Although F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t write The Great Gatsby until 1925, he chose to set his iconic novel in 1922. Intrigued by his choice of setting, Sarah Churchwell set out to investigate Fizgerald’s influences while writing his masterwork.
In 1922, Fitzgerald was 26, returning to New York for the publication of Tales of the Jazz Age. Already a wildly successful writer, he and his vivacious wife Zelda soon became absorbed in the glamorous lifestyle of jazz age NY. Prohibition meant that booze was flowing more freely than ever before, reckless drivers were killing people right and left, and a slate of murders became media sensations.
Churchwell founds her book on the premise that Fitzgerald was greatly influenced by one particular murder: a grisly double murder in New Jersey that became a media sensation. A man and a woman (both of whom were married to other people) were found dead, their bodies arranged symbolically, in an area known for night-time rendezvous. The police investigation and subsequent trial were total farces, and the case, proclaimed the “crime of the decade” dominated newspaper headlines in 1922.
Although this concept is an interesting one, I don’t think it really had the legs to stand on its own. It felt like Churchwell needed an new, original perspective from which to write about the origins of The Great Gatsby, and this murder was something that hadn’t really been written before in connection to Fitzgerald’s writing. He probably was influenced by it, at least subconsciously, but I don’t think there’s a strong enough connection to base an entire book around.
That said, I really loved this book. Careless People is a book about the invention of The Great Gatsby, and the murder angle is a relatively small part of it. Churchwell’s research is impeccable; she dives deep into newspaper articles and clippings, correspondence, diaries, and numerous other sources. Gatsby is one of my favorite books, and it was fascinating to read about how it came to be.
Churchwell took an interesting approach in the formatting of this book. She moves chronologically through the fall and winter of 1922, examining the Fitzgeralds’ lives and what was going on at the time; she makes intriguing connections between the culture of the time and The Great Gatsby. She also moves through Gatsby, chapter by chapter, analyzing the text and how it was influenced by current events. In the third section of each chapter, she progresses through the murder investigation and trial, discussing how it impacted culture and how it may have influenced Fitzgerald’s writing.
Although Careless People‘s founding premise is a bit weak, it is a stunning portrait of jazz age New York, an engaging look at the glamorous, tragic lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and a compelling biography of a book frequently hailed The Great American Novel.