DC’s Big Read: The Great Gatsby

As part of DC’s participation in the NEA’s Big Read program, I recently read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I should say re-read, because I distinctly remember reading the book in high school and then again in college. But that was awhile ago, so I was reading with fairly fresh eyes this time around.

A couple of things struck me going through the novel this time. The first is that Fitzgerald is much harsher on the WASP establishment than perhaps I have given him credit for in my memory. For all the elegance of that upper-class world of “prominent families” there is a moral rot lying fairly close to the surface, most notably in the person of Tom Buchanan. All it takes is an impostor like Jay Gatsby to reveal how little virtue there necessarily is behind the wealth, good manners and high connections.

I was reading with a particular eye towards portayals of race in the novel because I know some groups were upset with the book’s selection for the District. Interestingly, most of the book’s patently racist statements are attributable to the most repugnant of its characters, Tom Buchanan (when he’s not breaking his mistress’s nose, he likes to expound on topics like the survival of the white race and miscegenation). Given that Tom is such a creep, (even his body is described as “cruel”) I can’t help but suspect that Fitzgerald was not just reflecting the casual racism of the period, but also subtly subverting it. Even a later passage in the book where Nick describes being passed on the Queensboro bridge by a limo ” driven by a white chauffuer, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl” employs racist language while making the point of a world being remade, where “anything can happen…Even Gatsby could happen without any particular wonder.” While Fitzgerald isn’t overly concerned with social conditions of African Americans in that period, he was keyed-into the fact that those old relationships, where blacks knew their “place,” were changing in ways that were threatening to the same people who were threatened by the kind of person Gatsby represented.Der Sturmer, 1931.

Unfortunately, I had a much harder time with Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Meyer Wolfsheim–Gatsby’s business associate, who is based on the real-life figure of Arnold Rothstein, who did indeed have a role in fixing the 1919 World Series. I kept tripping over the physical descriptions of Wolfsheim that seemed to come straight out of an anti-Semitic caricature: “a small flat-nosed Jew…with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril.” He wears human molars as cuff-links, he oggles the “Presbyterian nymphs” in a Manhattan speakeasy and his shifty eyes case the room even as he eats with “ferocious delicacy.” He offers a business “gonnegtion” to Nick and esteems that Gatsby went to “Oggsford College.” Even his secretary, a “lovely Jewess” has “black hostile eyes.”  And of course, there is the creepy-in-retrospect detail of Wolfsheim’s company name of “The Swastika Holding Company.” What are we to make of this?

Early on, Fitzgerald tells us, that as noble as Jay Gatsby’s motives were, there were all kinds of “foul dust that floated in the wake of his dream.” Tom Buchanan with his hypocrisy and Daisy with her “vast carelessness” are one example. The hangers-on who ate Gatsby’s food, drank his liquor and then wouldn’t even come to his funeral were another. And of course, Meyer Wolfsheim and his ilk, who traded on Gatsby’s charisma industriousness for their own ill-gotten gains are another. Wolfsheim’s not being singled out necessarily. Except that while Tom, Daisy, Gatsby, Jordan Baker and Nick Carraway are all unique inventions in American literature, the portrayal of Wolfsheim draws on long-held stereotypes of Jews dating back thousands of years, and which would reach their murderous climax a few years later under the German Reich. That doesn’t overshadow the brilliance of Fitzgerald’s work, but for me, it does bring it back to the realm of the fallible. Fallible not in the trivial sense like Fitzgerald’s erroneous description of the Queensboro Bridge connecting Long Island City and Astoria, but in a sadly diminutive way because his great creativity combined with the real life figure of Arnold Rothstein, should have given us so much more than a stage Jew.

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