Now an undisputed masterpiece of the 20th century, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” takes place in 1922. It was a delirious time in America — the Jazz Age, Prohibition, bootlegging, decadence and wild speculation, financial and otherwise — all, in retrospect, under the cloud of the approaching Great Depression.
Contemporary readers mostly saw Gatsby’s “glittering surfaces” and “its entanglement with the facts and contexts of the day.” These days we tend to focus on “its transcendent meanings.” Sarah Churchwell, in this utterly pleasing and thorough “biography of a book,” brings the two views together in a worthwhile effort at achieving whole sight.
Her main device is the investigation of the unsolved murder of an adulterous couple that provided sensationalist fodder for an entire nation for many months. It happened in New Jersey, just as the Fitzgeralds were arriving in New York (from St. Paul), and just as the novel began to gestate.
But Churchwell is up to so much more than this. Synthesizing, augmenting and smoothing out the work of many scholars and other sources, she puts together a collage of the world from which the book sprang. She analyzes the plot and its characters, retells the tempestuous and ultimately tragic story — full of romance, parties, bright lights, drama and drunkenness — of the shared life of Scott and Zelda, reconstructs the events and the people that formed their world, and also demonstrates the co-dependence of fact and fiction.
Detailing the novel’s abundant literary delights, Churchwell also illuminates the harsh realities it incorporates. This was an indictment of American life in the 1920s. Jay Gatsby himself is “the kind of crook that built America.”
In Fitzgerald’s own words, Tom and Daisy Buchanan are “careless people … they smashed up things and creatures … and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” We are made to see “the corrupting force of wealth,” the myth of the American dream and, finally, a vision of “the lost paradise of America.”
Furthermore, the author makes plain that via Fitzgerald’s “uncanny prescience,” contemporary America is implicated as well, as she riffs on the book’s famous ending: “The future continues to recede before us, as we are borne back into the past to find there, awaiting us, our present: recklessness and greed, waste and profligacy, trial by newspaper and manipulative media moguls, irresponsible bankers and bad investments, cronyism and corruption, media scandals and Ponzi schemes, invented celebrities and frauds, violence and cynicism, epidemic materialism and a frantic search for values we keep losing.” Guilty as charged.
Re-read “The Great Gatsby,” read “Careless People” and, if you still have any lingering doubts, go see “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Mark Gustafson is a writer and a professor. He lives in Minneapolis.