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.
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.
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.