By Sarah Churchwell
Penguin Press. 399 pp. $29.95
After a Fitzgerald-obsessed 2013, the appearance of Sarah Churchwell’s book at first seems like a reckless test of just how much Gatsby the reading public will swallow. But it would be a shame if last year’s gluttony made readers abstain from this rewarding work, a history of 1922 as it was lived by the Fitzgeralds and their circle, as well as by the fictitious cast of “The Great Gatsby.” Like the jazz that defined the era, the book tells its story through digression and repetition, building up a pattern of internal references and refrains, and occasionally teasing the audience with ornate flourishes or lines that disappear into smoke.
Today, criticizing “Gatsby” is like firing champagne corks at the moon. The book’s early reviewers, however, dismissed it as a minor work, too enmeshed in popular culture to have any more longevity than the evening newspaper; “a glorified anecdote” in H.L. Mencken’s notorious phrase. Churchwell, a professor at the University of East Anglia in England, begins her study by taking that critique seriously, as a deliberate and positive aspect of the novel’s design. She mines the rich seam of the contemporary mass media (a term coined in 1923) to structure the book, using subheadings ripped and pasted from jazz-age newspapers: dispatches from a hectic, dissipated era, like “TRIAL IS HIGHBALL EPIC” or “October’s Bright Booze Weather.”
The book opens with three “guest lists” for its fictional and real-life stories: colorful characters like Fitzgerald’s friend and Great Neck neighbor, the writer Ring Lardner; Burton Rascoe, the gossiping literary editor of the New York Tribune; John Dos Passos; Dorothy Parker; and finally “assorted gate-crashers,” including Einstein, Nietzsche and Hitler. Churchwell maps the actions of the novel’s characters onto Scott and Zelda’s wild partying. (The verb “to party” is another 1920s coinage, from an entertaining list that also includes “French kiss,” “cold turkey” and “brand-name.”)
A fragmentary, retrospective outline for “Gatsby” that Fitzgerald sketched shortly before his death provides the overarching structure for the book and elucidates the novel’s references to people and places. Fitzgerald was at this point working on his final, never-to-be-finished novel, “The Last Tycoon,” and looking back to “Gatsby” for inspiration. Central to these is Great Neck, Long Island, the model for Gatsby’s West Egg, where the Fitzgeralds lived from October 1922 — like Nick Carraway, fleeing the “Middle West” — until they sailed for France in 1924. Churchwell is careful to resist “literal-minded, simplistic equations between fiction and reality,” but the opposite of such “deeply tiresome” literalism can sometimes shade into rather tiresome mystification: “Art does not shrink when it comes into contact with reality,” she notes. “It expands.”
The third element in Churchwell’s tightly woven history is a murder: a story forgotten now but one that coincided with the Fitzgeralds’ arrival in New York and dominated the headlines for months. In New Brunswick, N.J., up the road from Fitzgerald’s alma mater, Princeton University, a 34-year-old woman named Eleanor Mills was found lying alongside Edward Hall, rector of the local church. Hall and Mills, both married, were lovers. They had been shot in the head and Eleanor’s throat cut, and their bodies arranged in an embrace, under a crabapple tree that would soon be stripped to a bare stump by the souvenir-seekers who tramped through the crime scene.
Churchwell finds plenty of suggestive resonances with “Gatsby” in this sensational tale. For instance, Mills, characterized by the newspapers as a social climber with a “vigorous personality,” seems to anticipate Fitzgerald’s Myrtle Wilson. But more prosaically, it is a story of grotesque official incompetence, class- and gender-based prejudice, and the persuasive fantasies of newspapers coming together to prevent justice. A second autopsy revealed a huge gash in Mills’s neck, as well as extra bullet holes, that had been missed the first time. As Churchwell wryly puts it, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde: “To miss one bullet wound might be regarded as a misfortune, but to miss two, and a throat slashed from ear to ear so deeply that it nearly severed the victim’s head from her body, looks like carelessness.”
Amid all the suggestive fragments of history that Churchwell uncovers, the most memorable are the counterintuitive details that remind us that nostalgia isn’t the same as memory. As asides to the main story, she tells us (often by means of illustrations and photographs) that in 1922 skirts were still ankle-length; that it was unlikely that anyone danced the Charleston at Gatsby’s parties; that the swastika was a benign symbol that a bootlegger could use to distinguish his fleet of taxicabs; and that the phrase “American dream” wasn’t invented until 1931, six years after “Gatsby” was published.
The Hall-Mills double murder is a sordid, frustrating tale, a crime straight out of the pages of a Golden Age detective story, but lacking its brilliant Sherlock Holmes. As the New York Times wrote, “The concluding chapters are missing.” The story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, on the other hand, has too many concluding chapters, in which glamour, celebrity and desire are slowly and painfully eclipsed by drunkenness, mental illness and obscurity. For all the fascination that this rich, inventive history offers, only the ending of “The Great Gatsby” is satisfyingly elegiac. It is art that eases our frustrations with a plot in which the “careless” escape and the dreamers are cut down, and it is to art that we are left wanting, ceaselessly, to return.
Scutts is a freelance writer and adjunct professor at New York University’s Gallatin School.