After reading the explanation of African American Criticism, hearing from others about their takes on it, and knowing my previous reactions to Tyson’s analyses, I was expecting to disagree completely with her reading. After all, how on earth could she apply African American Criticism to a text, which mentioned African Americans so little? And this is where I had gone wrong.
Tyson opens the chapter with, “One of the hallmarks of the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald is the strong evocation of sense of place.” This line carries through her entire analysis of The Great Gatsby but only rang clear in my head towards the end. Initially, I agreed with her that Fitzgerald illustrates a meticulously thought out setting for the novel, but did not understand how the lens could be used with this. What hit me though, was I had been blindsided by my lack of knowledge surrounding the Jazz Age in New York, or the Jazz age, period. It had never even occurred to me that the jazz age was what Gatsby and his fellow nouveau riche citizens were living in, or that this so called Jazz age was a product of African Americans. At the beginning though, I read that as, “See- Fitzgerald is weaving in African American culture, and is in no way bashing it.” Going on though, I began to slowly jump on Tyson’s bandwagon.
What truly got me, was Tyson’s explanation of Harlem, and its role in the lives of young, upper-class New York City citizens in the 1920’s. As Tyson puts it, “There was no livelier place in all of New York City, especially after dark. Nightly, thousands of white visitors-most from downtown, some from other parts of the country, a few from cities abroad-made their way to Harlem.” The fact that the Harlem born Jazz Age was so integral to the plot of The Great Gatsby, and Harlem was, “New York’s hottest club,” but never mentioned in a book which encompassed these themes really threw me off. It was now becoming clear that Fitzgerald had purposefully excluded African Americans from The Great Gatsby.
This suspicion was reaffirmed when Tyson quoted a letter, which Fitzgerald wrote. When someone says,
“The Negroid streak creeps northward to defile the Nordic race. Already the Italians have souls of blackamoors [black or dark-skinned people]. Raise the bars of immigration [in the United States] and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons [people of Germanic or Celtic origin], Anglo-Saxon and Celts [British, Scottish or Irish people] to enter.”
There is simply no denying that this is racist. It cannot be argued, or viewed in a different light; this quote written by Fitzgerald to a friend, is outright racist against blacks. To me, it shows that the exclusion of African American culture from The Great Gatsby was not to highlight the lives of Gatsby and Nick, but to avoid a subject, which Fitzgerald was highly uncomfortable with. And this is where I gained respect for Tyson. I did not see it as a stretch to say that Fitzgerald was purposefully alienating African Americans, and because of this, I believe that the application of the African American lens to The Great Gatsby works stellar.
At first, I did not want to agree with Tyson, partly because of previous readings, partly because of my interpretation of The Great Gatsby and partly because of what I had heard. But now, I am confident that she hit the nail on the head. At the beginning, I thought that Fitzgerald had simply not talked about African American culture- it wasn’t relevant, right? Wrong, turns out, I was completely wrong. With the historical content, it become clear that Fitzgerald had attempted to rewrite reality, exclude those who weren’t of his “Nordic Race,” and delude his readers into believing that African Americans played a small to unimportant role in New York City in the 1920’s. Seeing the racism exude from his correspondence could only reaffirm this, and frankly made me cringe. Tyson- I applaud you for brining such purposeful exclusion and racism to light.
Can the absence of details be analyzed? Is it fair to judge the author on what they did not elaborate on? How do you think Fitzgerald felt about the Jazz Age? Would he have liked it even more had it been a European affair? How do you think his views changed throughout his life?