Jazz Age January: Careless People by Sarah Churchwell

Book Review: Burial Rights by Hannah KentCARELESS PEOPLE
by Sarah Churchwell

Non-Fiction
The Penguin Press; Jan. 23, 2014
Hardcover; 432 pages
Source: Received from publisher for review

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.

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26 thoughts on “Jazz Age January: Careless People by Sarah Churchwell

  1. I treated myself to this last week and I’m about to begin reading it. Gatsby is one of my favourite books too, so I’m very interested to read around it a bit more even if the premise clutches at straws a little. Loving this event 🙂

  2. I started this one, but gave up because I just didn’t buy into the premise. It sounds like you didn’t either, but still enjoyed the book. Perhaps I’ll give it another try. So far I’ve only read one book for Jazz Age January.

  3. I’m sharing my review tomorrow and ended up feeling pretty much the same. I loved the sections about the Fitzgeralds and Gatsby, but thought everything around the murders felt like a distraction from what would otherwise have been a really fantastic book.

  4. I struggle with non fiction books because they can be rather dry and fact-listing rather than read like a novel. I think it is cool that you’re reading so many jazz age books and enjoyed this one even though it really couldn’t stand up on its own.

    ❤ from your tribe

  5. I have reserved this title at the library, not sure when I will actually get it to read though, I am curious about this title but suspect I won’t get it in time for jazz age January, your review has me even more interested in reading it.

  6. So, there’s more she connects than the murder case? Cause the murder case doesn’t sound like much compared to everything that’s in Gatsby. Unless Fitzgerald got his ideas the way Stephen King does…one little thing and his imagination goes wild.

    • Oh yes, much more than the murder case. It talks about Scott and Zelda’s lives, and the general culture of the time. There are some interesting similarities between the murder and Gatsby, but not a ton. It’s a pretty small part of the book, actually.

  7. I love how well-written this review is. You make the book sound intriguing despite its flaws. The 1922 murders sound like more than a coincidence – they correlate with the plot of Gatsby perfectly. Was it the writing of the murder tie-in that was weak?

    • Aw, thank you! I think the murders were part of the landscape of Fitzgerald’s time in New York, and he probably was influenced by them, but after reading the book, the connection didn’t seem strong enough to build an entire book around. The writing was excellent, I just didn’t think there was enough evidence for this theory.

  8. Even though the author may have tried to make the influence of the murder greater than it was, it sounds as though this book was generally very well done. I didn’t even especially like The Great Gatsby, but I’m still intrigued by this one because books about books are just so much fun 🙂

    • Yeah, the murder angle was a little distracting, but overall the book was very well done. The research was meticulous, and Churchwell dug up some really fascinating tidbits. Even apart from Gatsby, it’s a really interesting portrait of 1920s New York.

  9. Woha! Murders and The Great Gatsby? I’m dancing in my room right now!

    Although I do agree with you. I don’t think they are that connected, but certainly anything new about Gatsby sounds very interesting.

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