Wednesday, July 26, 2017

"Careless People" by Sarah Churchwell

I started reading this during my read-along for The Great Gatsby because it's all about what was going on in F. Scott Fitzgerald's life and the world around him while he was writing, editing, and publishing Gatsby.  I didn't have time in June to finish it because it was much more intensive and engrossing than I was expecting.  I thought I'd skim through it for the more salient points, but nope, I had to read the whole thing.  It was too good to skim!

The subtitle of this book, "Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby," refers to what is called the Hall-Mills murder case, a real-life unsolved murder in New Jersey that took place in 1922 right about the same time Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald moved to New York City for a time.  The case was huge news, and Fitzgerald certainly read about it in the papers, for Churchwell found instances where he referred to it in correspondence and so on.  The two murder victims were having an extra-marital affair with each other that bears some resemblance to Tom Buchanan's affair with Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby, and Churchwell draws out many similarities between the cases, making the point that it may have influenced Fitzgerald as he came up with the ideas behind Gatsby.

But the book is about much more than that.  Churchwell also delves deeply into Gatsby and the themes of wealth, power, and social class.  She shows the world around Fitzgerald that he was trying to capture and the many things and people that influenced him as a writer.  Then she goes on to discuss the critical and popular reception of The Great Gatsby and how perceptions of it changed over the years.  There's way more in this book than I can discuss here, so I just want to touch on two things Churchwell discussed about Gatsby that really interested me.

First, I was fascinated by the parallels she drew between the characters of Myrtle Wilson and Jay Gatsby.  I had not noticed them until this, but now they're so obvious I don't see how I missed them.  Churchwell succinctly says, "[Myrtle] wants what Daisy has.  Myrtle is the mirror image of Gatsby, who wants what Tom  has.  They are both upstarts, trying to foist themselves upon high society, poseurs who lead double lives (p. 67).  Myrtle does a lot of the same things he does -- wants power and position and money, tries to get a better life for herself, throws parties, runs around with a married person, and insists on believing her lover will change her life.  So fascinating.

Second, Churchwill points out this interesting tidbit: "When Tom realizes that Gatsby wants to supplant him, he gives Gatsby precisely what he thought he wanted: Gatsby is put in Tom's place, taking the fall for both Buchanans' crimes, Daisy's careless driving and Tom's affair with Myrtle" (p. 281-82).  Whoa.  I kind of sensed that before, but never saw it so clearly until now.

This book as a whole has increased my appreciation for Fitzgerald's writing, and I definitely recommend it if you're a fan of his, or of The Great Gatsby.

Particularly Good Bits:

Their story would prove that if you make yourself up, you can be undone, as well: being self-made risks unraveling (p. xxi).

A nation so fixed on progress will always be pulled, Nick begins to see, back into nostalgia, reaching for what lies ahead yet longing for what lies behind (p. 257).

Gatsby hangs suspended between chasing the future and longing for the past: the present means nothing to him.  But Daisy is defined by the present.  She needs immediacy, for she dwells in the shallows of time, drifting unrestfully and without purpose from moment to moment (p. 272).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for discussions of alcohol abuse, violence, and sexual topics in a non-explicit way.


  1. As a sidenote, another author based a novel off the Hall-Mills case: The Bellamy Trial by Frances Noyes Hart. It's a totally different take on the idea than The Great Gatsby, more of a traditional murder mystery, but it's unique in that the whole book takes place in court during the murder trial. I really loved it.

    1. Elisabeth, thanks for mentioning that! I'd never heard of it, but I love mysteries AND courtroom dramas, so I'm going to see if my library has it.

  2. I'm still convinced that The Great Gatsby (and also, I just remembered, Rebecca) are Twilight (for the time) level fluff, that people who like philosophy (I HATE it) like to read into. And yet, I keep discussing it :/

    I do think that Gatsby has a real sort of love for Daisy, who he thought she was, who he idealized her to be. I don't think his interest in wealth was wholly tied up in her. He was scheming before he met her, but he thought that he could woo her with wealth. His wealth then meant little without her. I don't think he saw her as a goal on the journey to wealth like Myrtle saw Tom.

    1. Livia, I don't think that's a very apt comparison. The Great Gatsby was not all that popular when it was published. The publisher struggled to sell it, and it received lukewarm reviews. It was not aimed at teens, it was not "popular literature," and it really isn't a love story.

      Now, Rebecca, as dearly as I love it, is definitely not in the same league as Gatsby. It's not quite fluff either, but it's not serious literature. Nor was it meant to be. Du Maurier was wonderful at creating suspenseful books, but I wouldn't put her any higher than, say, Agatha Christie, when it comes to artistic achievement.

      It's very interesting, though, that you compare Rebecca and Twilight, as they're both basically retellings of Jane Eyre. Neither of them reach Bronte's heights... but neither of them were trying to be considered Serious Literature, either. I read the first Twilight book, and while I have no desire to read more of them, it wasn't absolute twaddle either. The story and characters were engaging, though the writing was pedestrian.

      Gatsby's initial interest in Daisy was almost more in the life she led than in herself, I think. He wanted a better life for himself before he met her, but when he decided to fall in love with her, then winning her became so entwined in his ambitions that he would never again be able to separate them from his desire for her. Definitely he saw her as an end unto herself, but also as just another piece of the perfect life he wanted.

      As for philosophy... why do you hate it? Not that I think it has much of anything to do with people taking Gatsby more seriously in the mid-20th century -- I think that involved literary analysis more than anything. And people realizing that just because Fitzgerald wrote snappy little stories about flappers didn't mean he never had anything more serious to say.

  3. This book sounds great! I need to read it soon. I just started Tender is the Night. Not far enough into it to form an opinion, yet, other than that the writing is fantastic.

    Thank you for the greeting cards! My oldest daughter lives in Houston and she loves Gatsby - and we still send old fashioned cards through the mail. So these will be great for me to send to her.

    1. Dale, I definitely recommend it.

      Haven't read Tender is the Night, but it's on my list ;-)

      I'm glad you like the cards! I hope you and your daughter enjoy exchanging them :-) I still send old-fashioned cards through the mail to my friends and family too. Nothing quite like getting "real" mail!


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