From The Atlantic:
F. Scott Fitzgerald never explicitly states Jay Gatsby’s race.
By Alonzo Vereen
Alonzo Vereen is the author of Historically Black: American Icons Who Attended HBCUs .
FEBRUARY 1, 2023
… My students fought Gatsby from the beginning. The teenagers in my classroom—all children of color living in an impoverished rural community in South Florida, many of them first-generation Americans whose parents had come from Haiti, Cuba, Mexico, or Guatemala—simply did not understand a majority of the words on the page. …
And I’d launch into a reading of Nick Carraway’s opening narration: “Frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon.” Silence. Eventually, one brave soul would raise a hand. “What’s ‘feigned’?” …
Personally, I have a hard time figuring out what The Great Gatsby is about.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this
blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… . And one fine morning ——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Although Fitzgerald was already a huge celebrity in 1925, The Great Gatsby was a dud… until during WWII the government gave out hundreds of thousands of free copies of it to military men. For reasons that are still not well-understood, it galvanized young men worried about dying, and they came home to assign it to high school students.
The Atlantic article continues:
If the race of an American character is not specified, we assume the character is white. …
I turned to the secondary literature and found a chapter that offered an unexpected perspective on Gatsby’s race in a 2004 book titled The Tragic Black Buck: Racial Masquerading in the American Literary Imagination. In it, Carlyle Van Thompson, a professor of African American and American literature at Medgar Evers College, argues that Fitzgerald “guilefully characterizes Jay Gatsby as a ‘pale’ Black individual who passes for white.” I read this sentence twice, feeling like I had finally been granted license to enter the novel, to see myself in it, to make my way through the prose and develop my own interpretations. I was a 20-year-old English major, concentrating in African American literature at a historically Black college, and I still needed that permission.
… If the race of an American character is not specified, we assume the character is white….
Stumbling on Thompson’s analysis of The Great Gatsby was like finding a door propped open, and I rushed through with questions. What if the novel’s focus on class and ethnic tensions obscures a racial drama that readers have read right over? … Preoccupied with the obvious clash between old money and new money, we just haven’t seen him, or the threat of miscegenation he represents. Fitzgerald was wrestling with the idea of America as a place of self-making, where radical reinvention is at once celebrated and feared. In doing so, according to Thompson, he struck upon the most illusory of American self-transformations—Black passing as white—revealing “how intrinsically American literature and the American Dream are racial.”
Thompson’s interpretation—picking up on Morrison’s call, in Playing in the Dark, to recognize an “Africanist presence” at the center of the nation’s 19th- and 20th-century literary canon, a presence that serves as a foil for ideas of whiteness, freedom, and more—sent me back to Gatsby, this time to meet with an intellectually charged experience. To read the novel without presupposing any character’s whiteness is to discover which characters are identified as white and which are not….
Thompson trains his focus on Jay Gatsby, flagging what he sees as telltale physical traits—his “brown, hardening body,”
It’s summer in 1922 on the ocean.
in Fitzgerald’s words, and hair that “looked as though it were trimmed every day.”
He’s rich and appearance-conscious.
Thompson also has his eye out for an array of culturally evocative signals that “Gatsby is racially counterfeit.” Nick, for example, is struck by his “graceful, conservative foxtrot,” a dance modeled on the slow drag, a Black dance sensation of the period. He also notes that Gatsby’s mansion sits on 40 acres of land in West Egg, an allotment that has a particular valence for Black Americans.
Thompson gathers less subtle pieces of evidence too. When, at the Plaza Hotel, Tom lets loose his suspicion that Daisy is having an affair with Gatsby, he frames it this way: “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife … Next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.” To this, Jordan, the “incurably dishonest” one, responds, “We’re all white here.”
And what is one to make of the insinuation that Tom hurls at Gatsby in the heat of his anger upon learning of Daisy’s infidelity? “I’ll be damned if I see how you got within a mile of [Daisy] unless you brought the groceries to the back door.” Throughout the scene, Fitzgerald emphasizes that Tom is “incredulous and insulting,” impatient, sharp, and explosive. To be sure, Tom’s fury might be expected, regardless of Gatsby’s identity. But, combined with Tom’s possibly veiled racial observations, could the outbursts suggest that something more is at stake than his marriage and social standing among the old-money elite? Could Tom here be venting his fears about miscegenation?
… Janet Savage, in Jay Gatsby: A Black Man in Whiteface (2017), explains that the initial title for the novel—Trimalchio in West Egg—refers to the former slave in Petronius’s novel, The Satyricon. …
… Thompson himself said, after delivering the paper that inspired The Tragic Black Buck, that his students weren’t all prompt converts to his view, and in the end, I couldn’t, and still can’t, endorse his confident assertion that Jay Gatsby is Black. What I do claim is that Jay Gatsby is unraced. And that seems to me more important, because it opens the door wider than stark revisionism does. The ambiguity of Gatsby’s race and ethnicity shatters the Black-and-white framework we reflexively impose on so many classic texts.
This reading of Gatsby, I went on to discover when I scratched my initial lesson plan and started over, certainly gave my diverse class a way in. Gatsby’s American identity is so ambiguous that the students could layer on top of it any ethnic or racial identity they brought to the novel. When they did, the text was freshly lit. … Suddenly they were invested. They began scouring the novel for evidence of Gatsby’s race.
You can’t get much more stereotypically black than being born James Gatz in rural North Dakota around 1890 to poor Lutheran farm folk.
I couldn’t find a figure for 1890, but the 1910 Census report on North Dakota stated:
The 6,486 Indians constitute 1.1 per cent of the population, and the 617 negroes, 0.1
Seriously, the reality was that Fitzgerald was a son of the lower upper class of the upper Midwest. While attracted to the riches of the East Coast, he was suspicious of the character of the East, especially of its ethnic diversity, which does un-American things like fix the 1919 World Series. For example, Nick Carraway accompanies Gatsby on a drive into New York City:
A dead man passed us in a hearse heaped with blooms, followed by two carriages with drawn blinds, and by more cheerful carriages for friends. The friends looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of southeastern Europe, and I was glad that the sight of Gatsby’s splendid car was included in their sombre holiday. As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all… .”
Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.
Roaring noon. In a well — fanned Forty-second Street cellar I met Gatsby for lunch. Blinking away the brightness of the street outside, my eyes picked him out obscurely in the anteroom, talking to another man.
“Mr. Carraway, this is my friend Mr. Wolfsheim.”
A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril. After a moment I discovered his tiny eyes in the halfdarkness.
That reminds me: Robert Heinlein played around with assumptions about race in his 1950s sci-fi novels for boys. For example, Rod Walker, the narrator of his 1955 interstellar Robin Crusoe story “Tunnel In the Sky,” turns out to be black if you read the book closely enough. Heinlein more famously followed that up in his 1959 Starship Troopers, in which the narrator, Johnny Rico, turns out on the next to last page to be a Tagalog-speaking Filipino. Other Heinlein novels assume explicitly that space colonization will lead to major race-mixing: e.g., in Podkayne of Mars, Uncle Tom is a rather fierce part-Maori elder statesman of Martian independence.
On the other hand, Heinlein didn’t start writing for money until the peak of the Movie Age, 1939, so he was much less visually oriented than previous writers. That sounds weird, but it makes perfect sense. Once people could satisfy their craving for imagery with technologically reproduced images, who’d pay for writers to generate images in their mind’s eye?
Sci-fi writer Jerry Pournelle, who was a protege-acolyte of Heinlein, made this point to me strongly: The writer’s job used to be to create mental pictures, but now people rely on actual pictures, so writers have moved on to other functions.
In particular, Heinlein appeared to be agreeable to the idea that moviemakers might cast anybody they wanted to play his characters, so why bother describing them in detail?
I imagine Heinlein noted in 1941 that Dashiell Hammett had devoted two pages in his 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon to describing Sam Spade’s looks based on Hammett’s own extraordinary looks—6’3″, glam rock star cheekbones, silver hair and a dark mustache.
But Warner Brothers had cast Humphrey Bogart, who didn’t look much at all like Hammett’s conception of Spade.
If Warner Brothers wanted to cast Humphrey Bogart in a Heinlein story, Heinlein would be A-OK with that, so why bother describing what the hero looks like when that might cause fans to be disappointed in the movie version?
Ironically, during his lifetime, Heinlein could never quite get Hollywood to make one of his books into a movie, although the film Destination: Moon is clearly based on Rocket Ship Galileo while Invasion of the Body Snatchers draws upon his Puppet Masters. In later generations, the great last scene of James Cameron’s Aliens is inspired by Starship Troopers and Avatar by the second half of Space Cadet.
In turn, that agnosticism over characters’ looks allowed Heinlein to play games with readers’ expectations years later.
But there is zero evidence that F. Scott Fitzgerald was thinking along the same lines in 1925, before the talkie movie era.
But that raises the question: Why torment 2-digit IQ BIPOC kids with the difficult prose style of The Great Gatsby? Why not have them read Heinlein’s more accessible Tunnel in the Sky? If they really are fascinated by decoding books for clues about the race of the narrator, as The Atlantic author alleges, why not assign them a book where the author is on their side and has constructed a puzzle for them to successfully decode?
Personally, I think it’s a good thing to encourage kids to enjoy reading. There are a huge number of books more fun to read than The Great Gatsby.
Of course, Heinlein is Controversial (due to his last wife being a Goldwaterite), while Fitzgerald is not, presumably due to his leftism in the 1930s, although during his 1920s golden age he was something of a racist snob.