Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell.
Essentially, this book focuses on the autumn of 1922 when F. Scott Fitzgerald was beginning to think about writing The Great Gatsby and when all of the reading public was fixated on the salacious details of the Hall-Mills murder case in New Jersey, a bizarre and celebrity-driven murder and investigation that played out in the newspapers and probably influenced Fitzgerald’s story of murder and infidelity in several aspects. Ms. Chruchwell also includes the before and after stories of how Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda came to be the celebrities that they were and of how Scott Fitzgerald finished writing his most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, and even what happened to him and to Zelda after that novel was published.
I learned several facts that I didn’t know while reading this volume of history and literary criticism combined. F. Scott Fitzgerald was only twenty-six years old in 1922 when he began planning his novel, and only twenty-eight when it was published. Zelda was even younger, born in 1900, twenty-two years old in 1922. She was only nineteen when she married Fitzgerald in April, 1920.
Their daughter, Scottie, was about a year old when they decided to move to New York from St. Paul, Minnesota. I’m not sure how the baby survived, although they did hire a nurse to take care of her, since the parents seem to have been constantly and continually drunk throughout the entire time that they lived in New York. I also am not surprised that Fitzgerald didn’t get far beyond the planning stages in writing his Great American Novel; I am surprised that he was able to write a coherent sentence, much less a number of short stories and the seminal beginnings of what would become The Great Gatsby.
“In May 1924 the Fitzgeralds sailed for Europe, to put the temptations of the New World behind them, with the conviction that they had left their old selves behind forever.” The temptations accompanied them; they got drunk in France just as well and just as often as they did in New York; and their marriage began to disintegrate. But Fitzgerald did write his novel, set in 1922 and based on the characters and the adventures that he and Zelda experienced in New York in that memorable fall of 1922. In particular the Hall-Mills murder case became a part of The Great Gatsby, inextricably intertwined in the characters of Daisy and Tom and Nick and Jordan and Gatsby himself and in the ideas of romantic adultery and carelessness and mistaken identity, insoluble crimes and American idealism.
If you’re fascinated by the Jazz Age, Prohibition, flappers, Scott and Zelda, and The Great Gatsby, Careless People has some good factual material as well as speculation and philosophy about the era and the meaning of the history and the novel and their intersection. The author gets a little carried away at times with passages like the following, coming at the end of each section of the purportedly nonfiction prosaic tome:
“Life is always there waiting to be transfigured into a splendid fiction, however sad or sordid its origins. A story of adultery ends in the violent extinction of a woman of tremendous vitality. A dreamer keeps faith with the faithless, an a double shooting draws coder in the cooling twilight, as e writer tires to determine whether what he holds in his hand is the past, or the future.”
However, reading about Scott and Zelda did make me think about sin and its intractable hold on our lives, about how genius can transcend even the tragic and injurious decisions we make, sometimes, and about what the real meaning of The Great Gatsby is. Did Scott Fitzgerald understand the tragedy of his own novel? Did Zelda? Do I?
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy– they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
Scott and Zelda were careless, too, and sort of rich, but there came a time, later, when the piper had to be paid, and the party was over, and both their lives ended tragically. I wonder how many “messes” the “golden boy” and his “first American flapper” left in their wake? If sound self-righteous and Pharasaical, I don’t mean to be. I also wonder how many messes I’ve left for others to clean up and how many more I might have run away from if I had been rich and able?
Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.