History / Nonfiction

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

carelesspeople2Imagine “The Devil in the White City” combined with a study of Frank Norris’ naturalistic novel “McTeague”, and you have an idea of how Careless People is structured.  It’s an amazing amalgamation of true crime, biography and literary criticism that captivates the reader and transports him back to The Jazz Age.  The book is intricately structured.  In addition to unfolding chronologically, with each chapter corresponding to a month in 1922 – 1923, the chapters mirror those in Gatsby, with titles taken from an outline of the book that Fitzgerald wrote down years later.  Churchwell’s thesis is that a scandalous double murder that occurred in September 1922 gave Fitzgerald a plot element and the time setting for The Great Gatsby (which was actually published in 1925).  Using primary sources (which are printed in the book), Churchwell offers a compelling narrative of the still-unsolved Hall-Mills murder.  Churchwell also provides intimate details of the Fitzgeralds’ life in New York, drawing on primary sources such as their scrapbooks and monthly ledgers, and she explains which elements of that life wound up in Gatsby.  The “careless people” of the title is a reference to the main characters in Gatsby and to the principals in the murder case but also applies to most of the people in the Fitzgeralds’ milieu.

As an English major and history buff, I found the book mesmerizing in the way it wove together so many threads and provided insight into Gatsby’s timeliness.  I actually re-read Gatsby concurrently with this book, and I advise everyone to do the same.  (Watching the new movie also helps—as it illustrates the timelessness of the novel by mixing the Jazz Age with Hip Hop culture.)

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