Rob Reports: Sarah Churchwell @ EdBookFest 2013

Sarah Churchwell at Edbookfest

The spirit of the great F. Scott Fitzgerald was very much alive at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this past weekend, when Sarah Churchwell, Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the University of East Anglia, dropped in to Charlotte Square to present her latest book, Careless People (Virago), a nonfiction work which explores The Great Gatsby in a new light, looking at the novel and its author and the wider world, at the time when the seminal work of American literature was written.

Already looking forward to an event on the Sunday in which she would host one in the series of the highly popular ‘reading workshops’ being held at the festival this year – her’s not surprisingly themed on The Great Gatsby – Ms. Churchwell took to the stage in front of a sell-out audience on Saturday afternoon, to talk Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, and the New York City of the early 1920s, and beyond.

With F. Scott Fitzgerald standing sacred and The Great Gatsby being revered as much today as it’s ever been – and buoyed in recent months by Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy screen adaptation, of course – it was perhaps befitting that former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway was chairing the event. There was certainly a sense of worship in the Pepper’s Theatre on this day, and a blanket show of hands responding to the question of how many in the audience had read The Great Gatsby – which also brought about an exclamation of “We’re in church here!” from Mr. Holloway – did nothing but reinforce it.

Speaking of her book, Churchwell stated that it was an interweaving of three different non-fictional story elements. There was the story of F Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda’s return to New York City in the autumn of 1922, told in the context of the world that surrounded them. There was the story of the infamous Halls-Mills murder case which captured the attention of the American public at the time, and which, as Churchwell explores in the book, has some interesting parallels with The Great Gatsby. And, there was the story of The Great Gatsby itself.

“It seems to me that The Great Gatsby has become such a familiar book that we only see one side of it,” Churchwell said, “And my hope in incorporating the story of this murder especially, would allow us to reframe the way we look at Gatsby, and bring out some of the others sides of the novel.”

Following a brief reading from her book, and a summarised account of the Hall-Mills murder case (which involved a minister and a married member of his choir), Churchwell went on to compare some of the parallels of the murder with specifics found in The Great Gatsby.

She believes that the characters of Myrtle and George Wilson were drawn on murder victim Eleanor Mills, and her husband James, not least because the ways in which James Mills is described by the press is almost verbatim to the way in which Fitzgerald describes George Wilson. She also believes, without any physical grounding of course, that Fitzgerald is suggesting in The Great Gatsby who the real killer in the unsolved murder case was.

“Fitzgerald had an amazing ability to guess correct,” Churchwell said, “In The Great Gatsby he guesses correctly about where America is going and what the world was going to be like before anyone else had worked it out. So with George Wilson in effect killing his wife Myrtle, I think that he is guessing that James Mills is responsible for the real life murders.”

Continuing on the theme of parallels between The Great Gatsby and the Halls-Mills murder case, Holloway pointed out that the minister Edward Hall had given his lover Eleanor a copy of Simon Called Peter, the same book that Nick Carraway is reading in a scene in The Great Gatsby while waiting in Myrtle’s apartment. Churchwell responded, saying that Simon Called Peter was the Fifty Shades of Grey of the 1920s – a salacious (for the period) novel about a minister falling in love with the wrong woman – and that Fitzgerald was not only using it as ‘shorthand’ to describe Myrtle’s character (in the same way that a writer would place Fifty Shades of Grey in a novel today), but perhaps to also further reinforce the notion that his character was based on Eleanor Mills.

Moving on and Holloway brings up the topic of setting, asking Churchwell why she thought Fitzgerald set The Great Gatsby in 1922, which by all accounts is one of the seminal years of the early twentieth-century. “Conventional wisdom suggests that Fitzgerald wanted to stake his claim in literary modernism,” Churchwell responded, “but after researching 1922 to some depth I realised that there was a lot going on around the world in this year, and that Fitzgerald wanted to distill it into his novel to give it a spirit of the modern era.”

Churchwell continued, “The first mention of Hitler can be found in the New York Times in 1922, and this was also the year that Mussolini marched on Rome. The Klu Klux Clan began rising out of the Deep South, and even on the streets of midtown Manhattan a young black man was nearly lynched by a mob of 2000 men, for kissing a white woman. All very significant moments in history, and ones that make us see Fitzgerald’s shaping of Tom Buchanan into a white supremacist differently, in that he wasn’t randomly singling him out as a supremacist, but rather signalling Tom’s allegiance to these kind of stories.”

Sparked by the earlier reading from her book, in which she discusses the green of the traffic lights in New York City in context to that of the iconic green light in The Great Gatsby, an audience member brought up the subject of the symbolism of colour in The Great Gatsby, and whether the historical symbolism of colours have changed from Fitzgerald’s day. Churchwell responded, saying that Fitzgerald was very alert to the colours around him, and that he liked to play with them. “Sometimes he liked to use colours in historical ways,” she said, “and sometimes he wanted to turn them on their head. But what he was ultimately doing was creating a surreal heightened world, because in doing so he was bringing Gatsby’s romance with possibility alive, because in a world where lawns can be blue and music can be yellow it seems that anything is possible.”

When asked if either Jay Gatsby or Nick Carraway were the heroes of The Great Gatsby, she responded with a ‘both are and neither are’ kind of answer. “Gatsby is great,” Churchwell responded. “Nick tells us from the beginning that Gatsby’s capacity for hope makes him great, but his greatness is ironic, in the proper sense of the word as opposed to sarcastic. But at the same time Gatsby is almost certainly a murderer and a gangster, and he’s heavily wrapped up in illicit activities such as fraud and swindle. So I think, without being rude to anyone or trying to upset them, that anyone who thinks that Jay Gatsby is a hero is too naive, and not listening to what Fitzgerald is telling us about him.”

Looking at Nick as a hero, Churchwell suggested that he may be more pious than Gatsby but that his character was also flawed. “He’s judgemental and sly,” she said, “but I do think that he grows in the novel and becomes a better person.”

As might be expected, the question of film adaptations came up and Churchwell was asked for her opinion of the films, and whether they were good or bad for the legacy of the novel. “Oh, I’m in favour of anything that gets people reading The Great Gatsby,” she said. “Luhrmann put the novel back on the New York Times bestseller list which is great. But of course the issue of superficiality is raised, as is the question of not really doing justice to the story. But then I think that this is just a reality of our lives.”

She continued, declaring that the Redford adaptation was the most damaging as it created many of the myths that we have today about the novel. She admitted to loving Robert Redford, but claiming him to be a terrible Gatsby. “He’s just too tasteful and fabulous,” she said, “and he can’t do vulgar. DiCaprio on the other hand gets the vulgar of Gatsby, and he puts an edge in there too. And that makes DiCaprio the better Jay Gatsby.”

So where was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s place in the pantheon of writers?, Churchwell was asked. “Oh he’s right up there,” she said. “Fitzgerald is an extraordinary writer. And The Great Gatsby may only be 50,000 words but the more I read it and the more I learn the historical context behind it, the more I think God, look what he did! Look what he made! It’s so exquisite!”

And so, as if to illustrate just how much reverence she has both for the writer and for the novel, Churchwell gave a pitch perfect and from-the-heart reading of the end of The Great Gatsby, that had a theatre of worshippers in rapture, and the holiest man in the room himself feeling the need to utter an “Amen to that!” in response. Could there a be a finer tribute paid a great writer? Im inclined to think not.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).


  1. Something niggling at the back of my mind says I’ve read about the real-life murder connection before. Don’t ask where though, probably in an introduction or editor’s note but it’s many many years (easily 20) since I last read Gatsby. Time to re-read, I think.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

      Hi Mary,
      I think a couple of academics have suggested it before, but not with as much conviction as Churchwell. I was very skeptical about the whole thing at first, but when she started to explain it, I started to see it. The link is tenuous at best, but there’s certainly something there. As for not reading Gatsby for at least 20 years? Shame on you. Get to it immediately. The Great Gatsby should be reread religiously every year :).

  2. Sounds fascinating. Alas I haven’t been back to reread Gatsby yet! Best, cat

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

      I wasn’t sure before but her book definitely sounds like a must read. And talking of ‘must’. You MUST get back to Gatsby at your earliest convenience 🙂