Sutherland: Boats Against the Current & The Great Gatsby

9781594204746Critic and scholar Sarah Churchwell – a native of Chicago’s North Shore(like Gatsby’s “Tom Buchanan”) – has written the most significant book about the artistry of F. Scott Fitzgerald in many a year…

Churchwell is a graduate of Vassar and Princeton.  She is a professor of American Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich,England.  She also hosts a radio talk show on the BBC.

Ms. Churchwell has written with her signature wit and erudition before on such undry, unacademic subjects as the cult of Marilyn Monroe.  With her “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem,and the Invention of The Great Gatsby”, she has displayed amazing insight into a work whose iconic significance to American letters has only grown with each passing year.  This is a breakthrough book for Churchwell but also for the general reader, who will readily appreciate her literary detective work.

The most significant clue elucidated by the author is the concurrence of the writing of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece and a sensational murder case that dominated the headlines throughout the months that Fitzgerald conceived and began writing Gatsby.

HallMills_1926Churchwell makes a compelling case that the personality types of the two couples involved in the 1922 Hall/Mills murder case served as the as the role models for the four main characters in Gatsby.

She makes equally persuasive arguments that some of the myths that have grown up around the novel, as well as the two movie versions, have little basis in fact.

One persistent widespread misunderstanding is that the setting of the book is Long Island’s The Hamptons, when actually it was based on the close-in suburb of Great Neck, which has since long shed any glamour it had in the ‘20s, when Fitzgerald lived and wrote Gatsby there.

Edward Hall & Eleanor Mills

Edward Hall & Eleanor Mills

The other strength of Churchwell’s book, besides placing Gatsby in the cultural context of the 1920’s answer to the O.J. Simpson case, is that she understands not only the dynamics of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald as a couple (Zelda as Scott’s muse and alcoholic enabler) but also their interaction with their contemporaries, literary and otherwise.

When I was growing up F. Scott Fitzgerald had an almost cult status. 

Many people loved “The Great Gatsby” without being able to explain why it moved them so much.  Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People tells you why it was so great.  It not only dealt with The Big Questions (success, marriage, money, ambition) but also did so in a uniquely American way.  There is no need to write The Great American Novel.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote it, beginning in 1922, and Sarah Churchwell tells you how, and why, he did it.

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14 Responses to Sutherland: Boats Against the Current & The Great Gatsby

  1. Paracelsus says:

    Now that is interesting.

  2. the dude says:

    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas replaced Gatsby as the great uhmurcan novel long ago Dwight.

    • Paracelsus says:

      Or The Grapes of Wrath. Or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

      • Dwight D. Sutherland, Jr. says:

        I’ll admit Huck Finn is a strong contender for the laurels but nothing else comes close. Steinbeck’s and Thompson’s works are the very best of their sub genres (the protest novel and the period piece/satire) but I don’t think they rise to the level of Fitzgerald or Twain. Glad you guys finally found something of interest in my stuff. Others just want to hear all politics,all the time.

        • Paracelsus says:

          I’ll yap about literature or scandal all day long, even better if they’re combined. I much prefer that to political discussion actually.

          I think the selections we’ve talked about could all be taught together in a great class–they’re all addressing the grim truths that sit at the heart of what we call the American Dream. And all of them brutally honest in their way.

        • the dude says:

          Ok, I’ll admit Huck Finn is hard to beat as far as novels go. It is a damn good book that still entertains me to this day. I tried to read Gatsby but it was so damn boring to be honest. I guess I have to try and pick it up again after I finish reading Infinite Jest.

        • John Altevogt says:

          That’s not true. Just because Milt Wolf is a complete lying asshole does not mean we’re not interested in what ever this column was about.

  3. chuck says:

    I know I will be laughed out of the room, but “Lonesome Dove” is my favorite read.

    I read “Gatsby” in school and loved it. Should do it again

  4. Paracelsus says:

    Lonesome Dove is great.

  5. chuck says:

    I just bought the only copy of the Churchwell book at 119th B&N.

    Looks really good.

  6. H Luce says:

    It’s odd that no one has mentioned Ernest Hemingway. Not only did he write great fiction – some of it about residents of Kansas City, such as his friend and drinking buddy, Dr Logan Clendening – but he wrote about the types of people that most of us would meet in everyday life. Hemingway to me is far more accessible than Fitzgerald.

    • chuck says:

      Churchwell is killin it in her book so far—

      Just watched “Life Itself”, a docu about Roger Ebert, very interesting. He had a friend, who on command, would recite the last pages of “The Great Gatsby” for him when he asked.

      Roger loved the Gatsby.

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