described as much the age of passion as that of accidents, and this is what Churchwell strives to prove. The Great Gatsby from Gatsby’s point of view is a novel of passion, but most of all, it is a book about accidents and mistaken identity matters.
Throughout Careless People, Churchwell relies too much on creative speculation about the possibilities of how crime affected Fitzgerald’s writing, but to her credit she does give detailed descriptions about famous bootleggers whom Fitzgerald knew and whose lives show similarities with Gatsby’s. Moreover, she seems to find the female friends of Zelda, who showed similar characteristics to Daisy in the novel. These types of women were usually considered the epitomes of chastity until they were suddenly ‘captured’ in adulterous relationships. Churchwell implies that Tom’s character could have been the easiest to draw because the Great Neck was inhabited by people of his kind.
I think Churchwell’s Careless People is an excellent example of a biography that strives to strike a balance between a truthful account of historical facts and an attempt to engage the reader with entertaining tidbits and thrilling speculation. Her vast collection of data is clearly and elegantly organized; Churchwell’s claims and conclusions are supported by a historicised, conextual reading of The Great Gatsby, providing the reader with cultural evidence from newspaper articles, magazines and diary excerpts from the era. Her idea of connecting other literary and scholarly figures with the life of Fitzgerald is masterfully done as she outlines the writer’s reactions and opinions about this turbulent time in American history by articulating his own self-image, which he performed in literary circles with real passion. Her book very much appeals to our sensory imagination as she exquisitely describes both the cornucopic, colourful carnival of the author’s life and its dark side, too.