Careless People by Sarah Churchwell: The glamour and grimness of Gatsby

Sarah Churchwell's Careless People is as mixed and inclusive as F Scott Fitzgerald’s scrapbooks. Both offer 1922 as the chief exhibit to explain the jazz age.

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby
Sarah Churchwell
Virago, 448pp, £16.99

F Scott Fitzgerald wrote his greatest novel in France in 1924, having exiled himself in order to get some work done. But during those ten months of intense writing, he thought his way back to the parties, quarrels, hopes and disappointments of his life with Zelda and their friends on Long Island in the feted and fateful year of 1922.

This is the world that Sarah Churchwell reconstructs for us as she lays out the raw materials from which The Great Gatsby was made. We meet the people Fitzgerald met: newspaper tycoons such as Herbert Swope and entrepreneurs such as Larry Fay, who made his money from liquor and taxis (and smuggling liquor in taxis) and spent it on his rainbow collection of beautifully tailored shirts. We start to learn the ropes of 1920s Manhattan: the colour of taxis, the customary length of skirts, the modish vocabulary. Eventually, we feel we might just telephone through to the Fitzgeralds (ask the operator for Great Neck 740). Dialling codes and lexicons – these details matter. The first readers of Gatsby thought it was all about themselves, a book of the moment. Today, we tend to admire its enduring mythology of aspiration and undoing. Churchwell brilliantly brings these two perspectives together as she holds in counterpoint the sprawling stuff of Fitzgerald’s daily life and the gleamingly taut prose poem that emerged from it.

It is too easy, Churchwell warns, to make simple equations between fiction and reality. She deals instead with hauntings, doublings and reverberations. The enigmatic green light across the dock, to which Gatsby stretches out his arms, is not literally related to the traffic lights recently erected in Manhattan. Yet there is just a shadow of shared meaning, a shadow that deepens and enriches the enigma.

The jazz age documented here is sadder and less glittering than Baz Luhrmann would have us believe in his new film of The Great Gatsby. Churchwell evokes the allure of the speakeasies but also the seediness of an underground world run by crooks without compunction: “Speakeasies had false fronts, barrels had false bottoms, drunk drivers gave false names to the police and upstarts depended on making false impressions.”

Fitzgerald conjugated the verb “to cocktail” but tired of the game after reaching the conditional subjunctive. The continuous round of drinking could turn, likewise, from pleasure to tedium. There is a photograph of a party at the Fitzgeralds’ house in which the guests look weary. “Where is the magic?” asks Churchwell. Where, indeed? As the parties went on through 1923, Fitzgerald had a sense of repetition and disintegration. “February: Still drunk . . . April . . . Another fight. Tearing drunk,” he noted in his ledger. He summed up the mood in a marginal note: “No ground under our feet.” There was nothing inherently enchanted about these lives. In his fiction, Fitzgerald kept writing about the awful realisation that magic cannot always be summoned.

Knowing that the good times would pass, desperately needing facts that would ground him, Fitzgerald saved things up. This was his counter to the carelessness of his milieu. He kept ledgers and scrapbooks, he made lists, he preserved cuttings. He had a profound need to archive and Churchwell takes her cue from him as she sorts through the flotsam of his life, honouring his curious relics. Here is a photograph of Zelda in the snow, faded to ghostliness. Here are notes on the back of a dinner menu, a yellowed rhyme saying “Flappy New Year”, a Fitzgerald autograph ready to cut out and keep.

Careless People is as mixed and inclusive as Fitzgerald’s scrapbooks. There are both glamour and grimness here. Even the typography varies between chic deco lettering and the blotchy ink of newspaper headlines. If Churchwell’s book is biography, literary criticism and social history, it is also a work of “detective non-fiction” that might be compared with Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. The unfolding story of a long, botched murder trial is woven into every chapter, getting stranger and stranger by the page, exposing corruption, envy and ambition of many kinds. A shooting under an apple tree in New Brunswick doesn’t at first sound congruous with Gatsby but it comes to stand as a “phantom double” of the novel’s murderous denouement. The sordid and the tragic become difficult to tell apart.

The police investigating this murder were blunderers who let tourists walk all over the crime scene. The truth went missing, carted off by souvenir hunters. As Nick Carraway says at the end of Gatsby, “It was all very careless and confused.” Churchwell, on the other hand, demonstrates how careful detective work is done.

Fitzgerald offered the year 1922 as the chief exhibit when he tried to explain the meaning of the jazz age. It is an exhibit worth looking at very carefully. Careless People does so with a mixture of patience and panache and it would take a long time to get bored of that particular cocktail.

Churchwell evokes the allure of the speakeasies but also the seediness of an underground world.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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