Gatsby: An African American issue

I thought I would write a short article instead of a teaching aid to cover this discussion. Hopefully students will read this and let their research and wider reading fill in any gaps in my narrative. I am aiming at an A level audience with a discussion which is worthy of a term at degree level. Some statements are not fully explored here. The aim is the challenge my students to develop awareness and shape their responses.

The Great Gatsby is often hailed as the great work of the Jazz Age – 1920s New York, the centre of novelty and licence; the melting pot of all races gathered in the sweaty depths of the speakeasies in Harlem listening to Cab Calloway and being seen to be listening – the white elite ‘slumming it’ and establishing their cool credentials.

In her book Critical Theory Today (3rd edition), Lois Tyson presents a lengthy case for serious consideration of the missing element in Fitzgerald’s novel – the black American. Here I will attempt to offer my thoughts and to summarise her points for those without access to the book. (Buy it. Beg your Head of English to buy it).

For a convincing picture of the Jazz Age to emerge, a true sense of place must be recognisable in the text. Fitzgerald places the action in a ‘true’ New York – the Plaza hotel, Yale club and the various streets named enable the reader to visit many of the locations today. The journey to the Eggs is still ‘doable’ on the commuter trains from Penn Station – Great Neck and Port Washington seem likely candidates for the Eggs themselves and the area of the Valley of the Ashes is still to be found in the vast Corona Dump in Queens – now the Flushing Meadow Park. Indeed, the detail continues to the image of Manhattan rising before the travellers crossing the Queensboro bridge as they enter the great city. Central Park is explored, and there is a street reference for the apartment where Tom takes Myrtle for their trysts – W158th Street.

This is the first point at which the reader might echo Tyson in asking ‘where is Harlem?’

Harlem, the centre of Afro-American culture was well-defined as a borough, stretching from 153rd street in the North to 96th street on the East or 110th street in the West. Either way, there is no way that the trip to the apartment could avoid crossing through a borough so rich in culture and so vital to the Jazz Age.  Harlem was the base for the barely legal Jazz clubs where races mixed and bootleg alcohol poured freely. Indeed, we must assume the Gatsby makes much of his money in alcohol from such areas – it was the hight of fashion for wealthy white New Yorkers to be seen in these clubs and vast sums of money were made in running them. Yet there is no mention of either the area or closer study of this aspect of New York life.  It is as though Fitzgerald has decided to omit the area which actually defines the licence of the Jazz Age in its entirety.

But Harlem was not only speakeasies and jazz, it was the centre of a great flourishing of writing known as the Harlem renaissance. It was a place of poetry and of literature. It was a magnet for people of all colour to explore and share. Writers such as Dorothy Parker and Eugene O’Neill worked to develop the talent nascent in the borough and coloured voices such as the poet Langston Hughes emerged. All at the time that Fitzgerald was writing Gatsby. Surely Nick might have thought to mention one or other of these elements of a large section of the island which is the draw for all seeking excitement in the city.

Perhaps this is a white, Nordistic, telling of the tale of the times.

Race matters in this novel and it is not hidden. Tom Buchanan is the leading voice in the white supremacist argument, whether concerned about the ‘Rise of the Coloured Race’ or simply behaving in a disdainful manner towards the (white) guests at Gatsby’s party, and his voice resonates with Nick.

Nick, who mentions the black population of the city once: to disparage and belittle ‘three bucks and a girl’ being driven in a limousine by a white chauffeur. This comment could simply be a neat mirror of the Gatsby car – a comment that extreme wealth and licence was possible for all, even possibly linking Gatsby to the criminal subculture of Harlem bootleggers. Shortly after this, Gatsby is stopped for speeding and produces his note from the Police Chief – no illegal activity on this scale could work without corrupt police aiding the criminals and there is an interesting route to explore, if Nick was not blinded by the light emanating from Gatsby in his mind. Instead, he focuses on the comic depiction of the negro common from 19th century literature – the ‘yolks of their eyeballs roll’ towards him and he laughs out loud as he repeats the slander of blacks being portrayed as comic, childish and foolish characters. In a novel based on appearance and the hiding of the truth, there is another point made, as suggested by Toni Morrison, both Gatsby and these fellow travellers have risen far above their origins, by fair means or foul, but only Gatsby can hide his origins in the miasma of stories he tells – the colour of their skin will forever mark out the negroes as belonging to the wrong side of the tracks in the eyes of white readers. They are doomed to be treated poorly, whatever they might achieve.

Interestingly, Fitzgerald seems intent on having Nick foreground race wherever possible, even among the white characters in the novel – he repeats and repeats the information tha this cook is a Finn, who walks with a ‘Finnish tread’; he lists names of party goers which clearly highlight the racial mixture of the West Egg crowd. In a nation of immigrants, it is the old families who cling to power – the more Anglo-Saxon and Nordic racial types. The incomers – the recent arrivals of jews, Southern Europeans and Irish are seen as lesser mortals who have their hands in the seamy world of crime and poverty. Nick is well aware of this.

The depiction of Wolfhsiem is probably the strongest example of ‘othering’ – making the character stand out as different, not only racially, but in this case physically. The Jewish heritage is clear from the name, yet Fitzgerald explodes with potentially anti-semitic detail – the soft ‘g’ of the vernacular, the ‘business mind’ and the description: Wolfshiem is reduced to a nose with cuff links. He has a small fat nose yet Fitzgerald uses this as a synecdoche for the whole man: he regards Nick ‘with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril’ – not eyes, reinforcing the dominant physical feature and in the choice of lexis, the pride felt by Wolfshiem for what is clearly seen as revolting. He is so presented that later he ‘covered Gatsby with his expressive nose’. He is reduced to a rodent-like creature and seen as repulsive. He is also dangerous – the molar cuff-links suggest one who lives off his fellow humans.

Students can find their own list of nasal references.

His Jewishness is established in this manner and reinforced by his ‘lovely Jewess’ of a secretary, yet we should not ignore how close this is to the form of ‘othering’ of Jews which became common in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

In the same way, race is foregrounded at every turn – a ‘negro’ gives evidence in the garage, a ‘scrawny Italian child’ plays on the railway and mourners on the highway have the ‘tragic eyes and short upper lips of South Eastern Europe’. There seems to be a consistency in presenting white, Anglo-Saxon as a dominant racial model (the true meaning of the outmoded term ‘racialist’), and yet, apart from comic cuts and a brief cameo in the garage, black America is utterly removed from the novel.

The example which fascinates me is the treatment of Jazz itself. Jazz, derived from the blues and music of black heritage has been whitened to sanitize Gatsby’s parties. The music is played not by a ‘five piece band’ but by a full orchestra – the highest cultural ensemble of White European culture – and the key work performed is Vladimir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World. A more central European name can not be imagined and the slight at the nature of the art is clear: it has been ‘tossed off’ in a few moments – Jazz does not require care like ‘real music’ and in the title we see the same ‘arrogance’ which Nick perceives from his ‘bucks’  (animals, not humans) in the car – how can a new art form offer a ‘history of the world’?

[There is an interesting cultural offshoot here: George Gershwin, the composer of what would no doubt be termed jazz crossover today, was active in New York at this time, taking his musical cue from Jazz and developing the sound through the full orchestra. He was not universally popular for the larger works in his oeuvre, the largest of all being his representation of african-american culture, with drugs, alcohol, superstition… and love in his opera Porgy and Bess. For many outraged opera goers, this was a step too far in 1935 – an all black cast in an opera house!]

So Fitzgerald is derogatory about all races with white skins, yet seems to omit black skins from his narrative, even to the point of denying them their own culture.

There is a school of thought suggesting that Fitzgerald believed in the inferiority of the African Americans in respect of the whites. Certainly in many of his stories, black figures are menial and addressed in terms of racist abuse – ‘coon’ ‘nigger’ and so on. It is also known that Fitzgerald reacted to the appearance of a person of colour in his presence as an opportunity for humour at that person’s expense. There are stories of cruel teasing of his black chauffeur to mock his speech impediment and other ‘pranks’ played on black callers or visitors.

In a letter to a friend he writes: ‘God damn the continent of Europe…. The Negroid streak creeps northward to defile the Nordic streak. Already the italians have the souls of blackamoors. Raise the bars of immigration and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons and Celts to enter’.

Suddenly the strange term used by Nick –  ‘Teutonic migration’ takes on a more sinister tone and the views of Tom Buchanan seem more representative of the author himself.

It seems that Fitzgerald believed the African-Americans to be incapable of fully assimilating into white culture – Harlem was their attempt to copy white New York – and thus remained ‘unspoiled’ or, less kindly, primitive. By holding to this belief he is denying the explosion of great culture of the Harlem Renaissance and the development of Jazz as a musical form. Ironically, the roots of these cultural elements was widely recognised in white Europe – especially in Paris, where the heritage of these arts form was championed.

And yet, despite evident colour blindness, Fitzgerald is feted as the ‘laureate of the Jazz Age’. I think students should be open to challenge this stereotype. A novel which so ignores African-American culture and the specific location of Harlem can not be seen as truly representative  of this amazing period of History.



Tyson, Lois: Critical Theory Today (3rd Ed). Routledge, 2015. Other works cited therein.