Preposterous dreams can seem reasonable when you’re young. ‘I want to be one of the greatest writers who have ever lived,’ Scott Fitzgerald said to his friend Edmund Wilson when they were just out of college, ‘don’t you?’
Wilson was the son of a lawyer, a bit chilly, a prodigious reader steeped in Plato and Dante. He thought Fitzgerald’s remark foolish – just what you might expect from a man who had been reading novelists like Booth Tarkington and H.G. Wells. But Wilson respected Fitzgerald’s ardour; he believed that was how a young man of talent should feel. The Great War soon parted and changed them. Wilson went to France to work in a military hospital close to Verdun, where he learned to line up bodies on the floor as casually as he had once arranged books on a shelf. Fitzgerald never got to the war, but at officers’ training school in Alabama he fell in love with a girl of bewildering brilliance and beauty who would cost as much to keep as a yacht or a racehorse. But Fitzgerald and Wilson remained close till the end and Fitzgerald’s ardour, like Wilson’s respect, never dimmed.
‘Greatest’ is still hotly argued but no one would object to ‘most famous’, at least for a time. While courting the expensive girl, Fitzgerald was also working on a novel he had begun at Princeton. At first he wanted to call it ‘The Romantic Egotist’ but, thoroughly reworked, it appeared in 1920 as This Side of Paradise. Everything unfolded as in a first-time author’s dream. The cautious initial printing of three thousand copies sold out in three days and 11 later printings brought the total to nearly fifty thousand copies. For a literary novel intended to stand on a shelf beside the greats, that was a success to make an author swoon. It would do no less today. The reviews were good too, and a week after publication he married the expensive girl.
But praise and money were not the whole of it. This Side of Paradise made Fitzgerald as famous as a movie star: he was recognised everywhere as the bard of the bold young women in short skirts and bobbed hair who did as they pleased and alarmed their elders. Fitzgerald didn’t invent the word ‘flappers’ but for two or three years explaining them was a part-time job. His views were sought on the war, the automobile, cigarettes, bathtub gin and everything else that was blamed for the flappers’ contempt for convention. None was Fitzgerald’s doing but he described it in short stories and in the novel everybody was reading and the public couldn’t get enough. No sooner did he register at a hotel than a reporter would appear seeking an interview. Gradually, a note of fraying temper crept into his responses to repetitive questions. ‘I’ll not talk of flappers,’ he told a newsman in his wife’s hometown of Montgomery in 1922. ‘I can sell that sort of chatter. Prohibition is a dead issue. The war’s over. Folks are tired of hearing of the doings of Broadway, Europe and other points listed.’ He turned to his wife, the former Zelda Sayre. ‘So what shall be the chatter, beautiful?’
What Wilson had spotted was the intensity of the literary ardour behind the chatter. Fitzgerald loved his fame and spent the money a good deal faster than he earned it, which required him to write endless stories about flappers for the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines printed on slick paper. He considered those stories a distraction. What he wanted to write was a great book. His second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, published a few months before the visit to Zelda’s hometown, was not it. It sold as well as Paradise and reviewers mostly praised Fitzgerald’s writing, by which they principally meant the lively interest of every sentence, paragraph and page, taken by itself. But they didn’t like or admire the couple at the book’s heart, whose lives and marriage were being worn down by too much money and drink.
It is notoriously hard to define the thing that makes a piece of writing great, but Fitzgerald had learned to recognise it the same way Wilson did – by reading great authors. Among his favourites were the Romantic poets, and first among the Romantics was Keats, whose life commanded pride of place for its sheer sadness. Fitzgerald read and reread Keats’s poems until he died, but he admired two above the others, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ and ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ – which describes what the encounter with greatness in a literary work is like. Keats’s Greek was not up to the difficulties of Homer but the mist lifted when he looked into Chapman’s strong English telling of the siege of Troy. ‘Then!’ the poet says, ‘felt I like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken.’ Before Chapman’s Homer he was ‘stout Córtez’, staring at the Pacific. That’s what Fitzgerald wanted to write – something that would stab a reader to his core and leave an indelible impression – and around the middle of 1922 he began to get an idea, or a theme, or at least something. He wrote to his editor at Scribner’s, Max Perkins, that his new book would ‘concern less superlative beauties than I run to usually & will be centred on a smaller period of time’. Ideas for novels don’t come vaguer than that. He promised ‘more definite plans’ soon.
In October 1922, Fitzgerald moved his family (Zelda plus their two-year-old daughter, Scottie) to Great Neck, Long Island and over the next 18 months ‘my novel’ acquired a Midwestern background, a poor boy-rich girl theme, a narrative structure and a title which was definite one day and discarded the next. Most of what he got down on paper was tossed out until things began to come together as winter ended in early 1924. Fitzgerald’s faith in his novel grew as he laboured to make it ‘the very best I’m capable of … or even as I feel sometimes, something better than I’m capable of’. Perkins received and considered many title variants as the book made its way towards publication but Fitzgerald’s first was the one that stuck, the one he liked, the one he thought had a certain bigness to it. Perkins never exactly pushed for The Great Gatsby; he just said he thought it ‘suggestive and effective’.
Fitzgerald was a long time getting Gatsby off the ground. First he tried to make his fortune with a play called The Vegetable. Wilson thought it perhaps the best American comedy so far and Fitzgerald agreed, adding that it was ‘the best thing I have ever written’. The play closed after a single performance in Atlantic City. Months of writing short stories followed as he dug himself out of debt. By the spring of 1924 he was tired of Great Neck, where his house cost $300 a month, and moved to the South of France, where he found a villa for $80 a month. It was at about this time that Fitzgerald and Perkins began to address each other as Scott and Max. In April, Fitzgerald said he hoped to finish the new novel by June; in June he was working on it seriously at last. Five months later, he mailed the manuscript to Perkins in New York. Looking back, he ‘forgot’, he wrote to Zelda in 1930, ‘how I’d dragged The Great Gatsby out of the pit of my stomach in a time of misery’. But with the book done his hopes were again high; he said of it roughly what he had said about The Vegetable: ‘I think my novel is about the best American novel ever written.’ Rewrites were done on the proofs in Rome. The book was published in April 1925, when Fitzgerald was 28. It was not a big book, less than fifty thousand words. It sold slowly and among the first round of reviewers even those who liked it didn’t know what to make of it. Fitzgerald in heavy spirits told Perkins he would attempt a serious novel one more time but if that failed, too, he would ‘come home, go to Hollywood and learn the movie business’. That is what he did. Then he died. Only one thing rescued Fitzgerald’s name from a dismal place between Floyd Dell and Joseph Hergesheimer on the list of forgotten novelists of the 1920s – the novel Perkins called ‘a wonder’.
In Careless People, her new book on the writing of The Great Gatsby, Sarah Churchwell proceeds with a sturdy working theory: that it helps to understand and appreciate the book if you know what went into it. She’s not thinking about all the social and intellectual ferment of Fitzgerald’s early life that made him the man and writer he was, but of what he found at hand on the North Shore of Long Island between October 1922 and May 1924, when he was living in a comfortable cottage at 6 Gateway Drive and writing in an office above the garage. Scholars have long known that the leading women in Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker, were based on Fitzgerald’s early girlfriend, Ginevra King, and her classmate at the Westover School in Connecticut, Edith Cummings, a noted golfer. The men in the story are not so easy to pin down, beginning with Nick Carraway, the narrator. Carraway grew up in the Midwest and might have brushed shoulders with Fitzgerald in Chicago’s Union Station when coming home from college at Christmas, but is like him in no other way. Gatsby himself is an even deeper mystery; his dream is what we know: that he could recapture the past and with it Daisy, the girl he loved. There is no original for this story; Fitzgerald made it up. We shall weigh Churchwell’s discoveries below, but first comes the place: that stretch of the North Shore of Long Island called ‘the Gold Coast’ for the vast homes built by New York’s big rich over a forty or fifty-year period beginning around 1880.
Fitzgerald’s rented house in Great Neck, much altered, still survives, a few miles south of Kings Point on the western shore of Manhasset Bay. Across the bay to the east is Sands Point, where the houses were a little posher and bigger and the family money a little vaster and older. Soon after moving in, Fitzgerald made a close friend of the sports writer Ring Lardner, who had built a house in Great Neck overlooking the bay where Fitzgerald and Lardner often paced each other, drink for drink, through the night. On one occasion, Lardner, noting that the sun was well up, remarked that the kids would have left for school so it was time for him to be heading home. Near Lardner lived Herbert Bayard Swope, the editor of New York’s smartest paper at the time, the World. Churchwell writes that Swope was socially ravenous and had people in almost nightly – lots of people, whose loud talk while drinking Swope’s liquor made it hard for Lardner to work or sleep. Doings at Swope’s, Lardner said, were ‘an almost continuous house party’. From Swope’s lawn one could look out across the bay to the lights winking on Sands Point. Any reader of Gatsby will remark the causal chain Churchwell is suggesting here. The novel is thus firmly placed in a genuine landscape renamed by Fitzgerald as West Egg (Kings Point) and East Egg (Sands Point), separated by differences in money and class and liveliness of conversation, which seemed immensely more significant to the Eggers than they would have to the rest of America.
Fitzgerald’s fictional landscape is completed by the road to Manhattan, which runs in the novel pretty much as it did in fact. From Great Neck (West Egg), 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 the city of New York had gradually filled with household garbage, horse manure and coal ashes. On city maps the area was labelled the Corona Dumps; Fitzgerald calls it the valley of ashes. Near the Flushing River in the valley of ashes, between Roosevelt Avenue and the Long Island Rail Road tracks, is the service station of George Wilson, slow-witted husband of Myrtle, with whom Daisy Buchanan’s husband, Tom, is having an affair in the novel. A straight shot west across Manhattan from the Queensboro Bridge would take Fitzgerald (as it does the central characters of Gatsby on the fatal day) to the Plaza Hotel.
What Churchwell brings to Gatsby most successfully are fuller accounts of the backgrounds of some of the characters. Fitzgerald in effect has blessed this effort. In the last year or two of his life, for reasons unknown, he scribbled a rough outline of The Great Gatsby in the back of a copy of André Malraux’s novel Man’s Hope – nine entries for the nine chapters of the book, which Churchwell adopts for the same purpose. ‘I, Glamour of Rumsies and Hitchcoks’ is Churchwell’s chapter 1; ‘Ash Heaps. Memory of 125th. Gt. Neck’ is chapter 2; and so on. Fitzgerald was a notoriously poor speller. In his first entry he referred to Charles Rumsey, a sculptor and polo player who married an heiress to one of the great American fortunes; and Thomas Hitchcock, the most famous polo player in America, just back from a year at Oxford courtesy of the US Army. (Jay Gatsby enjoyed the same.) Rumsey was killed near Great Neck when he was thrown from an open roadster the day after Fitzgerald arrived in New York in the fall of 1922. Fitzgerald later became a friend of Rumsey’s rich widow. Hitchcock was ‘in business’ in New York; rumour had it he was the respectable name and face on ‘various shady deals’, pretty much, Churchwell suggests, in the way Meyer Wolfshiem uses Gatsby as front office cover for bootlegging, running speakeasies and selling stolen bonds.
We ought to pause here to address an old point of contention. The portrait of Wolfshiem has been an occasion of grief for Fitzgerald. Churchwell joins the chorus, declaring herself disenchanted and disillusioned (her words) by Fitzgerald’s ‘caricature of the dishonest Jew’. But at the same time she cites Fitzgerald’s original, Arnold Rothstein, who was both Jewish and dishonest and was believed to have fixed the 1919 World Series (as Wolfshiem is said to have done). Where Wolfshiem is secretive Rothstein was the highly visible head of New York’s ‘Jewish mob’, subject of stories by Damon Runyon, and one of the inventors of modern organised crime along standard business models, as related (along with much else) in Rich Cohen’s 1998 book Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams.
Churchwell’s cautious step back on the Wolfshiem question is unnecessary. Modern ears strain at every mention of Jews in Fitzgerald and other writers of the time, but a look at Fitzgerald’s work as a whole does not support a charge of anti-semitism. The Jewish movie producer Monroe Stahr is the hero of The Last Tycoon, the novel Fitzgerald left unfinished at his death. Stahr is a commanding and complex figure who is given Fitzgerald’s full creative attention. In ‘The Crack-Up’, published in Esquire in 1936, Fitzgerald more or less invented the modern confessional essay. In it he admits a long list of personal failings, including, at the very lowest point in his life, when self-loathing touched everything like a spreading stain, ‘the fact that … I couldn’t stand the sight of Celts, English, Politicians, Strangers, Virginians, Negroes (light or dark), Hunting People, or retail clerks, and middlemen in general, all writers … and all the classes as classes and most of them as members of their class.’ If Fitzgerald couldn’t stand the sight of Jews I say he would have put them on the list. Like Stahr, Wolfshiem is a subtle and complex character. Every line he speaks reveals the working of his mind and heart, including a finely calibrated sense of honour. Nick Carraway’s innocence meets a wall in Wolfshiem’s realism. He’d like to come to Gatsby’s funeral, he tells Carraway, but ‘I can’t do it – I can’t get mixed up in it.’ Carraway presses. Wolfshiem is firm. ‘Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead,’ he says. ‘After that, my own rule is to let everything alone.’
Churchwell is not the first to chart Gatsby’s world. The indefatigable scholar of American writers of the 1920s, Matthew J. Bruccoli, did it a dozen years ago in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’: A Literary Reference. There, Bruccoli gathered material as a field marshal gathers an army. What Churchwell brings is a lively curiosity, a gift for making connections, and an infectious passion for Fitzgerald and his greatest novel. Bruccoli lines up the big things; Churchwell summons the little. ‘This is a book about possibility,’ she announces at the outset and many of the connections she draws are not only unproven, but unprovable. To read Careless People with a sceptical mind is like checking the vitamin content of potato crisps before opening the packet. For example, Churchwell is interested in language and prints a list of 62 new words Fitzgerald may have used in their infancy. It’s an interesting list, as is Wilson’s list of 69 words or phrases he used for ‘drunk’. Furthermore, Churchwell continues, the word ‘time’, or reference to it, appears in the novel nearly five hundred times: down goes another potato crisp. She notes that the bootlegger Larry Fay bought all his shirts direct from London (like Gatsby) and may, Churchwell believes, also have provided Daisy’s maiden name. Living near the Lardners were Gene and Helen Buck, whom Zelda disliked, possibly because Scott didn’t. Jordan Baker, a careless driver, may have been given the name of a popular open roadster, the Jordan. At times the connections are like a whirlpool, threatening to suck the reader under. Whom did Fitzgerald have in mind when he included the name ‘Mary’ in the fifth entry of the list in the back of his copy of Man’s Hope? Was it Mary Hay the actress? Mary Blair who married Wilson? Mary Armstrong who married Ben Hecht, who wrote a book about the screenwriter Charlie MacArthur, who almost made a mother of Dorothy Parker, who wrote a poem about Fitzgerald and fell a little in love with him? From this chaos of possible connections there gradually emerges an excited, suggestive, almost musical evocation of the spirit of the time, something like the marvellously frantic crowd and party scenes in Baz Luhrmann’s new film of The Great Gatsby.
Many of Churchwell’s connections are not only interesting but plausible and even convincing. One, however, is not, an episode known as the Hall-Mills murder case, which unfolded in the newspapers over many months. The double killing of an Episcopal minister and his lover occurred on the night of 14 September 1922, a few days before Fitzgerald and his wife arrived in New York. A social gulf separated the victims, a gulf fully as wide as the one between the ‘enormously wealthy’ Tom Buchanan, a football star and polo player at Yale, and the garage owner’s wife whose face revealed ‘no facet or gleam of beauty’ but yet smouldered with slow-smiling animal vitality. Did the fatal connection of the Rev Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills, wife of a school janitor, suggest to Fitzgerald the affair between Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson which drives Gatsby?
Churchwell doesn’t just pose the question and let it go, but builds her book around it. The bizarre aspects of the case must have suggested promising material, and I am guessing that Churchwell pressed them hard in her initial proposal to a publisher. Police bungled the investigation from the outset, then paid too much attention to a crazy witness, failed to note suspicious behaviour and persons, mounted a flawed prosecution and in the end simply washed their hands of the affair. I am scanting the details but there are many. Churchwell might have justified her approach in either of two ways: by telling the Hall-Mills story with full treatment of the human drama, or by mounting a strong argument that this episode really did penetrate Fitzgerald’s imagination and contributed significantly to Gatsby’s fictional world. The first approach holds no interest for Churchwell; she treats the case more like a running joke. The second stumbles on the fact there is no strong argument to mount that Fitzgerald was paying attention. Despite diligent research Churchwell managed to find only a single instance in which he even mentioned the case, and that was by way of making a joke during a newspaper interview. Even with charity the strongest answer to Churchwell’s implicit question – did Fitzgerald draw anything from the Hall-Mills murder case? – is a weak maybe.
By the time Fitzgerald sent the manuscript of his new novel to Perkins, his mind was racing in many directions at once: when to publish, whether to serialise, what to put on the jacket, how much to charge for it, and what to call it. ‘I have an alternative title,’ he wrote in a covering letter on 27 October 1924: ‘Gold-hatted Gatsby’. ‘Naturally,’ he added, ‘I won’t get a night’s sleep until I hear from you but do tell me the absolute truth, your first impression of the book.’
A week later in a fever of uncertainty, Fitzgerald wrote again. What he wanted was the word that would allow him to breathe easy. Meanwhile, he had finally fixed on a title – ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’. Or maybe just ‘Trimalchio’. Trimalchio was the name of the newly rich former slave whose money and grossly extravagant dinner party form the central episode in Petronius’ Satyricon. Churchwell, with characteristic energy and fullness of detail, explains why this notion popped into Fitzgerald’s head. Trimalchio and the Satyricon were much in the newspapers in the fall of 1922 as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice twice attempted and failed to suppress a new translation on grounds of obscenity. Fitzgerald’s friend Horace Liveright planned to publish the book and the legal issues were vigorously debated in literary circles. Or maybe, Fitzgerald continued, he might call it ‘On the Road to West Egg’. Or ‘The High-Bouncing Lover’.
The heart sinks at these bright ideas, each worse than the last. Jay Gatsby is one of the great characters of American fiction, like Captain Ahab, Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield. The list is not long. Gatsby himself – the magnificence of his dream, the hope that drives him, the fate that claims him – is what makes the novel subtle, elusive, impressive and indelible. Perkins in his wisdom allowed these ghastly suggestions to die for lack of oxygen. When he finally wrote to Fitzgerald in mid-November, he began with his first impression of the book: ‘I think the novel is a wonder.’ About the title, he said when he got to it, ‘none like it but me.’ Several biographers report that Zelda’s support for ‘The Great Gatsby’ settled the matter but I think Perkins made the difference. Fitzgerald trusted nobody more.
Perkins not only backed the right title but made many small suggestions that enhanced the story by inclusion of ‘some phrases and possibly incidents, little touches of various kinds’ to give the reader an ominous sense of the dark commerce just out of sight which explains Gatsby’s money. This is important. It’s the money that gives life to Gatsby’s hope; before he had money Daisy was an impossible dream. Baz Luhrmann and his fellow screenwriter, Craig Pearce, must have read Perkins’s letter of 20 November 1924: the film vividly suggests the hidden apparatus that both enriches and threatens Gatsby. The touch is light, as Perkins suggested: small things like whispered asides, phone calls Gatsby has got to take, the hard looks of men who let nothing get in the way of business.
On publication day, 10 April 1925, Fitzgerald told Perkins that he was ‘overcome with fears and forebodings … All my confidence is gone.’ Ten days later, Perkins was required to cable a painful verdict: ‘Sales situation doubtful. Excellent reviews.’ The first was true, the second not quite. The best of the reviews arrived late, in August, when Gilbert Seldes in the Dial said Fitzgerald ‘has mastered his talents and gone soaring in a beautiful flight, leaving behind him … all the men of his own generation and most of his elders’. The review was long, discerning, forceful, admiring and too late to do much good. The early reviews were raggedly mixed, from Swope’s World, which carried the headline ‘Fitzgerald’s Latest a Dud’, to H.L. Mencken, who called it ‘a glorified anecdote’ but ‘easy and excellent reading’. The really bad reviews were driven by a kind of cruelty, using Fitzgerald’s fame and early success as a blunt instrument with which to batter his new book. But even those who liked him and admired his talent were pulled in two directions. They loved the writing – ‘beautifully and delicately balanced’ (Isabel Paterson, New York Herald Tribune); ‘flair for imagery … excellent passages’ (John McClure, New Orleans Times-Picayune) – but didn’t think it amounted to much: ‘neither profound nor durable’ (Paterson); ‘not convincing as a whole … half-baked’ (McClure). Many said the book proved Fitzgerald was growing as a writer, but few seemed to embrace, or even sense, what the book was about. Gatsby’s dream, Daisy’s moment of surrender, Tom Buchanan’s malice, the shot fired by Myrtle’s husband, Nick Carraway turning his back on the East – reviewers found it all a bit arbitrary, accidental, just things that happened. What did it mean when Tom and Daisy packed up and left East Egg: ‘retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together’? To early readers it seemed to mean they had moved.
Fitzgerald was shaken by the book’s relative failure. He was broke and needed a huge bestseller but Gatsby wasn’t it. Even the friendly reviews didn’t pay the bills. It was in late April that he threatened Hollywood. At the beginning of June he warned Perkins to move cautiously with a new book of stories by his friend Ring Lardner: ‘You know how reviewers are quick to turn on anyone … who now disappoints them.’ By the end of the year he was writing to Perkins ‘from the depths of one of my unholy depressions’. He reminded Perkins that he used to want to die before he was thirty; ‘the prospect is still welcome.’ The whole painful story was repeated in slow motion with Tender Is the Night: the writing was agony, the book was really good, if not Gatsby, and it didn’t sell. In Hollywood he found money but scant respect. Still, the movie business brought new material and with it he began a new novel. In the summer of 1938, drawing on Keats, he wrote to a friend to say: ‘I have a cottage on the Pacific which I gaze at … with a not too wild surmise.’ Did that mean hope still shimmered before him, or that he was worn out and running down?
Fitzgerald’s reputation as a serious novelist had reached absolute bottom when he died of a heart attack in December 1940. Obituarists all wrote in mournful tones of promise squandered but failed to bury him. His death in fact marked the turning point. Wilson, with Perkins’s support, put Fitzgerald’s last unfinished novel into good shape and published it with The Great Gatsby and some of the best stories. The modest fee for this work Wilson gave to Fitzgerald’s daughter. A few years later, Wilson did the same with The Crack-Up, a volume of Fitzgerald’s Esquire pieces with other material that has never been out of print. With new attention the meaning of Gatsby began to emerge and the book began to sell. Its now central place in the American canon is captured by Luhrmann’s extravagant film, as mannered and formal as a Greek play. With Fitzgerald’s death the arc of his life could be seen clearly in the story of the poor boy James Gatz who fell in love with an impossible girl and died trying to make her his. You might say that Fitzgerald was required to die a failure to make the point, which is a bitter one. It wasn’t just Gatsby whose dreams were crushed by life, nor Fitzgerald’s. All beginnings – spring, youth, gambles on love or art – face the same end. The ‘greatest, gaudiest spree in history’, as Fitzgerald called the decade that made him, was always heading for the Crash.
Nick Carraway at the end of Gatsby stands in the moonlight on Long Island, surrounded by the big shore places closed for the season, grieving for his lost friend. Echoing lines from Keats’s poem which Fitzgerald loved, Carraway thinks back to ‘the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world’. That was the world’s last great new springtime beginning. But Nick, turning back towards home, is no stout Córtez. He shrinks from this frigid prospect: not even the new world made into America will be spared. Beauty ruined is what readers remember, or what they hate and forget.