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Myths, madness, murder and The Great Gatsby

Sarah Churchwell takes a shrewd and lushly lyrical look at F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and the decadent Jazz Age that inspired it, writes Matthew Price.
American actors Robert Redford, left, as Jay Gatsby, and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan in a scene from The Great Gatsby, a 1974 film based on the novel by F Scott Fitzgerald. Paramount Pictures / Courtesy of Getty Images
American actors Robert Redford, left, as Jay Gatsby, and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan in a scene from The Great Gatsby, a 1974 film based on the novel by F Scott Fitzgerald. Paramount Pictures / Courtesy of Getty Images

Sarah Churchwell takes a shrewd and lushly lyrical look at F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and the decadent Jazz Age that inspired it, writes Matthew Price.

The world took its time catching up to The Great Gatsby. Published to mixed reviews and less than stellar sales in 1925, F Scott Fitzgerald's classic, which HL Mencken called a "glorified anecdote", is now a highly touted contender in the Great American Novel derby. (Gatsby or Moby Dick? Take your pick.) Fitzgerald died an alcoholic wreck in Hollywood, where he had gone to make a quick buck writing for the movies, and his early death at 44 only deepened the resonance of Gatsby. Whatever its array of glittering surfaces and glamorous parties - Baz Lurhmann, in his recent film adaptation, got the spectacle part right - the novel is a really dark tale of disillusionment, social posing, violence and spiritual corruption.

The book's thicket of symbols - the ash-heaps, the watchful eyes of Dr TJ Eckleburg that peer down from a billboard, Gatsby's shirts, the green light, "the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us" - have kept high school students and literary critics busy for generations spinning out ever more grandiose interpretations of Gatsby's meanings. The novel is asked to carry a lot of weight: with all the scholarly exegesis and pop cultural baggage, it is hard to see it with any freshness of perspective.

In her shrewd and lushly lyrical Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby, Sarah Churchwell invigorates Gatsby studies with an often memorable, even daring, survey. Though she sometimes tries to out-Fitzgerald Fitzgerald with bursts of strained, overblown lyricism ("Trying to see America clear, we stand amidst the debris, looking at the old hopes of the vagrant dead as they scatter across our tattered Eden."), Churchwell has done a lot of hard thinking about Gatsby, its creator and the times he lived in.

"Everyone knows that The Great Gatsby offers a connoisseur's guide to the glamour and glitter of the Jazz Age," Churchwell writes, "but the world that furnished Gatsby is far darker - and stranger - than perhaps we recognise." Mixing close readings of the text and biographical sketches of Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, herself a tragic figure, Churchwell also zeroes in on a lurid, much-publicised double-murder that gripped the country in the fall of 1922. Edward Hall, a married, well-to-do Episcopal minister in New Jersey, and Eleanor Mills, a married singer in the church choir, were found shot to death in a field near the town of New Brunswick. Love letters were strewn around the bodies, which were arranged in a grotesque tableau beneath a crabapple tree.

The case created a media sensation - it made all the papers across the US, and prompted feverish speculations about motives and suspects. Did Hall's wife do it in an act of revenge? Or was it Mills cuckolded husband? Or someone else altogether? For Churchwell, the Hall-Mills case offers clues into the creation of Fitzgerald's most famous work. Though she cannot find any reference to the murders in Scott's papers or correspondence, she contends its notoriety must have had some effect on Fitzgerald. Churchwell teases us with speculation that "a notorious murder might well have worked its way into Fitzgerald's mind, its details and themes resonating with his novel, without his even being aware of it".

"The Hall-Mills murders are there," Churchwell insists, "a story that can be detected behind the novel, a phantom double, but not an exact correspondence: a nightmare version of grotesque reality, unrelieved by the consolations of art."

Perhaps. But then, there is no way to prove or disprove such a claim. Churchwell's account of the way murder's aftermath played out reads like good tabloid fodder, but how much it contributes to the genesis of Gatsby is simply unverifiable. But this stretch, as elaborately turned as it is, does little to detract from the overall thrust of Churchwell's book. More fascinating for me than the alleged role of the murders is the way she tracks Scott and Zelda's movements through New York in 1922 and her innovative readings of Gatsby itself.

Fitzgerald was already a celebrity when he arrived at Grand Central Station on September 20, 1922. He was 25, handsome and slim, with "hard emerald eyes". Featured on magazine covers, a newspaper named him one of America's "Dozen Handsomest Male Authors". His second novel, The Beautiful and The Damned, was published earlier that year. For the press, Fitzgerald seemed to embody the wild youth he portrayed in his fiction. A magazine article said of him that his "up-to-dateness is one of his chief assets. He believes in the vivid present, the immediate moment"; he once jumped, fully clothed, into a fountain by The Plaza Hotel. About him and Zelda, Fitzgerald mused, "a chorus of pleasant envy followed in the wake of their effortless glamour".

But, Churchwell suggests, Fitzgerald knew all of this came at a steep price. (Money - having it, abusing it - is a powerful metaphor in his writing.) "Parties are a form of suicide," he said; but he was an inveterate partier. Fitzgerald and his pals, who included John Dos Passos, the influential critic Edmund Wilson, and Ring Lardner, among others, drank gargantuan amounts of alcohol. Prohibition may have been the law of the land, but the booze flowed freely in New York. His imbibing was a considerable hindrance to his work.

Churchwell is superb on the social, material context of America and the 1920s, and the raw stuff that went into Gatsby. Her pages are festooned with photographs and facsimile reproductions of newspaper headlines, advertisements, and other print ephemera, which gives her book the feel of a multimedia presentation. This is hardly a dry critical study. She excels at taking an anecdote from Fitzgerald's life, and reading out into the wider culture.

For example, describing a car trip the Fitzgeralds and Dos Passos took to Great Neck, Long Island (the model for West Egg, where Jay Gatsby has his lavish mansion), which would be Fitzgerald's home for 18 months, she notes the primitive conditions of the roads, circa 1922, and the slow speed of automobile travel. From there, she moves to a consideration of traffic signals, which had only recently been introduced at intersections. But there was some confusion - a green light meant stop or caution, not "go", as it does now. Green meant confusion. The green light, of course, is one of The Great Gatsby's most charged symbols. But Gatsby, writes Churchwell, misreads its message, and thus seals his doom. The green light, she writes, was "telling him to stop". Confusions, mix-ups, misapprehensions: these are the very motors of the novel's plot and its murderous conclusion. This is a clever, invigorating take on a central theme. Churchwell also notes the influence of TS Eliot's The Waste Land, published in 1922, on another of the novels charged symbols: the ash-heaps, which stand between the alluring lights of Manhattan and West Egg. The ever-fussy Eliot admired Gatsby, writing to Fitzgerald after its publication that it "interested and excited me more than any new novel I have seen, either English or American, for a number of years". Churchwell offers this interesting comparison between the high-priest of Modernism and the young literary star: "The two writers had more in common than a shared metaphor for the sterility of modern life: both were playing with 'shining verbal toys' redeemed from the ash heaps of history, searching for definitive beauty."

One of the most charged quotes in Careless People comes from Burton Rascoe, literary editor of the New York Tribune and a kind of barometer of his times. Of the 1920s, Rascoe remarked "the world seemed to have gone mad in a hectic frenzy of speculation and wild extravagance and I was interested in the phenomenon, especially since nearly all the other values of life had been engulfed by it. To retreat from it was to retreat from life itself." Fitzgerald, too, was engulfed: he did not retreat, and out of that engagement came The Great Gatsby.

Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.

Updated: July 13, 2013 04:00 AM

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