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

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Overview

Kirkus (STARRED review)
"Churchwell... has written an excellent book... she’s earned the right to play on [Fitzgerald's] court. Prodigious research and fierce affection illumine every remarkable page.”
 
The autumn of 1922 found F. Scott Fitzgerald at the height of his fame, days from turning twenty-six years old, and returning to New York for the publication of his fourth book, Tales of the Jazz ...

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

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Overview

Kirkus (STARRED review)
"Churchwell... has written an excellent book... she’s earned the right to play on [Fitzgerald's] court. Prodigious research and fierce affection illumine every remarkable page.”
 
The autumn of 1922 found F. Scott Fitzgerald at the height of his fame, days from turning twenty-six years old, and returning to New York for the publication of his fourth book, Tales of the Jazz Age. A spokesman for America’s carefree younger generation, Fitzgerald found a home in the glamorous and reckless streets of New York. Here, in the final incredible months of 1922, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald drank and quarreled and partied amid financial scandals, literary milestones, car crashes, and celebrity disgraces.

Yet the Fitzgeralds’ triumphant return to New York coincided with another event: the discovery of a brutal double murder in nearby New Jersey, a crime made all the more horrible by the farce of a police investigation—which failed to accomplish anything beyond generating enormous publicity for the newfound celebrity participants. Proclaimed the “crime of the decade” even as its proceedings dragged on for years, the Mills-Hall murder has been wholly forgotten today. But the enormous impact of this bizarre crime can still be felt in The Great Gatsby, a novel Fitzgerald began planning that autumn of 1922 and whose plot he ultimately set within that fateful year.

Careless People is a unique literary investigation: a gripping double narrative that combines a forensic search for clues to an unsolved crime and a quest for the roots of America’s best loved novel. Overturning much of the received wisdom of the period, Careless People blends biography and history with lost newspaper accounts, letters, and newly discovered archival materials. With great wit and insight, acclaimed scholar of American literature Sarah Churchwell reconstructs the events of that pivotal autumn, revealing in the process new ways of thinking about Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.

Interweaving the biographical story of the Fitzgeralds with the unfolding investigation into the murder of Hall and Mills, Careless People is a thrilling combination of literary history and murder mystery, a mesmerizing journey into the dark heart of Jazz Age America.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Sarah Churchwell's new book recreates the creation of the Great American Novel of the twentieth century: The Great Gatsby. The British Guardian praised Careless People as "a sprightly, enjoyable and slightly strange book, part 'biography' of the novel, part sketch of the roaring 1920s, part brief account of the second half of Fitzgerald's life." It's easy to see why this book attracted accolades. The life and career of author F. Scott Fitzgerald possess an iconic cinematic quality only snapped into sharper relief when one realizes that his future classic only achieved creditable sales after he died. (P.S. Churchwell's account links a much-publicized 1922 homicide case with some situations in the novel.)

Publishers Weekly
10/14/2013
University of East Anglia literature professor Churchwell (The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe) evokes the Jazz Age in all its ephemeral glamour and recklessness in her latest book. Drawing on newspaper articles, correspondence, diary entries, scrapbooks, and newly discovered archival material, the author presents “a collage” of Scott and Zelda Fitzgeralds’ world and a social history of the times. Churchwell focuses on 1922—the year the couple moved to Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island, and a gruesome, unsolved double murder (the Mills-Hall case, “the crime of the decade”) took place in nearby New Jersey. She excels at providing rich period details—drugstores selling illegal liquor, ubiquitous car crashes—to show how the patchwork quality of the times affected Fitzgerald’s thinking as he composed The Great Gatsby. Indeed, the book highlights how accurately Fitzgerald intuited what was to come: the damage being done to American society by focusing on wealth; the way mass media would give rise to a celebrity culture. Yet, in an effort to find a new angle on The Great Gatsby, Churchwell strains to establish a close connection between the Mills-Hall murders and Fitzgerald’s work on the book, with little evidence to support the tie, other than the fact that they occurred around the same time. Illus. Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency.(Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-10-20
The Great Gatsby floats on a limpid river fed by myriads of autobiographical, cultural and historical tributaries. Churchwell (American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities/Univ. of East Anglia; The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, 2004, etc.) has written an excellent book on a novel that remains a favorite in English courses in American high schools and colleges. Surprisingly, she even manages to find fresh facts that escaped previous scholars, including one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's own published comments about his novel, a book that, as Churchwell notes, neither sold well nor received uniformly favorable reviews. Churchwell weaves together a variety of strands: a summary of the novel (including its earlier drafts), a biographical account of the years Fitzgerald was working on the novel (including the time he and Zelda were living and partying in Great Neck, near the novel's setting), and an account of a sensational New Jersey murder case in 1922 (the year that Gatsby takes place), an investigation that resulted in arrests and a trial but no convictions. Churchwell also digs deeply into the architecture of the novel--looking, for example, for the relevance of specific details Fitzgerald mentions. She also examined Simon Called Peter, a novel that Nick Carraway picks up early in Gatsby; she read countless New York newspaper and magazine files looking for items in 1922 that may have found their way into the novel (car wrecks, wild parties and the like). She haunted the rich Fitzgerald archives at Princeton and elsewhere and, employing the clarity of hindsight, chides most of the early critics who missed what Fitzgerald was up to. At times, Churchwell attempts Fitzgerald's lyrical style--one chapter-ending sentence alludes to "the vagrant dead as they scatter across our tattered Eden"--she's earned the right to play on his court. Prodigious research and fierce affection illumine every remarkable page.
From the Publisher
"Prodigious research and fierce affection illumine every remarkable page." —-Kirkus Starred Review
Library Journal
01/01/2014
Churchwell (American literature & public understanding of the humanities, Univ. of East Anglia, England; The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe) adds to the already full list of books about F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel The Great Gatsby and/or the Fitzgeralds themselves. What makes her chronicle more distinctive is that she ties its genesis to the Hall-Mills murder case, a notorious 1920s double homicide that occurred in New Jersey. Since the novel is set in 1922, also the year Fitzgerald began plotting the story, Churchwell examines the events (both personal to the Fitzgeralds as well as historical) that took place in that important year. She painstakingly covers the news events and celebrities that dominated the headlines then, as well as the daily activities of Scott and Zelda and their many friends and acquaintances. Churchwell is especially successful in showing how Fitzgerald confidently produced a masterpiece (though it was not recognized as such when it was published) despite the excesses of his glamorous life. Copiously illustrated and with extensive notes and a bibliography (index not seen by this reviewer). VERDICT This well-written and entertaining study is highly recommended for anyone who wants to know how a great work of art evolved out of disparate materials, as well as those who are interested in the history of the United States in the 1920s.—Morris Hounion, New York City Coll. of Technology, CUNY, Brooklyn
The Barnes & Noble Review

Though it's too soon to tell whether or not the twenties of the aughts will be roaring — our interest in the original decade shows no sign of waning. Director Baz Luhrmann's 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby prompted a resurgence in "flapper style" weddings and celebrations despite Gatsby's nature as a cautionary tale.

Sarah Churchwell's Careless People approaches the era with the same trepidation, taking its title from Nick's condemnation at the end of The Great Gatsby: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures then retreated back into their money or vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together." And though Churchwell claims in her introduction that Fitzgerald was inspired specifically by a real-life double-murder in 1922, Careless People is, in actuality, a passionate close-read that tracks nearly all of Fitzgerald's activities and influences, down to every gin-soaked weekend leading up to the publication of his masterpiece.

Inside this book the reader will discover that words like extrovert (1918), teenage (1921), motherfucker (1918), and many more were all creations of the Jazz Age. Additionally, "Jordan" was the name of a popular brand of cars in the early 1920s, perhaps the namesake for Daisy's golfer friend. Unbelievably, swastikas were displayed on a fleet of cabs in New York in 1922, as their owner, a former bootlegger, considered them a good-luck charm. But of course, as Churchwell points out, the swastika had yet to be appropriated by Hitler, just as Nick's description of the "holocaust," at the end of the novel after Gatsby's murder, meant "sacrifice" rather than genocide.

Occasionally, Churchwell goes a bit far in her speculation of Fitzgerald's intentions. Describing the scene when Daisy exclaims over Gatsby's beautiful shirts, Churchwell writes that as Fitzgerald was working on the book at "the Hôtel des Princes in Rome, he certainly knew that Jay Gatsby's chromatic array of bright shirts provided a marked contrast to the Black Shirts in control of the city." Maybe. Maybe not. That said, one would be hard-pressed to find a book more dedicated to pursuing every detail behind the creation of this classic novel.

Jessica Ferri is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at The New Yorker's Book Bench, NPR,The Economist, The Daily Beast, Time Out New York, Bookforum, and more. Find her at www.jessicaferri.com.

Reviewer: Jessica Ferri

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594204746
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 1/23/2014
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 59,970
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 10.60 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Sarah Churchwell

Sarah Churchwell is the Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of East Anglia. She is the author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe and coeditor of Must Read: Rediscovering the Bestseller, and her literary journalism has been published widely. An American currently living in London, she is a regular broadcaster and contributor to the BBC.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2014

    Very interesting.

    A different look at the Fitzgeralds. Well written. A thoughtful book about the 1920s and the "flapper" era. Recommended. A+++++++

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 12, 2014

    Hdkcsjadkcbcjzkassdhbxvxa

    Yebcnsjsjdn this is a stupid book!

    1 out of 33 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2014

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    Posted July 17, 2014

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