Friday, 18 October 2013

Careless People: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Inventing The Great Gatsby

Welcome to the blog for the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies at the University of Glasgow. Yesterday, 17th October 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Professor Sarah Churchwell (Professor of American Literature at the University of East Anglia) to the first of the Centre’s 2013-2014 seminar series. In collaboration with the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, and as part of the 'English and American Literature Lecture Series', co-sponsored by the Centre, Churchwell discussed ‘Careless People: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Inventing The Great Gatsby.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, is a timeless American classic. Since its release in 1925, it has captivated generations, becoming one of the most widely read books in the world. In what proved to be a highly popular event – the lecture theatre was literally bursting at the seams – Prof. Churchwell described her attempts to piece together the chaotic and inchoate world behind Gatsby in her new book, ‘Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby.’ Using diary extracts, newspaper cuttings, and letters, Prof. Churchwell sought to examine the real-life events of 1922, including a gruesome double murder, to show their influences on the famous novel.

According to Prof. Churchwell, 1922 was a remarkable year, which began with the publication of ‘Ulysses’ and ended with ‘The Waste Land.’ In seeking the origins of Gatsby, Prof. Churchwell shows how Fitzgerald reflected the stories around him. The major news story at that time was that of the murder of Eleanor Mills, a married woman, and her lover Edward Hall; who were shot through the head near an abandoned farmhouse, their love letters scattered around the corpses. The murder of the adulterous couple held America spellbound and largely dominated the headlines whilst Fitzgerald was in New York. Prof. Churchwell points out a number of echoes with this and the story of Tom Buchanan's affair with Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby.

In recreating the world of New York before the Great Depression, Prof. Churchwell also set out to debunk myths of the time perpetuated since in Hollywood films and lazy scholarly works. One such myth was that of fashion, or more specifically, the length of a lady’s dress. Through her research of newspapers in 1922, Prof. Churchwell demonstrated that the dresses often depicted in adaptions (films or theatre) of Gatsby since are in fact those of the late 1920s, and not 1922. On her PowerPoint, Prof. Churchwell showed the audience pictures of dresses in 1922 – which were a lot longer than assumed. This might seem trivial, but as Prof. Churchwell argued, in discovering the context of Gatsby, it is imperative to recreate the world exactly as it was. For example, with wit and insight Prof. Churchill further described the great lengths she went to in crafting her book (she spent four years trying to pinpoint the date that Fitzgerald returned to New York from the Midwest to begin working on Gatsby). Like finding a needle in a haystack, Prof. Churchwell described her elation at discovering the date - September 20th, 1922 – through a lost telegram.

Moreover, one man who has been overlooked proved pivotal to Prof. Churchwell’s analysis of the time. Burton Rascoe was the literary editor for the New York Tribune in 1922 and according to Prof. Churchwell his writing offered important glimpses into the time. His ‘A Bookman’s Daybook’ column was littered with information related to various parties he and Fitzgerald attended, which Prof. Churchwell argued provided the motif for the Gatsby parties. Through researching this man, Prof. Churchwell uncovered a diamond in the rough – a letter from Fitzgerald to Rascoe in which he explains his motivations behind Gatsby.

Prof. Churchwell then described another example of how Fitzgerald’s fictional landscape was based on reality. In his own drive to Manhattan from Great Neck (which is called West Egg in Gatsby), Fitzgerald, like Gatsby, would have driven west along Northern Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue to the Queensboro Bridge, crossing the Flushing River about midway. There in the 1920s the road passed through a former swamp, which had gradually filled with household garbage and coal ashes. On city maps the area was labelled the Corona Dumps; Fitzgerald called it the valley of ashes.

Prof. Churchwell concluded by showing that when Fitzgerald died in 1940, he largely considered himself a failure – Gatsby had sold only seven copies in the last year of his life, and his complete works had earned him a grand total of $13.13 in royalties. But following World War II, with new attention the meaning of Gatsby began to emerge and the book began to sell, and it now occupies a central place in the American canon.

In her lecture, Prof. Churchwell mixed biography, history, literary criticism and the compelling story of a true crime murder mystery to create a brilliantly detailed picture of the story behind a classic. With its release still due in the US (coming early 2014), this very carefully researched and well-crafted piece of literature by Prof. Churchwell provides an important contribution to the scholarly discussions on Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, and America in the roaring 20s, discovering where the fiction comes from and how Fitzgerald poetically presented modern America through his tale. Prof. Churchwell’s lecture was informative, and as suggested by its attendance, was highly popular.

By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Dr. Randall Stephens (University of Northumbria) ‘The Devil’s Music: Religion and Rock in the 1950s South.’ This will be held on Wednesday 23rd October in Room 208, 2 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!

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