Sarah Churchwell on Gatsby

Fitzgerald’s classic novel, set during a hedonistic zenith before the Great Depression, has fresh appeal today

Topics: The Browser,

 Sarah Churchwell on Gatsby
This interview first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Paul Krugman, Woody Allen and Ian McEwan. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews, check out The Browser or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter.

There is a real buzz around The Great Gatsby at the moment, with a Hollywood film starring Leonardo DiCaprio out later this year, and three plays of it on in London this summer. Why do you think it is so popular at the moment?

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Gatsby is a book that is, in some ways, ambivalent about glamour and wealth. It entices us with the glamour of the parties and the wonderful material aspects of Gatsby’s life – but it shows that his falling for the false promises of materialism destroys him. The phrase that Fitzgerald uses, which I really like, is “enchanted objects”. Gatsby is a book about what we now call conspicuous consumption – the symbolic objects that are of terrible importance to all of us, and may have terrible effects on us, but we still seem to want them. Or we are taught to want them, anyway.

Like what?

“Enchanted objects” are symbols – what we think of as brands and labels, having the nicest things. For Gatsby, his house is very important. It’s how he proves that he has arrived and how rich he is. He doesn’t want to be reunited with Daisy at her house – he insists on getting her to his, so he can show it to her. His Rolls-Royce, which is absurdly ostentatious – Tom Buchanan calls it his “circus wagon” of a car – is another symbol of his wealth. To put it in modern terms, although it will sound anachronistic, Gatsby is all about bling. He flings his coloured shirts at Daisy and she bursts into tears. Gatsby is a pursuer of symbols – most famously, of course, that green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. We are pursuers of symbols too – that’s what brands are.

That’s something that our society obviously understands and is in thrall to, and yet Gatsby is also a novel that shows the hollowness of this promise, how corrupt and dangerous it is. This destructive glamour seems to me to perfectly capture our ambivalent moment. The fact is that we are all learning the hard way how empty and poisonous, how toxic our chasing of materialism and wealth has been, and yet we’re not really ready to let go of it either. It’s not as if we’ve all suddenly thrown away all our “enchanted objects” and are now living a simple, basic, pared-down subsistence-level existence stripped of consumerism and materialism. We’re in that same space as Gatsby: We want the glamour and we’re enchanted by the objects and yet we are reluctantly recognising how toxic that whole world is. Gatsby not only is the first novel that really understands all of that, but it also plays to both sides of our emotional ambivalence right now.



We’re not reading Depression-era texts, partly because we want to stave that off. We’re hoping we won’t get into a Depression. Fitzgerald was ahead of his time, of course. Gatsby came out in 1925 and the Wall Street Crash was in October 1929, and that is part of his clairvoyance, that he saw it all so early. Essentially we’re in a 1929 mentality: It’s all crumbling beneath us, but we’re trying to cling on and hoping it won’t all disappear.

Before we look at your five books, for the few people who may not have come across it as a term, can you tell us what the Jazz Age refers to?

Jazz Age was a phrase used to describe the 1920s. Fitzgerald took credit for coining the phrase and it became a very popular way for them to talk about their own era. The thing to remember is that in the early 1920s jazz wasn’t necessarily as respectable as it is now – Zelda Fitzgerald, Scott’s wife, called it that “once-déclassé jazz”. Many critics then talked about jazz rather the way we refer to pop music today. It was often a term of opprobrium: Fitzgerald was called a jazz writer by critics who wanted to say that he was basically “pop” – meaning he was light and frothy and a bit tacky. But for the younger generation, jazz was exciting – it was energy, vitality, surprise, improvisation, throwing out the old and embracing the new.

Let’s take a look at your first choice, F Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, edited by Matthew Bruccoli.

There are three volumes of Fitzgerald’s letters, but this is a selection of the highlights. If you really want to understand Fitzgerald you need to hear his own voice. He had a great deal more range than people sometimes think. What I love about A Life in Letters is that it conveys more clearly his sense of humour. One of the things that I think people sometimes miss about Gatsby is its sense of humour. We’ve been encouraged to read it only as an elegiac romance – which it is – but it’s also a very funny book with a great deal of facetious wit. I think that one gets more of an ear for Fitzgerald’s particular brand of humour by reading his letters.

Also, you get a sense of how serious he was about writing and how much reading he did. A great many of his letters are exchanges with friends who were writers and journalists, and they are all developing theories of writing. He is thinking very consciously and explicitly about the kinds of writing that he wants to do. So I think this collection of letters is a good way of getting a feel for the era and for the man.

What kind of writing did he want to do?

Well, he was changing his mind about it. His first novel came out in 1920, when he was just 24, and Gatsby came out in 1925 – he was 28 when he finished it. So he was evolving very much as a writer and as an adult over the course of his first books. By the time Gatsby came out he had written three novels in four years, published two collections of short stories, and he’d written a satirical play at the end of 1923, which was a complete flop. The majority of that writing was satirical. At first he saw himself as a satirist and that was his metier.

But in the early 1920s Fitzgerald and his friends were also thinking and talking earnestly about the idea of what American literature should be. There was a very prominent conversation in the papers and magazines, as well as in books, of course, about an emerging idea of modern American literature. How would America find its own voice, its own form, a literature that was unique, indigenous, and not just aping European and particularly British literature? Could America develop its own literary identity? In particular they were theorising about what the novel should be and what it should do, how the characters should work, what its purposes were. And that is why there is a pronounced shift in tone, form and style among his first three novels as he explores those different ideas.

When you refer to “they”, the people he was writing to include his editor, Maxwell Perkins, and friends like Edmund Wilson and Ernest Hemingway.

Exactly, although he didn’t meet Hemingway until after Gatsby came out. But they discussed Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel, and also Hemingway’s first novels, in detail.

There are many different biographies about Scott Fitzgerald – what made you choose Arthur Mizener’s?

You’re right, there are many biographies of Fitzgerald and this might not be the easiest one to get hold of but I am interested in it because Mizener was Fitzgerald’s first biographer. It came out in 1951, when many of the people who knew Fitzgerald were still alive. For the most part they liked it and spoke well of it. Of course they had some criticisms and objections – nothing is ever going to be perfect or universally loved. But given how many people knew Fitzgerald and were fond of him and protective of his memory, I think it is remarkable that for the most part they thought Mizener was fair-minded and accurate.

I also think Mizener is one of the best writers among his biographers. Mizener cared about the writing of his book. Moreover, as a thinker and biographer, Mizener brings subtlety and nuance to his approach. The other biographies often fall into the trap of cruder, flat assertions, that he was like this and he wasn’t like that, or Zelda was like this or wasn’t like that. And, of course, you can’t make those kinds of flat assertions about people – we all change and evolve and not just over long periods of time. We can change our minds from one day to the next. That’s not particularly hard to get your head around, but it is a difficult problem for the biographer to deal with and I think Mizener does a good job of finding a recognisable Fitzgerald and suggesting his intelligence, his subtlety and complexity, but also, of course, the darker side that drove him into his terribly destructive drinking and eventually killed him at just 44.

Mizener also has a sense of humour and, as I say, I think humour is very important in understanding Fitzgerald. I distrust any biographer who doesn’t show much evidence of humour when writing about him.

Aside from the humour, what other insights struck you while reading the book?

I came to Mizener fairly late, so I had read the more recent biographies first, as well as his letters. So rather than giving me fresh insights, his book gave me a Fitzgerald that I recognised from the novels and letters and the writings of others about him, but it completed the picture and gave me the best sense of the whole person.

Your next choice, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, takes a look at some of the women involved in the Jazz Age.

This is Marion Meade’s overview. In some ways it would be a good book to read first if you want an introduction to the Jazz Age. I think she does a very good job of getting the feel of it, and the organisation is quite clever. She tells the story of the decade through the lives and careers of four women who all knew each other and had many relationships in common. They had many mutual friends as well as, in some cases, lovers, who are threaded among the different stories.

It’s the story of the decade told through these women whose lives intersect in New York. She begins in 1920 and writes about Scott’s wife Zelda Fitzgerald. Then she shifts to Dorothy Parker, who was a friend of the Fitzgeralds, and the poet Edna St Vincent Millay and [novelist] Edna Ferber. The story crosscuts among all these different women, who in their own ways were each representative of an experience of the Jazz Age.

What kind of characters were they?

They were very “modern” women, all rebellious in their own way. American women got the vote in 1920, and these women all came of age around the same time and are seen as part of this new age of independent women. They were called flappers, but most of them were more serious than what the term generally denoted. The flapper was usually represented as a very frivolous character but most of these women worked for a living and they were all very talented and trying to be groundbreaking in certain ways, but also trying to have a lot of fun. Mostly they succeeded more at the fun, at least at the beginning, than in being groundbreaking, but they were all very interesting women.

They are all intellectuals.

Yes, I would say they are. Most people wouldn’t talk about Zelda Fitzgerald that way, but perhaps we should. She wasn’t a very serious person in one sense until later in her life – she didn’t have any discipline or dedication to a craft or purpose, but she had a great deal of talent, she was highly intelligent and she was trying to figure out what she was going to do. She’s representative of a young woman who was trying to find her place in a changing world. In a sense she was very much a product of her upbringing in the South, in the Edwardian years. Fitzgerald was born in 1896 and Zelda was born in 1900, so they were raised in a much more conservative era. Zelda was a Southern belle, really – raised to believe that men should take care of her – and as a young woman it doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that she should work. However, many biographers say that Fitzgerald also didn’t want her to, although this is a subject of some dispute. Later, when she was in her late twenties, she got very serious about work, first about ballet and then about writing. She wrote a novel and a play in the early 1930s, but by then she’d had a terrible breakdown and been institutionalised.

Some of the other women in Marion Meade’s story were considerably more independent than Zelda was. Edna St Vincent Millay is probably the most rebellious of them all. She was certainly the most iconoclastic of the group that Meade considers. Millay was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, she was immensely famous and I think her poetry has been unfairly neglected because she wasn’t really a modernist. She was a more traditional poet, but her life was very modern. She was famously promiscuous – with both sexes – profoundly unfaithful, and cut a swath through Greenwich Village in the early years of American bohemia that has never really been forgotten. Several of Fitzgerald’s friends were madly in love with her, including [writer and literary critic] Edmund Wilson – she was Wilson’s first great love, and some would say his last, too.

Then there is Dorothy Parker who is probably the best remembered of these women now. She was a writer, journalist and poet. Eventually she was writing for The New Yorker magazine, which was established in 1925. Dorothy knew Scott and Zelda quite well – she had a crush on Scott at one point – and Edmund Wilson thought about asking her out, so they all knew each other and socialised together with the same groups of friends. They were all working for the same editors and going to the same parties and I think that is what Meade captures well. And because her story covers the whole decade, beginning in 1920 and ending with the crash, you really get a sense of New York and America in the 1920s.

The Great Gatsby remains a modern classic, but how did Fitzgerald go about writing this great book? That’s something which Robert Emmet Long explores in the fourth book on your list, The Achieving of the Great Gatsby.

As an academic I thought I should have at least one work of literary criticism on my list. I like this book for a couple of reasons. First of all it’s a bit older, which means it doesn’t fall into the language of literary criticism today, which has become a very technical, jargon-ridden language that I’m not really a fan of. I certainly don’t think most modern literary criticism is accessible to a non-academic reader, but this book is older and so it’s written for a generalist, rather than a specialist. As its title suggests, it’s a book that’s interested in Fitzgerald’s development and his evolution, how he transitions from a younger writer of satire and short stories into the artist who produced Gatsby.

Initially Fitzgerald was a writer of great promise but not of great control. When you compare This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned to The Great Gatsby, one things that strikes you about the first two novels is how much crazier they are. They’re a bit mad, really – they range all over the place. There’s a sense that here is this young writer throwing anything he can think of at you, and maybe he’ll add the kitchen sink. One sees a lack of discipline – he has so much talent and he is just running wild on the page in places. It’s exuberant and surprising and fun, but it’s also self-indulgent. In the early novels he let himself do virtually anything – and he could do a great many things because he was certainly a genius – but it was not particularly controlled or focused.

Then you get to Gatsby, which is so perfectly controlled – “intricately patterned”, as he said. Long’s book is interested in how Fitzgerald came to do that, what he was reading, who he was writing to. He shows the important literary influences on Fitzgerald, writers like Joseph Conrad, who was terribly important to the eventual shape of Gatsby. He learned from Conrad the technique of using the narrator who is also a marginal participant. Charles Marlow tells the story in Heart of Darkness, but isn’t himself the protagonist. Fitzgerald does something very similar with Nick Carraway, who knows Gatsby and is involved with him, but is also an observer.

In the second half of the book, he gives a very good overview of what most of us think of as Gatsby’s great literary virtues. He gives a clear sense of why it is that people think it is such a masterpiece, both the story and meaning but also on the level of language itself.

Such as?

Gatsby isn’t just a great story – what really makes it a masterpiece is Fitzgerald’s prose, the near-perfection of his sentences and the surprise and power of his images and symbols. He said he wanted it to be an “intricately patterned” novel, as I said, and you see that pattern created in his language. This is something that many critics have explored at great length, but I think Long does a good job of conveying the main ideas about what Fitzgerald does with his images, themes and metaphors and the importance of symbols in the novel. It’s just a very solid overview of what the main themes and ideas of Gatsby are, so it’s a good introduction for someone trying to get a sense of what all the fuss is about.

Finally you have chosen, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: A Literary Reference, which is good background to the Jazz Age.

This is a collection of historical documents – it’s the book equivalent of an hour-long documentary film that draws on an historical archive to tell you the background and context of a certain work of art. It was put together by Matthew Bruccoli, who also edited the Fitzgerald letters. For many years Bruccoli was the reigning Fitzgerald scholar and he did a great deal of spadework. He created archives and did an enormous amount of research into newspapers and primary sources.

This book is a collection of various newspaper stories and the historical contexts from which The Great Gatsby emerged. There are many references in Gatsby to actual historical events and Fitzgerald uses a great many real life people who he transforms or creates composites out of. He would very cheerfully admit this, by the way – it’s not speculation. So in a lot of his letters he would say, I based this part on the stockbroker Bob Kerr’s story, or, I based this part on Arnold Rothstein, so we know that is what he was doing and he wasn’t trying to deceive anyone about it. It was a perfectly legitimate way to write fiction.

For example, people may perhaps remember from the novel that Nick and Gatsby discuss the fixing of the 1919 World Series – the famous Black Sox scandal – which was, of course, an historical event. Bruccolli explains it and gives some newspaper clippings of the coverage of it, so one understands what the reference is – you have a sense of what it meant and how people were talking about it. Or there’s the gangster Arnold Rothstein. Anyone who has been watching Boardwalk Empire will know about Rothstein. He was the first big gangster-racketeer before Al Capone. He was eventually eclipsed by Capone’s notoriety, but in the early years of the 1920s (he was killed in 1928) Rothstein was the big American gangster, and Fitzgerald met him once and based Meyer Wolfsheim on him. And Bruccoli gives some information about Rothstein and some newspaper articles on him, so you start to build up a picture of who these people were and what the living history was that Fitzgerald was responding to.

So much has already been written about Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age – what new things have you discovered while researching your own book?

My forthcoming book, Careless People, is really the biography of a book. It’s the true story behind Gatsby, a mix of biography, social history and literary essay. So it tells the story of the parties and speakeasies and high life in New York and Long Island, what Scott and Zelda were doing, and weaves that in with a broader social history about what’s happening in the world at the time – fascism is on the rise, for example – and then ties that back to Gatsby, explaining how this helps us understand the novel better.

My book takes place over four months in 1922, which is when The Great Gatsby is set. The Great Gatsby takes place from June to September 1922, and my book takes place from September to December 1922: September is when the Fitzgeralds returned to New York from the Midwest. They moved to Great Neck, Long Island, which Fitzgerald would transform into West Egg in Gatsby, in October 1922, and the parties that would inspire the novel kicked off.

So Careless People is a reconstruction of the crucial months when the Fitzgeralds returned to New York in the autumn of 1922 – the parties, the drunken weekends at Great Neck, the drives back into the city to the jazz clubs and speakeasies, the intersection of high society and organised crime and the growth of celebrity culture – it’s about the relation of Gatsby to the chaotic world of 1922. I also argue that there is one major story that he used in Gatsby that no one has really talked about.

That will come out in your new book?

Yes, but it’s a secret! What I’m trying to do is to reconstruct as closely as I can what it was like to be there, but without making anything up. It’s all non-fiction, but you find out what speakeasies were really like and how to get into one, recipes for prohibition cocktails, how wild the parties really were, what they really were wearing (not what you might think) and what they really were dancing, and where the ideas for Gatsby come from. Because I don’t think it’s necessary to pretend that just because a novel is great, it can’t be inspired by events and ideas in real life. Where else do ideas come from? I always like the answer Kurt Vonnegut gave to the standard question, “Where do you get your ideas?” He used to answer, “Cincinnati”. (Which is a bit like saying “Sheffield” in Britain, perhaps.) So my book is saying, a little less facetiously but hopefully with some humour, that Fitzgerald got his ideas from New York and Long Island and from what was happening around him.

I hope it also suggests ways in which this can help us understand Gatsby better. If I had an image for what I’m doing it might be like an illuminated manuscript. I’m just trying to draw colourful pictures in the margin of Gatsby that might help bring some of it back to life. When Fitzgerald wrote it, his readers understood all his references, but now we’ve forgotten them. So to give just one example: Gatsby gets his money from “drug stores”, but during prohibition drug stores were a well-known blind for selling illegal liquor. So for a 1925 audience, this implies pretty strongly that he was probably a bootlegger, even before we find out for sure. Most readers today don’t know what that means without a footnote. But the thing is that the 1925 audience couldn’t see that Gatsby was more than a bootlegger – he was a romantic hero. They could only see the bootlegger and not the hero – we can only see the hero and not the bootlegger. I’m trying to bring both back.

It seems to me, after reading scores of books about Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, that what none of the books really does is convey how much fun it is to read Gatsby and how much pleasure there is in the book. There’s something about literary criticism today that seems determined to deprive people of that pleasure. So I thought there must be a way to write a work of literary criticism that doesn’t suck all of the joy out of it. My ultimate goal is to let people have fun as they try to understand this novel that so many of us love a little better. Henry James said that criticism is the mind reaching out for reasons to understand its own interests. Millions of people love Gatsby and I hope my book can suggest why that is, and what really was remarkable about it, but also what was remarkable about these four months in 1922, which are quite extraordinary in their own right, quite apart from Gatsby. Ultimately, it’s about the relationship between art and life: Careless People is the story of the carelessness and the chaos of those four months and how Fitzgerald’s imagination shaped that chaos and gave it an order and a meaning. Fitzgerald saw that meaning long before anyone else.

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