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
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.)
"Prodigious research and fierce affection illumine every remarkable page." Kirkus Starred Review
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.