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

Review

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

Baz Luhrmann’s THE GREAT GATSBY adaptation was a movie filled with extremes, musically and visually speaking, but it showed one important thing --- that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fable of excess and its “That’s what you get” endgame is just the kind of story that the 99 percent need to revel in these days. And now, to look at where this tale and all its relevant elements gestate, Sarah Churchwell has written CARELESS PEOPLE: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby.

Taking the book and the life it explores as the starting point, we get a multi-tasking historical tome, looking at the Fitzgeralds and the specifics of their timeline, their surrounding social scene, the temperament of the world’s powers, and a scandalous murder committed in New Brunswick, NJ, that gave Fitzgerald his jumping-off point for the story. As the murder investigation gripped the nation, literary fervor reached Fitzgerald, in a haze of booze and the upside-down world he and Zelda inhabited. This event, happening close to his alma mater Princeton, gave him the right shape for his story of American excess and the tale of the Flapper Age.

"CARELESS PEOPLE is a highly recommended read for all. A thriller that combines history and fantasy is a rare and beautiful thing, and this book is just that."

Of course, Churchwell is a professor of literature at the University of East Anglia and approaches her research from the point of view of a literary historian. She undoes a lot of the popular myths about the time and the people of that period as she explores Fitzgerald’s inspiration and all the worldly details that helped him write the classic work. THE GREAT GATSBY, like all great cultural highpoints, evolved, and Churchwell manages to infuse them all, boring and not, with an energy and drama that turns the book into a page-turner.

Churchwell uses the intelligentsia surrounding the Fitzgeralds to help broaden the story of this classic tale. John Dos Passos, H.L. Mencken, Ernest Hemingway and Edmund Wilson were towering artistic and critical figures who are prominent in the story as well, because of the way they affected and were affected by Fitzgerald’s glittering gifts as a wordsmith and as a social commentator. With the “crime of the decade” reporting they all were privy to as the murder investigation wore on, these literary giants were able to view the society in front of them in a more complex way. And Churchwell manages to use their work to reflect a worthy and profound mirror image of the Jazz Age.

Archival materials such as lost newspaper articles, period photos and a lost letter by Fitzgerald about his intentions for the novel, as well as unpublished letters by Zelda, help to inform the history behind this important literary achievement in a truly emotional fashion. We feel so close to the action that we almost forget we are reading a history and not a daily diary account of the goings-on. Churchwell takes what could have been a treasure for literary theorists and turns it into a potboiler that could make great beach reading (or ski resort fireplace reading, I guess, given the season).

CARELESS PEOPLE is a highly recommended read for all. A thriller that combines history and fantasy is a rare and beautiful thing, and this book is just that.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on February 7, 2014

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

  • Publication Date: January 23, 2014
  • Genres: History, Literature, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The
  • ISBN-10: 1594204748
  • ISBN-13: 9781594204746