I just finished a book by Sarah Churchwell titled Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby. Churchwell is an American media figure in the UK and a professor at the University of East Anglia, and her book shifts between what was going on in Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's lives in the period when they moved back to New York from Minnesota in 1922, and what was going on with a high-profile murder case in New Jersey at that same time.
In 1922, the public was enthralled with the murder of Eleanor Reinhardt Mills and Edward Wheeler Hall, a church rector and smitten young parishioner in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who had been having a love affair. It was the 1922 version of the O.J. Simpson case in terms of rampant speculation and public interest. Churchwell avers that bits and pieces of the news about the murder case affected Fitzgerald's writing, both the stories he was writing at the time to earn income, and The Great Gatsby, which he dug in on in 1924.
Fitzgerald died believing himself to be a failed writer, and by some outward measures, he was correct. He was broke, mostly alone, and largely forgotten. Fitzgerald's funeral had some parallels to Jay Gatsby's funeral due to the lack of visitors. Dorothy Parker is alleged to have said "You poor son of a bitch," when she visited Fitzgerald's body before he was buried, the same line Owl Eyes said at Gatsby's funeral in the novel.
After reading Careless People, I had a huge moment of discovery, that the book The Disenchanted by screenwriter Budd Schulberg, which I read in 2013, had a protagonist's foil modeled after Fitzgerald. That book suddenly made a lot more sense. When The Disenchanted was published in 1950, a few critics were starting to come around on Fitzgerald, but his (and Zelda's) spectacular downfall was still cautionary tale material, and The Disenchanted mined it for all it was worth. I may have to go back and reread it with my now-better knowledge of Fitzgerald.
Once I finished Churchwell's book, I watched the 2013 movie version of The Great Gatsby, which I really enjoyed. I particularly liked how director Baz Lurhmann depicted the Ash Heaps. The billboard of the practice of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg was exactly how I had it pictured in my mind, for example.
If you haven't picked up a copy of The Great Gatsby since high school, I urge you to reread it. No doubt you will view it differently as an adult. Plus it's an opportunity to luxuriate in Fitzgerald's prose, which won him few admirers in 1925 when the book was published, but which is now almost universally admired as some of the most perfect writing in the American canon.
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