In Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby, Sarah Churchwell presents a fresh look at the iconic text by gathering and analyzing information about the time period in which Gatsby is set: 1922, at the height of New York's Jazz Age. She studies the lives of Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda, their friends, acquaintances and drinking companions, as well as the major news events of the day -- most notably Prohibition and a sensational unsolved double murder in New Jersey -- and how these factors influenced Fitzgerald's writing.
In doing so, Churchwell provides the historical context in which to better understand the environment in which Gatsby -- considered by many to be the Great American Novel -- was written, as well as why it wasn't recognized as the great work it is at the time it was published in 1925.
This book's title is a reference to Gatsby narrator Nick Carraway's ultimate description of his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband Tom: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money... and let other people clean up the mess they had made."
Churchwell, a U.S.-born professor of American literature and public understanding of the humanities at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K., breaks Careless People into nine chapters, each focusing on its corresponding chapter in The Great Gatsby. In doing so she is able to neatly address how the events in each chapter of Gatsby were influenced by the events of the day and Fitzgerald's life.
Her research leads to insights that give readers new ways to interpret and understand the symbols and themes in The Great Gatsby.
One of the most enduring symbols in Gatsby is the green light located at the end of the Buchanans' dock that Gatsby stares at while obsessing over his long-lost love. By contemporary standards, a green light means go; a modern interpretation would suggest Gatsby is being given the "green light" to pursue Daisy.
Churchwell, however, informs readers that in 1922 New York, when traffic lights were just beginning to be put into service, there was confusion as to what the different colours meant, depending on where in the city one was. She explains that "Jay Gatsby, the young man who misreads the green light... is confused by it into thinking he has permission to proceed from west to east, when it reality it is telling him to stop. A collision becomes inevitable."
Churchwell also sheds light on the origins of major and minor characters in the novel. Careless People draws parallels between Fitzgerald and both narrator Carraway and Jay Gatsby. Churchwell also looks at the parallels between Daisy Buchanan and Zelda Fitzgerald and the doomed relationship the Gatsby author had with his wife.
It's no secret Meyer Wolfsheim, a Gatsby acquaintance whom he says is "the man who fixed the World's (sic) Series back in 1919," is modelled after Prohibition-era gangster Arnold Rothstein. Another character, Owl Eyes, a constant guest at Gatsby's non-stop parties, is given the nickname of journalist. Fitzgerald drinking buddy Ring Lardner, meanwhile, was a journalist who, coincidentally, was covering the Chicago White Sox in 1919 when eight members of the team conspired with Rothstein to fix the World Series.
Careless People is full of insights and information which, when examined in the context of Fitzgerald's hard-living, non-stop party lifestyle and the elite company he kept, provide a new way of looking at what is now recognized as a masterpiece of American literature -- despite its tepid reception when it was first published.
Gilbert Gregory is a Winnipeg Free Press copy editor.