Monday, March 4, 2013

I Think I Found Harlem: Response to African-American Reading of "The Great Gatsby"

While I agree that there is a racist element to The Great Gatsby, I again think Lois Tyson went too far. Before she had brought in external evidence of Fitzgerald's life, she had already concluded that The Great Gatsby is a racist work. I think that, even if other evidence suggests Fitzgerald himself was racist, the novel itself serves to critique racism. In fact, on some level, I think that was Fitzgerald's goal. I appreciated the evidence she gave about Fitzgerald himself (though I question its representation of him), but I did not like how much Tyson strayed from the topic or, again, her wide-ranging assumptions from scanty evidence.

The majority of the essay actually talking about Fitzgerald or race was focused on his personal views and what he said and did in his life. I appreciated her bringing that in, and understood the necessity--with so few mentions of race in the novel, I can see why she needed to flesh out the essay with outside information. While not all of it seemed entirely relevant, I do think she did a good job of making the case that Fitzgerald himself was racist. The amount of time she pointed out that he spent in Harlem and associating with black people undermined that, and not all the evidence really seemed to substantially support that thesis; for example, her discussion of his relationships with Carl Van Vechten and Bricktop both seem to me to contradict her belief in his racism. While she points to his having the (black female) singer Bricktop in his house "as a hired musician, not as a friend and equal" (Stovall 80) being a sign of racism, I don't think it's particularly significant. Instead, it illustrates that he did have an appreciation for music and art produced by the Harlem Renaissance. Regularly hiring a black singer to come to his house is not racist, nor does it seem likely to be something a particularly racist person would do. In general, I suspect there is more to his views on race than what Tyson presents--the vitriolic and extreme letter excerpts, for instance, seem out of the norm for him. Based on the evidence she presents, Fitzgerald certainly seems to have been quite racist. However, this does not prove that The Great Gatsby was.

Tyson really did not talk much about race in the novel. Tyson says: "Although we'll devote several paragraphs to establishing the novel's strong sense of place--and I hope you'll bear with me in this effort--do keep in mind that we'll only be scratching the surface of the innumerable ways in which Fitzgerald evokes this specific place and time" (397). She then spends about 5 pages extensively examining the various parts of life he talks about, from Prohibition and criminals to fashion and culture. While both The Great Gatsby and Harlem are mentioned in this section, they are rarely connected. Indeed, the tangible connections between her essay and its subject are few and far between here. Again, I understand that there isn't a lot within the novel to talk about with this lens, but to spend so much time and text establishing how thoroughly Fitzgerald "evokes this specific place and time" seems disingenuous and reminds me more of a student tightening their margins and upping their font size than an English professor writing an essay within a book. A few brief paragraphs could have done just as good a job as the 5 pages she uses, especially as so much of it seems to be filler like the very long lists of names she repeatedly includes.

Finally, the problem which persists throughout her writing: scanty evidence used to justify large conclusions. I saw this mostly in her discussion of race within "he Great Gatsby, despite the small amount of time spent on that versus time spent on Fitzgerald and the time period. As is evident from the title, "But where's Harlem?: an African American reading of The Great Gatsby," the focus of the part of her essay on race in the novel is on the very few mentions of black people or Harlem. For instance, she writes, "Had Fitzgerald remained true to form in his description of cultural reality, Nick and his friends would have visited ... a Harlem nightclub ... there's no way that Tom and Daisy, who consider themselves so fashionably modern, would have missed Harlem" (404). The fact that they don't does, indeed, point to their racism, but I disagree that it points to the novel itself as fundamentally racist. For one, Tyson's assertion that Tom and Daisy pride themselves on being "so fashionably modern" ignores the deep-rooted struggle between old and new money. Tom and Daisy, rather than wanting to be modern, are deeply in love with the idea of belonging to the aristocracy of old money on the East Coast. Indeed, they both make no secret of their racism. To Nick, Tom says that "'[I]f we don’t look out the white race will be--will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved ... It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.' 'We’ve got to beat them down,' whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun" (Fitzgerald 16). Many prominent white people did spend plenty of time in Harlem, but I seriously doubt that Tom and Daisy would have. Tyson quotes the novel and then goes on: the Buchanans went "'wherever people played polo and were rich together' (10; ch. 1). If Tom and Daisy go where other wealthy whites of the period go to 'be rich together,' they would have visited Harlem on a fairly regular basis" (404). If their goal was just to be rich, they might have done so, but that was not their goal. They wanted to be where people "played polo and were rich together" (emphasis added). I would argue that the first half of that paragraph was just as important as the second; the sorts of people who play polo are the sorts who stay in their mansions, are of old money and only mix with other old money. Similarly, the other characters in the book either have old money, pretend to, or want to. As such, I would be rather more surprised if they did go to Harlem than if they didn't; hip a neighborhood as it was, it was still black and as such unacceptable for the traditional and established families of this novel. This also explains the lack of black characters (like the white jazz musicians employed by Gatsby). Because of their desire to be seen as sophisticated, powerful, wealthy individuals and families, it does not seem surprising that the characters would employ white rather than black people (although, as far as I can tell, the only indication of the orchestra being white is the lack of explicit statement that it is black). In fact, because of Nick's negative reaction to Tom's racist assertions and generally not saying racist things, he seems to be (if anything) less racist than most people in his era.

All in all, I think that the characters of The Great Gatsby are indeed racists, by and large. Fitzgerald himself may have been a racist. But the novel itself is not racist, and even challenges racism at times; Nick's reaction to Tom is the only clear example of this, but as I see it the fairly ubiquitous racism displayed (again, rarely and more by absence of other actions than events) was condemned just as the wasteful, shallow attitudes that characterized the Jazz Age were. As per the usual, Tyson came to some unreasonable conclusions, but I think she did a fairly good job in the wrong areas (that is, establishing the importance of contemporary black culture and demonstrating Fitzgerald's racism).

So, some questions: Do you think the book is racist? The characters? Fitzgerald?
Why do you think Harlem wasn't represented in the book?
Do you think the characters actually would have visited Harlem in real life, or would their upbringing and personalities have kept them away?

Oh, and one last thing: Where's Harlem? Harlem is in northern Manhattan, between the Hudson and Fifth Ave and West 110th Street to 155th Street. I know that New York can be confusing, but come on, Tyson, do a little research; you could have looked at a map instead of asking us.

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