The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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MAR 2014 Issue

Echoes and Traces

Sarah Churchwell
Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby
(Penguin Press, 2014)

For more than 60 years, The Great Gatsby has been required reading for most high school students. It has been adapted into six film versions. Thousands upon thousands of pages have been written about the book and its author, F. Scott Fitzgerald. So it is fair to assume that most Americans have at least a passing familiarity with the story. Far fewer people may know much (if anything) about a 1922 double murder that took place in New Jersey, just miles from New York City, where Fitzgerald was living at the time and beginning to work on Gatsby. One of the victims, Edward Wheeler Hall, was a well-respected rector of a New Brunswick church; he was found slain in a field with a woman, Eleanor Reinhardt Mills, who was not his wife. Their adulterous love letters to one another were strewn around their bodies. The murders and subsequent investigation were covered by the New York press almost daily.

In Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, Sarah Churchwell attempts to show how this case in particular, and the tumultuous times in general, had a profound impact on Fitzgerald and the book he would ultimately create. At the outset, Churchwell introduces three separate casts of characters: one includes The Great Gatsby’s characters; a second set is made up of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s friends and inner circle in New York; and the last comprises various people associated with the Hall-Mills murders. For the rest of the book, Churchwell skillfully weaves these three storylines together into, if not a cohesive story, a colorful patchwork. She is careful not to claim that her analysis will point to exactly what and who inspired the novel: “[I]t would be foolhardy for anyone to promise to tell the whole story about Fitzgerald’s masterpiece,” she writes, “but it does seem possible to tell a whole, true story about its creation, and about the chaotic, fugitive world from which it sprang.” By putting the novel in context, particularly the context of a sensationalized and salacious murder investigation, Churchwell offers new insights into the often-interpreted (and often misunderstood) masterpiece.

Obviously, there already exists a great deal of scholarly work about the novel and its author. Churchwell references many other biographers of Fitzgerald, of course, but she also makes extensive use of original source materials. Newspaper articles, correspondence, and the Fitzgeralds’ personal scrapbooks help her create a multilayered and detailed depiction of the world in which Fitzgerald conceived and wrote The Great Gatsby. We can be sure, Churchwell assures us, that he was at least aware of the Hall-Mills murders. In the fall of 1922, the story had created a media frenzy, in much the same way that the O.J. Simpson case would captivate the nation some 70 years later. Fitzgerald, an enthusiastic scrapbooker, often clipped out any mention of himself that he could find, whether positive or negative. Churchwell compared Fitzgerald’s journals to the actual source newspapers and found numerous instances where the Hall-Mills case was mentioned just pages away from reports concerning Fitzgerald’s latest exploit (usually, and not surprisingly, involving drinking to excess). Furthermore, Fitzgerald mentions the Hall-Mills case, albeit in passing, in several correspondences with friends.

Churchwell, clearly aware of the dangers of oversimplification, is most successful when she does not push too hard in making connections between the historical case and the fictional novel. Too often, critics explain away the genius of art, making it seem almost inevitable and therefore, diminished. Indeed, Churchwell frequently cautions against such facile analysis. When she points out parallels, she does so tentatively and prudently, aware that literature is not merely a retelling of events. For example, she notes that in the initial stages of the Hall-Mills murder investigation, the police were searching for a light green car that they thought might lead to information about the crime. She points out a similar search in the novel:

At the end of The Great Gatsby, the police will also be told to look for a light green car in connection with a homicide. A tiny detail, too small to qualify as circumstantial evidence, it is probably just another coincidence, but coincidence has its own beauties. Even such small historical symmetries can suggest there are patterns all around us, reminders of how expansive the possibilities truly are.

Churchwell draws a line between the two but is guarded about attributing undue significance to it.

After a lengthy discussion about possible candidates for Jay Gatsby’s historical model, Churchwell backs off and states, “there is no real Jay Gatsby to grasp behind the glittering one we love: history may help us understand the world he inhabits, but it was fiction that produced him.” It is important to remember that Jay Gatsby, and the book as a whole, are inventions produced by Fitzgerald’s mind. To look too hard for the “truth” of the novel is to miss the point entirely:

Fiction is not a reassembling of concrete facts, a jigsaw puzzle to solve. It is a palimpsest country of inklings and hunches, echoes and traces. Impressions that Fitzgerald registered, with the seismic sensitivity to life’s vibrations that he attributes to Jay Gatsby, ripple through his story, shading it with waves of dark life.

At times, Churchwell almost seems to be arguing against her own endeavor. She seeks correlations between her three casts and, at the same time, warns the reader not to put too much stock into these apparent similarities. It is an important point to make: this type of literary sleuthing can allow for new discoveries, but must not be taken too literally. It can be perilous for the critic to presume to know the mind and intentions of the author. That said, understanding a novel’s context is crucial to a deeper appreciation, as Careless People proves.

Churchwell herself sums up this dichotomy best in a brilliant passage near the end of the book:

The murders of Hall and Mills are a story that can be detected behind the novel, a phantom double, not an exact correspondence: a nightmare version of grotesque reality, unrelieved by the consolations of art. The Great Gatsby is certainly not a true story, nor is it in any meaningful way based on a true story. It might better be regarded as an untrue story, one that took myriad facts and unmade them. The murder is invented, as Fitzgerald said, but it is also discovered—and once upon a time, these meant the same thing.

We cannot know for sure if Fitzgerald was contemplating the adulterous lovers and grisly murders in New Jersey while writing his masterpiece about Long Island. Churchwell shows that it is possible. Although the novel was certainly borne out of a particular era and circumstance, the beauty of The Great Gatsby was its ability to see beyond the present moment, both forward into the future and back into the past. As Churchwell herself says, “to Scott Fitzgerald’s contemporaries he was the voice of the eternal present, but now he is the voice of nostalgic glamor: lost hope, lost possibility, lost paradise.” Putting the novel back in context without compromising Fitzgerald’s artistic integrity allows for new critical possibilities. In Careless People, Sarah Churchwell has achieved something noteworthy: she has given us a fresh way to see a classic.


Casey Murphy

Casey Murphy is a freelance writer in New York City. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

All Issues