The World Behind Gatsby: An Interview with Sarah Churchwell


photo by Pete Huggins

by Mark Gustafson

Sarah Churchwell, Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of East Anglia, grew up in the Midwest and received degrees from Vassar College and Princeton University. Her elongated academic title hints at her scholarly interests, which range widely across American (and English) literature as well as popular culture. She appears often on television and radio in the U.K., and contributes regularly to newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. Her first book was The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe (Metropolitan Books, 2004).

The title of Churchwell’s most recent book, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby (The Penguin Press, $29.95), has a sensationalist ring. Its fresh premise is how an unsolved double murder of a pair of illicit lovers in 1922 forms a significant backdrop to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s composition of his masterpiece. But this book is really the biography of that novel, and compellingly conveys Churchwell’s love for The Great Gatsby. She has done the heavy lifting, and filters the findings of her own and others’ research, making it all palatable without dumbing it down. Her excellent literary analysis gains more power as contemporary economic issues (Occupy Wall Street, corporate greed and corruption, income disparity, etc.) are brought to the fore. It also does what any biography should do—impels the reader back to the primary source with newfound appreciation.

Mark Gustafson: My impression is that the device of the Hall-Mills murder is very effective in opening up the idea of the interdependence, the “contrapuntal relation,” of fact and fiction, but that once through that door the murder seems to recede into the background, its work done. Which leads to the question: What was the genesis of Careless People? Did it start with the discovery of the Hall-Mills murder and then develop from there, or did you see the life of the book—its biography—whole, and then flesh it out with the details?

carelesspeopleSarah Churchwell: It began with a question about 1922, the year in which The Great Gatsby is set. A few questions had made me start to look at the year more closely (why doesn't Fitzgerald actually mention the Charleston in the novel? Did green lights mean "go" in 1922, was that a meaning available to Fitzgerald when he composed the novel in 1924?) and the answers I found surprised me. Looking around in the newspapers of 1922, I discovered many more facts that countered our received wisdoms about the novel, and then I found the Hall-Mills murder case, and as I read it seemed to me that it had uncanny parallels with the novel. So my book was always conceived as a biography of Gatsby, a reconstruction of the year 1922, and it turned into a kind of nonfiction parallel of the novel. The Hall-Mills case seemed to me an excellent example of the kind of material Fitzgerald was seeing all around him, although I do include other contemporary newspaper murders and scandals; I'm certainly not in any way arguing that Hall-Mills was "the most" important influence on the novel. It has prominence in my book because A) it is comparatively unknown, B) I thought it was fascinating, hilarious and macabre in its own right, and C) its parallels with the novel are very strong, if one thinks figuratively rather than literally. Fitzgerald gives about twenty percent of his novel to the Tom-Myrtle story (more than people might remember), and so my book is about twenty percent Hall-Mills. It drops out of the story because that's what happened: it petered out. But that seemed to me appropriate, too, as the novel's significance comes not from the two killings that drive its plot, but from its move toward the meanings of America, illusions, disappointment, elegy, nostalgia, and hope. So I tried to move my book in similar directions at the end, always sticking to nonfiction.

MG: What were some of the significant and unexpected discoveries (coincidences, etc.) that you made along the way?

SC: I alluded to a couple above: the meanings of green lights were in fact debated in New York between 1922 and 1924, the period in which the novel was gestating and composed. The Charleston did not become a dance craze until after Gatsby was published, which is presumably why it's never mentioned in the novel. (Fitzgerald does mention it in a short story, the only murder mystery he wrote, just a year after Gatsby came out. In fact, the plot of that story, called "The Dance," hinges on the Charleston. But it's not in Gatsby.) Dresses in 1922 were much longer than we think: they were ankle-length. There was a senator in the papers in 1922 called Caraway (the original spelling of Nick's last name in Fitzgerald's manuscript), who was famed for his honesty. The bodies of Hall and Mills were found in Buccleuch Park, NJ—and Nick says that his family has a myth that they are descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch. Could this be a coincidence? Of course. But I came to feel that the resonances of fiction and history, even if coincidental (and they're not all coincidental) had their own beauties, symmetries and patterns. The whole book is built upon such patterns: every time I found a fact that pulled against, or amplified or enriched, received wisdom about Gatsby, it went in the book.

MG: You show how, in general, readers’ reception of The Great Gatsby moved over time from an appreciation of more superficial and flashy material to its deeper, transcendent meanings. It seems that Careless People progresses likewise, mirroring that pattern, moving from the more sensationalist, tabloidish background to the astounding prescience of Fitzgerald as he represented and seemed to foretell the emptiness of the American dream and what the consequences of corruption and unbridled capitalism (not to mention nostalgia) are.

SC: Yes, as I said above, I tried to mirror the structure of Gatsby wherever I could, without being slavish. But I wanted to create echoes and resonances, to show that fact and fiction have a more complicated relationship than we usually allow. Academic literary criticism tends, to its detriment in my opinion, to treat them as if they are mutually exclusive: so-called close readings, which exalt art and ignore history, or literalistic historicized readings that treat art as just another historical document. The truth is somewhere in between, and I tried to put my book in that space, in between the two. That said, I would resist, I think, the idea that my book moves from the superficial to the profound. Rather, I would say, my process was accumulation: the patterns only become apparent as they build and emerge, and the reader has to have a certain amount of patience (although I try to keep things entertaining along the way!). So I would put it a little differently: I would say that if my book is successful, it should show that details that appear at first to be superficial, actually contribute to the profound meaning of the whole of Gatsby. They all link up—everything in my book relates to Gatsby somehow, even if that relationship is not always obvious to readers who don't have the novel open in front of them (or memorized, like me!).

MG: This book is that rare scholarly achievement: you have successfully synthesized and augmented material from the mountain of scholarship on Gatsby, and have made it more accessible and appealing for a more popular readership without any condescension or obvious dumbing-down. Is this in any way related to your job as a Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities?

SC: First of all, thank you! That is a great compliment. I think that just as we tend to have a false dichotomy between the literary and the historical, so we tend to have a false dichotomy between the fun and the serious. I think something can be seriously intelligent, seriously thoughtful, seriously original, and still be fun to read. One of my goals in this book was to restore pleasure to academic literary criticism, which has gotten itself into a rut where it (in my opinion) tends to suck all of the pleasure out of the books we all love, and to deaden them. I was certain that one could think hard and have a good time doing it, and that was the idea. The risk, of course, is that readers who believe in this false dichotomy will see that my book is amusing and think that's all it is, or see that it synthesizes existing research and assume it has no original research. In fact, it has many serious things to say, a great deal of original research, and I hope it has original things to say about Gatsby, too. But I tried to do all of that with a light touch, always recognizing the risk that the touch might be light enough that readers would miss it. The question is: is a book superficial, or an individual reading of it? As for condescension to the non-academic reader—well that's just snobbery, pure and simple. The idea that to be an intelligent reader you have to have a PhD . . . funny how it's only people with PhDs who think that. I've never thought that, because I'm surrounded by brilliant people who don't hold PhDs. What happens is that academics get caught up in technical arguments about minutiae with other specialists, and then when they are called upon to make their language less technical they think they are dumbing it down. This is a fallacy (and by the way, the phrase "dumbing down" comes from 1927!) and a nasty one at that, implying as it does that everyone else is dumb. I'm quite sure they're not. As for whether it relates to my day job, well yes, it certainly does, but my academic job has also been created to fulfill the same brief. In other words, everything I do starts with the convictions I just outlined, and I write books, journalism, and have created an academic role that are all working in the same direction.

MG: As you write about American subjects, do you take into consideration that you are writing both for an American audience but also for readers in the United Kingdom (where this book was first published)?

SC: Certainly. I have lived in the UK for almost 15 years, my husband is English, and although I have many American friends in London, by definition most of the people I come into contact with these days are British. That has altered my perspective on America in all kinds of ways. I definitely had both audiences in mind as I wrote, but for me part of the pleasure of writing this book was that it is all about America, and what it means to be American, and I was able to reflect on that. (One UK critic complained that I didn't say enough about Gatsby's European sources, and I thought: "Well that's because it's a book about America!") I always hoped that American audiences would get what I was doing in the book better than British audiences, and judging by reviews and readers' responses, that seems to be the case. That makes me extremely happy.

MG: How does Careless People intersect with the work of your earlier book, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe?

SC: They're both projects that piece together the stories of stories out of other stories, which is what I like to do. So in the case of Marilyn, it was the larger story of the biographies of Marilyn, pieced together from those stories and their intersections. In the case of Fitzgerald, it was the story of Gatsby out of the stories of the novel but also biography, journalism, letters, diaries, etc. I like to piece things together into a different kind of mosaic, like those Life covers made out of hundreds of Life covers that turn into a holograph face, that sort of thing? A different Marilyn, and a different Gatsby, can emerge from these kinds of intertextual portraits. And of course Marilyn was a Gatsby in important ways: aspiring to wealth and recognition by a system that always rejected her, changing her name, chasing a dream (the American Dream, if you like) that defeated her. Just like Gatsby. On a more thematic level, the books share an interest in celebrity, glamour, icons, and again, whether something can be pleasurable and taken seriously at the same time. (Vogue called my Marilyn book "a rare combination of intellectual insight and guilty pleasure," which may be my favorite review ever; I thought it could serve as a motto for everything I write, except that I don't think we should feel guilty about our pleasures, we should just think about them harder.)

MG: You’ve just been to St. Paul, a city that would like to be synonymous with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Has your visit spurred any new thoughts?

SC: I was only there overnight, sadly, and it was too cold to go exploring! But apparently there are some plans afoot for a proper Fitzgerald center to be created, and I will definitely be keeping an eye on that.

MG: What’s your next project?

SC: Currently it's only a Platonic ideal of a project, so I think it needs space to grow up a little more before I start talking about it. But it will involve American literature and history, it will not be conventionally academic, and it will try to be both fun and serious.

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