The Great Gatsby floats on a limpid river fed by myriads of autobiographical, cultural and historical tributaries.
Churchwell (American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities/Univ. of East Anglia; The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, 2004, etc.) has written an excellent book on a novel that remains a favorite in English courses in American high schools and colleges. Surprisingly, she even manages to find fresh facts that escaped previous scholars, including one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s own published comments about his novel, a book that, as Churchwell notes, neither sold well nor received uniformly favorable reviews. Churchwell weaves together a variety of strands: a summary of the novel (including its earlier drafts), a biographical account of the years Fitzgerald was working on the novel (including the time he and Zelda were living and partying in Great Neck, near the novel’s setting), and an account of a sensational New Jersey murder case in 1922 (the year that Gatsby takes place), an investigation that resulted in arrests and a trial but no convictions. Churchwell also digs deeply into the architecture of the novel—looking, for example, for the relevance of specific details Fitzgerald mentions. She also examined Simon Called Peter, a novel that Nick Carraway picks up early in Gatsby; she read countless New York newspaper and magazine files looking for items in 1922 that may have found their way into the novel (car wrecks, wild parties and the like). She haunted the rich Fitzgerald archives at Princeton and elsewhere and, employing the clarity of hindsight, chides most of the early critics who missed what Fitzgerald was up to. At times, Churchwell attempts Fitzgerald’s lyrical style—one chapter-ending sentence alludes to “the vagrant dead as they scatter across our tattered Eden”—she’s earned the right to play on his court.
Prodigious research and fierce affection illumine every remarkable page.