5 March 2013
African American Criticism: Surprisingly Reasonable
Going into the beginning of the, “Where’s Harlem,” chapter of Critical Theory Today, I was skeptical to say the least about how Lois Tyson was going to connect African American criticism to The Great Gatsby. When she started saying it was racist simply because it didn’t mention Harlem, I was ready to be angry. However, her points actually made a surprising amount of sense given the small amount of material available.
On page 402, Tyson writes, “West 158th street in Manhattan is the location of the apartment Tom keeps for his trysts with Myrtle (32; ch. 2), which means that their taxi has to pass by Harlem, if not pass through it, to get to their destination. It would seem that it isn’t racist to not mention a place, but I had not realized how involved Harlem actually should have been in the story. While it is possible for a character to pass through a place without mentioning it, this practice seems to go against Fitzgerald’s habit of describing everything that happens, in order to establish a sense of setting.
Later on the same page, Tyson asks, “How then, can narrator Nick Carraway and his friends have missed Harlem? Harlem’s nightclubs, which offered such jazz greats as Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway, attracted white people from all over the city and beyond.” This quote is a summary of Tyson’s main point. Throughout The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald seems to mention every single example of culture during the 20’s except for the nightclubs and other aspects of Harlem that should have involved Nick and his friends. While this is one of her weaker points, it still holds up.
Finally, Tyson mentions on the next page, the musical comedy, Shuffle Along, which was a huge hit and entirely performed by African Americans. Again, this attempt to make Fitzgerald look racist seems futile at first, but she then describes that, “This means that it was running in the summer of 1922.” Since it apparently, “took New York by storm,” and was running precisely during the time period of The Great Gatsby, this play just seems to perfectly placed not to appear anywhere in the novel.
Despite my original thoughts, I did come to realize that Lois Tyson actually made some fair points in this section. Each individual point was a little weak, once the three I mentioned as well as many more are combined, it seems absurd that Harlem was not even mentioned once in the entire novel. IT was not uncommon in his time, but from this evidence, it seems fairly clear that Fitzgerald was at least a little racist.
If Fitzgerald was involved in Harlem often, why do you think he omitted it?
Do you think that his omission was truly racist, or that it just didn’t fit into the story?
Could it be that the characters are in fact racist, and not Fitzgerald himself?