Monday, 29 January 2018


The Great Gatsby is one of the four greatest American novels, a small pantheon which includes Moby Dick, The Confidence Man and Huckleberry Finn. It is thus the greatest American novel of the 20th Century. Sarah Churchwell's Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby is one of the most engaging studies of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, a book whose greatness was not recognised until after his death, and whose greatness also relates back to all three of those books I mentioned above, though it resembles less closely Moby Dick because its focus is perfectly minute in the same way The Confidence Man and Huckleberry Finn's are. Like them, it does not self-consciously occupy epic space, though it treads on epic themes.

Careless People is an amalgam of the book's title and subtitle. The 'People' of the title refers both to the characters of Gatsby and the circle around Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. This is the real core of the novel's 'invention', and Churchwell's depiction of the way in which the carelessness of the world Gatsby so yearns to inhabit reflects that of the world the Fitzgerald's created around them is probably the most thorough I have read. She's particularly good on now-lesser remembered figures of the New York literary and journalist world, especially those poetasters and scribes whose criticism delineated the bounds of literary success. It is like being transported back to the Twenties in New York, on Long Island, and the whole book is worth the descriptions of the Fitzgeralds and Ring Lardner, neighbours on the north shore (not the Hampton side, as people assume) of Long Island.

She provides bushels of contemporary insights. Scott's friend Alex McKaig prophetically on first meeting Zelda: "tempermental small-town Southern Belle. Chews gum-- shows knees. I do not think marriage can succeed." Mark Twain on Jay Gould (a model for Gatsby): "Get money. Get it quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it dishonestly if you can. honestly if you must." One critic said the Fitzgeralds were "plagarizing their existence", while Zelda said flappers were '"merely applying business methods t being young" and Churchwell notes perceptively that Scott was "an instinctive critic of a society in which he was the most perfect conformist". The overall effect is to immerse in both the writer and his society in a way that illuminates Churchwell's equally erudite readings of the text. And I was pleased to discover that EE Cummings was the first user the word 'party' as a verb. Not the least of the insights to which readers may be pointed is the parallel with our own era.

There are occasional errors. For example, she refers twice to  Fitzgerald's first 'drab room in the Bronx', on Claremont Avenue and 125th Street. Except Claremont and 125 is in Manhattan's Morningside Heights, running alongside Columbia and Barnard colleges. The room may have been drab, but it was in the uptown centre of New York's intellectual community, and convenient for 125th street station.

That speaks in microcosm of the book's weak point: the subtitle of Murder and Mayhem. For it is the famous murder of the Rev. Edward Hall and one of the singers in his church choir, Eleanor Mills in New Brunswick, New Jersey which Churchwell sees as the inspiration for the killing which is central to The Great Gatsby's carelessness. Both were married, and suspicon soon fell on Hall's wife, though the presence of a 'fast' 15 year old girl, Pearl Bahmer, and her older lover, as well as, later, a witness known as 'The Pig Lady'. New Brunswick, the home of Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, is not far from Princeton, the far posher private university where Fitzgerald studied. It is not unreasonable to suppose Fitzgerald would have followed the case, which received massive publicity, perhaps even through the American papers he took in Paris.

My difficulty is there seems to be little, almost nothing in the murder that seems to reflect Gatsby, although Churchwell cites a couple of academic papers which have discussed the connection, she is making it in detail for the first time. And while she takes the case through from crime to trial, the period reconstruction of the lurid world of the murder and its coverage is not nearly as skilled as her portrait of the literary world of New York was. Other famous killings of the era have spawned more compelling portraits, for example Ron Hansen's A Wild Surge Of Guilty Passion, about Ruth Snyder. Of course such works don't have the shadow of one of the great American novels lurking behind them. When the connection between the Hall murders and Gatsby begins to seem gossamer, Churchwell doubles down like a harried professor, asserting it exists because it exists.

The difficulty is compounded by Fitzgerald's own break-down of Gatsby's nine chapters, written in the back of a 1938 novel by Andre Malraux, Man's Hope. One imagines he was preparing an article about his writing of the book, perhaps inspired by Malraux's title: because hope lies at the heart of Jay Gatsby's dreams. The first chapter references 'glamour of Rumsies'. Churchwell eventually explains that Pad Rumsey was a polo playing sculptor married to the daughter of E.H. Harriman, one of the richest of the railroad barons. But as he died in a car accident on the Jericho Turnpike in Long Island, it seems evident that this might well be the particular source for the killing in Gatsby.

Churchwell herself talks about the problem of trying to think intelligently about the relationship between life and art, namely that it is "so easy to think unintelligently about it, to make literal-minded simplistic equations between fiction and reality." She has done a superb job of melding Fitzgerald's life and art, and this was one of my favourite reads of the past year because of that; the Hall murder, fascinating as it is, seems somehow extraneous to that relationship.

Careless People by Sarah Churchwell
Virago, £9.99, ISBN 9781844089686

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