When The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, it got a decidedly tepid reception. Reviews were mixed, sales were deeply disappointing. F. Scott Fitzgerald just couldn’t get it together to write anything serious, some critics said. The book seemed too ephemeral to many readers—ripped from the headlines, like an episode of “Law and Order” today.

Of course, opinion has changed, and we now see Gatsby as a timeless classic. To Americans educated on the symbolism of the green light on the dock, the early response seems mysterious. But, as literary historian Sarah Churchwell explains in her fascinating Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, it really wasn’t.

Gatsby was actually much more rooted in its contemporary scene than we remember. Fitzgerald got his ideas for the novel in a particular time and place: New York City and environs in late 1922, when he and wife Zelda were very young, very famous and usually drunk out of their minds. The self-destructive tendencies that soon destroyed them were already sadly in evidence.

Churchwell guides us through the formation of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby ideas, as much as it can be recreated, by following the couple’s lives during that time, and blending their story with what was going on around them. Fitzgerald himself noted a number of the influences, in a terse outline he wrote years later. But Churchwell also takes particular interest in the then-notorious Hall-Mills double murder in New Jersey.

What a murder it was: An adulterous couple, a minister and a choir singer, were found slain under a lover’s lane apple tree. The minister’s wife was rich; the choir singer’s husband was a janitor; a weird person known as “the Pig Woman” claimed to have seen the crime. New Jersey authorities so botched the case that it was never solved (though Churchwell pretty clearly has her own suspect.)

Fitzgerald only mentioned it once in an interview, but Churchwell makes a good case that it subtly underlies Gatsby. Think about it: A downmarket Madame Bovary has an affair with an upper class guy and ends up dead. Her husband is a hapless working-class stiff. Sound anything like Myrtle, Tom and George from Gatsby?

As Churchwell emphasizes, Myrtle’s death is not the Hall-Mills case any more than newspaperman Bayard Swope’s parties are Gatsby’s parties or Gatsby is a bootlegger named Gerlach. Fitzgerald was an artist, not a writer of romans a clef. But Churchwell has produced an intriguing glimpse into how his mind worked, as he mined the Jazz Age innovations that still shape our world. 

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