Uncovering the real world behind 'The Great Gatsby'

In 'Careless People,' author Sarah Churchwell explores the events that inspired the Fitzgeralds.

By , Contributor

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    'We know that hankering for luxury and the good life is empty and toxic,' says Sarah Churchwell, author of 'Careless People,' 'and yet it doesn’t stop us from wanting it.'
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Sarah Churchwell, a professor of literature based in the U.K., specializes in uncovering the truth behind remarkable 20th-century Americans whose real selves are lost in the haze of mythology.

First, in her 2004 book "The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe," Churchwell cuts through galaxies of gossip and restores the doomed movie star to full humanity. (You can read my interview with her about the book here.

Now, Churchwell has three more timeless characters on her mind. One, Jay Gatsby, is purely fictional, although you'd barely know it by how much he's become a part of American culture and memory. The other two are his creator, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his wife, Zelda.In the new stunning book Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, Churchwell takes readers on a trip through the early 1920s and beyond. "Careless People" is part biography, part Roaring Twenties visitor's guide, part fever dream and  entirely captivating.

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In an interview, I asked Churchwell to ponder what she'd learned about the Fitzgeralds, who were deeply aware of their own era's moral rot but couldn't stop themselves from living it up amid the decadence.
 
 Q: You do a remarkable job of explaining how F. Scott Fitzgerald brilliantly exposed the deadly hollowness of the lifestyle he lived – yet was swept along almost helplessly. What do you make of the way he viewed the world that he embraced yet seemed to despise?
 
 A: His ambivalence mirrors our own, it seems to me. "Gatsby" is a novel about a bust written from within a boom, and its ambivalence about materialism and aspiration certainly speaks to our society. We know that hankering for luxury and the good life is empty and toxic, and yet it doesn’t stop us from wanting it.

He had a fierce appetite for the gorgeous, an artist’s sensibility that meant he wanted everything to be beautiful, luxurious, sensual. Yet he was also a moralist, with a strong sense of right and wrong. He was in some ways far more straitlaced than people realize today.

So he was torn, as was Zelda. They loved the high life, and didn’t want to admit what it was costing them emotionally, psychically, physically. I don’t think that’s so hard to understand or to sympathize with.
 
 Q: We know that both Fitzgeralds had amazing perceptive powers about their era. Looking back, what do you think they missed or purposefully ignored?
 
 A: No one in their era sufficiently understood the perils of addiction: They didn’t realize the toll that the crazy amounts of drinking and partying they did would take on their lives.

Both Fitzgeralds were some of the worst casualties, but none of their circle escaped unscathed. Many of their friends died very young as did they, and those who survived were badly affected by alcoholism in particular.
 
 Q: What surprised you about their era and their lives?
 
 A: Literally every page of my book has something on it that surprised me.

For example, I discovered that women’s dresses in 1922 were ankle-length, not the knee-length spangled flapper dresses that we picture. It turns out that the Charleston is never mentioned in the novel for a good reason – America didn’t start dancing it until after Gatsby was published.

But I also found similarities and parallels that surprised me. I discovered that many words we may think of as contemporary to us actually originated in the jazz age – "post-feminist" was first used in 1919 – because sexual and gender roles were changing.

Merchant banks were invented at the time, and so you get the language of modern finance: "inflationary" and "deflationary" (1920), "merchant bank" (1921), "arbitrage" (1923). And our old friend “subprime" is first used in 1920.
 
 Q: Many Americans still read "The Great Gatsby" in school. What advice would you give teachers about teaching it?
 
 A: As a teacher, I’m a believer in giving students permission to like novels for their own reasons, rather than for mine.

That said, I try to get them to appreciate the language in a great novel, because that’s what makes it great. Getting them to see its humor and its irony is central, while truisms about “the American Dream” are of limited utility and interest for young people as a way to read the novel.

Is Jay Gatsby really great? Some will say yes – he has the soul of an artist. Others will say no – doesn’t it matter that he is a gangster and a thug?And I will say, You’re both right. He is and isn’t great: that’s the function of irony, both meanings are there.
 
 Q: Where do the film versions, universally unloved – even an Alan Ladd movie that's nearly forgotten – fit in?
 
 A: I like to use the film versions in the classroom because they are so wrong: getting the students to compare what they see on the screen with what Fitzgerald says on the page is a good way to get them paying attention to the words, and to feel like they’re outsmarting someone, which in my experience they enjoy!

For example, why do films always make Nick Carraway such a dopey loser? He’s cool enough that they all want to be friends with him. Jordan wants to date him, and she’s a celebrity for heaven’s sake! If you point that out to them they start to see the novel in a different way, and to – well, to own it.
 
 Q: Did you grow to personally like the Fitzgeralds more after writing your book?
 
 A: I started out loving them both, and I still love them both. If anything, I love them both more now that I understand better their courage and artistry, the way they salvaged a tattered dignity from the bouts of sophomoric behavior and raging self-pity.

Zelda was a much smarter and more interesting person than I think I’d appreciated before, and certainly a braver one. She was a woman of great talent and charm, but for many years her only purpose was frivolity and fun.Pleasure has its role, but it can’t be everything. Eventually she learned that the hard way. In the later decades of her life she became very serious about her writing, her painting, and then religion, but these were also bound up with her later struggles with mental illness in complicated ways.
 
 Q: What about F. Scott himself?
 
 A: I’ve gone from being a fan of Fitzgerald to knowing that he will be a part of my intellectual and creative life forever.

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