Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby

Sarah Churchwell. Penguin Press, 2014. 388 pages + Index. $29.95.

By John McWilliams

Reviewers rarely reveal the perspective—sometimes a bias—from which they assess a book under review. I am not a Fitzgerald scholar, nor do I pretend to be.  Although I have read a goodly complement of Fitzgerald biographies and monographs, I have written nothing about The Great Gatsby. During forty-five years of professing American Literature at the university and college levels, I have taught The Great Gatsby at least twenty-five times in courses with different venues and emphases, most often in survey courses of twentieth century American fiction. I regard The Great Gatsby as, sentence by sentence, the best-written novel I have ever read. The cadences of its prose are poetry; its implied psychological and societal insights are fully worthy of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, two novelists whom Fitzgerald deeply admired. Considering the chaotic lives Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were leading during the early Twenties, the finished achievement of The Great Gatsby is truly a miracle. One of a kind, never alas to be equaled or even approximated. 

The estimated worldwide sales of The Great Gatsby as of 2013 are twenty-five million copies. Surely everyone familiar with ΦBK reviews has read it, many of you more than once. Among the shelves of books on Fitzgerald published since 1945, there are at least four collections of essays on Gatsby, to say nothing of the hundreds of articles that have appeared in journals, academic and non-academic. What could there now be to say that is fresh and new?  

Sarah Churchwell, with a book on Marilyn Monroe behind her, approaches Gatsby with a journalistic eye for celebrity culture, as well as a regard for literary values and historical sources. She uncovers or recovers many materials now unfamiliar to informed readers of Fitzgerald. She has found a lost 1925 review of Gatsby by Burton Rascoe that quotes a lost letter in which Fitzgerald insightfully wrote, apropos of Gatsby, “It happens to be extraordinarily difficult to write directly and simply about complex and indirect people. And I should prefer to fail at the job ridiculously as James often did than to succeed ignobly.” Churchwell enhances her text with compelling photos and illustrations, to which Penguin should have given finer quality reproduction: a photo of the 100 foot Corona Dumps (Gatsby’s “Ash Heaps”) between New York and Great Neck; a photo of Queens Boulevard in 1922 with its newly controversial billboards (Gatsby’s T..J. Eckleburg); a photo of Ring Lardner’s and Herbert Swope’s splendorous houses at Great Neck; a Saturday Evening Post cover of a woman’s golf champion (Gatsby’s Jordan Baker), photos of Zelda in the Great Neck snow in December 1924; the lyrics to “The Love Nest” (played on the piano by Klipspringer, Jay Gatsby’s eternal boarder). 

Churchwell’s knowledge of 1920s press reportage of the customs of the alcoholic. exhibitionist nouveau-rich, as well as those possessing “Old Money,” leads to informative insights. The easy availability of “Rum Row,” three miles off Long Island Sound but in international waters, was widely known. In the summer of 1922, totally white dresses were in vogue. whether for morning, afternoon or evening gatherings. The directional meaning of the new green traffic lights in Manhattan was much disputed. The Fay Cab Company retained bootleggers as taxi drivers; owner Larry Fay boasted that every year he ordered a trunk load of colorful shirts from London. Minot North Dakota (James Gatz’s point of origin) was known as the gangster capital of the middle west and the pipeline for bootleg alcohol that flowed to St. Paul. After Fitzgerald read that Nelly Bly published an article naming Fitzgerald among the “smart and undesirable lot of young nobodies,” Fitzgerald had good reason to characterize her as Dan Cody’s grasping, amoral mistress, Ella Kay. 

Churchwell regards these kinds of insights as incidental to the findings of her controlling argument. Twenty-seven separate one to four page entries are devoted to a running journalistic account of the notorious Hall-Mills double-murder case, which preoccupied American tabloid journalism in 1923 and early 1924 while the Fitzgeralds were living in Great Neck. Churchwell claims that the Hall-Mills double killing is the “phantom double” of Wilson’s revenge-murder of Jay Gatsby, followed shortly by Wilson’s suicide. To be sure, the Hall-Mills and Wilson-Gatsby deaths are double killings motivated by revenge for suspected but unproven adultery.  Whether these similarities substantiate Churchwell’s explicit ”contention that this remarkable story amplifies and enriches the context of Gatsby” remains questionable, however. 

Hall-Mills was assumed to be a double murder; Fitzgerald’s Wilson, however, murders Gatsby, then commits suicide. The historical case involves an affair between an Episcopal Reverend and a lower middle class choir singer, not a romantic bootlegger-gangster and a former Louisville debutante. The prime suspect in the Hall-Mills case long remained the Reverend Hall’s wealthy wife, a supposed murderess who could not be more unlike Fitzgerald’s pathetic garage mechanic. The Hall-Mills case remained unsolved; no killer was every found. By contrast, Wilson murders Gatsby due to mistaken identity deriving from the sudden violence of the speeding automobile, an agency that has no counterpart in the Hall-Mills murders. To her credit, Churchwell provides a needed disclaimer: “Nor did Fitzgerald ever suggest, in any documentary source, that the murders of Hall and Mills had anything to do with The Great Gatsby.” Nonetheless, Churchwell devotes 52 out of her 345 pages of text to recounting or reproducing the developing publicity of the Hall-Mills killings. There is a point at which rehearsing the salacious details of long-ago tabloid journalism becomes so sordid and so boring that it works against the significance claimed for it. 

Any paraphrase of sentences of The Great Gatsby must seem pallid compared to the grace of Fitzgerald’s own phrasing. Reading Churchwell’s serviceable reworking of Fitzgerald’s unforgettable prose too often leaves the reader longing for the fully quoted original. One example: Churchwell transforms Fitzgerald’s magical last sentence, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” into a list of today’s cultural betrayals: “The future continues to recede before us, as we are borne back into the past to find there, awaiting us, our present; recklessness and greed, waste and profligacy, trial by newspaper and manipulative media moguls, irresponsible bankers and bad investments, cronyism and corruption, media scandals and Ponzi schemes, invented celebrities and frauds, violence and cynicism, epidemic materialism and a frantic search for the values we keep losing.” So does the suggestive music of Fitzgerald’s implied meanings disappear into flat accusation.  

And yet, Churchwell’s judgments of the characters of Gatsby’s world are, in the main, subtle and corrective. She resists the two common biographical traps of excusing the destructive behaviors of Scott and Zelda and of romanticizing the world of Gatsby’s parties. She knows that, like Tom and Daisy, Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre had too often been among the “careless people.” Moreover, she is not taken in—as so many student readers still are—by the force of Nick Carraway’s disingenuous claim: “I am one of the few honest people I have ever known.”  However compelling Nick’s narrative voice may seem, Churchwell shows us that, by inviting Gatsby to join Daisy in Nick’s own home, Nick is willing to act as a closet panderer, but not to be known as a pimp. Similarly, by not disclosing that it was Daisy, not Gatsby, who ran over Myrtle Wilson, Nick “colludes” with a conspiracy that protects the reputation and status of the most “careless” people of all, Tom and Daisy. No one—no character, no narrator, no author—is exempt from complicity in the dishonor spreading through Fitzgerald’s wasteland; anyone’s professed “honesty” is at best a matter of degree.

John McWilliams (ΦBK, Princeton University, 1962) is a professor of humanities at Middlebury College and a resident member of the Beta of Vermont chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.