The Master Race? Xenophobia and Racism in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

PALS is pleased to have a returning guest post from Matthew Teutsch, who is currently a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Bergen in Norway. Teutsch’s first post for PALS can be found here and his own academic blog here. In this post, Teutsch explores The Great Gatsby and race from the perspective of what a “Nordic” identity might mean to the characters in the novel. 

During a public meeting on November 13, 2018, a white county commissioner in Leavenworth County Kansas told Triveece Penelton, a Black city planner, “I don’t want you to think I’m picking on you, because, we’re part of the master race…You know you got a gap in your teeth, we’re the masters, don’t ever forget that.” The commissioner’s comments do not sound far removed from those of Tom Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or removed from the president’s xenophobic and racist comments about refugees seeking asylum in the United States. Fitzgerald’s novel serves as a counter to these ideas of a “master race” through its depiction of Tom Buchanan and his beliefs in the superiority of the Nordic race.

Every time I have to read Fitzgerald’s novel, I inwardly cringe because I do not, on any level, enjoy the narrative. However, that does not mean that I do not find the novel engaging. One can despise the narrative and the characters while also enjoying the text for what it has to offer. In this way, I feel like Ernest J. Gaines said it best: “I don’t care for Fitzgerald, but I love the structure of Gatsby.” The structure of Gatsby and the language that Fitzgerald deploys is nothing short of amazing. Each time I read it, I become enthralled with Nick Carraway’s perceptions and his responses to those around him.

As with any text that one has read at various stages in one’s life, The Great Gatsby opens up in new ways upon each read through. This time, as I prepared to teach the novel, I became interested in the ways that Fitzgerald addresses eugenics and specifically Nordicism. Simply put, Nordicism was/is the belief that individuals of Nordic descent (Scandinavian, German, and other areas in Northwestern Europe) are superior to others and are under threat of elimination and extinction. This belief arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it manifests itself most extremely in the Nazi regime’s views and actions during the 1930s and 1940s.

rassenkarte_von_europa

Hans F. K. Günther‘s 1922 map in Rassenkunde des deutschen Volkes (Racial Science of the German People) shows his distribution of races. Looking at the map, we notice that for Günther and other racialists, people of the Nordic race could be in Germany, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Finland, and elsewhere. This distribution is key when thinking about The Great Gatsby and Tom Buchanan’s insistence on the superiority of  the Nordic race.

Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby debuted at an important political moment when debates about immigration and national identity took center stage. As Ben Railton points out, “the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and 1924 Quota Act had enshrined exclusionary, white supremacist attitudes in national immigration law.” South Carolina Senator Ellison DuRant Smith’s statements in support of the 1924 Quota Act succinctly sum up the white supremacist attitudes towards immigration and national identity:

It seems to me the point as to this measure…is that the time has arrived
when we should shut the door…Thank God we have in America perhaps the
largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated
Anglo-Saxon stock…and it is for the preservation of that splendid stock
that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the
oppressed of all countries.

Smith’s nationalist, xenophobic comments find a mouthpiece in The Great Gatsby via Tom Buchanan.

In the opening chapter, Tom espouses xenophobic and nationalist ideologies, specifically in his discussion of Goddard’s The Rise of the Colored Empire, a book playing on Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White-World Supremacy (1920). Tom tells Nick that everyone should read the book because it details how “if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged.” Tom uses claims of empiricism and science to justify Goddard’s claims, telling Nick, “Well these books are all scientific…This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us who are the dominant race to watch out of these other races will have control of things.” The use of science to justify such racist thought is nothing new as Bruce Dain, Mia Bay, and Ibram X. Kendi show.

Tom ardently believes in the superiority of the Nordic race; however, we do not know, for sure, who in the novel would be considered Nordic and who would not. This is the important crux that I want to tease out some here. To begin with, Tom reluctantly adds Daisy, the “white girl” from Louisville who he married, as a member of the Nordic race. Looking around the room, Tom tells Jordan Baker and Nick, “This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am and you are and you are and—” Here, Tom stops before adding Daisy to the list: “After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod and she winked at me again.” Why the pause? Why the stare? Obviously, Daisy’s ancestry does not stem from one of those laid out by Goddard or even Günther. If this is the case, what does she mean when she refers to her “white girlhood” in Louisville? In this formulation, does a “white” phenotype equal Nordic?

Before marrying Tom, Daisy “had a debut after the Armistice, and in February she was presumably engaged to a man from New Orleans.” The mention of New Orleans here is interesting. Considering the historical makeup of the city, it does not seem like she would have been engaged to someone with Nordic or Anglo-Saxon ancestry. Five months later, she married Tom Buchanan from Chicago, a man himself who could not claim Nordic ancestry. The Buchanan name originates in Scotland, an area that Günther presents as a mixture of Nordic (60%), Mediterranean (30%), and Alpine (10%) blood. This means that Tom, the man who espouses Nordic superiority, does not even fit his own definition.

If Tom, Daisy, Nick, and Jordan do not classify as Nordic in the novel, then who does? Ultimately, there are two individuals who could possibly classify: Nick’s Finnish maid and Gatsby. Recall that Günther’s map places the Nordic race within parts of Finland. Let us assume she hails from one of these areas. If this is the case, she fits Tom’s definition, right? However, she does not exist in a superior position to those that are not Nordic. Instead, she works for Nick, and Nick even refers to her as “the demoniac Finn.” She exists on the periphery, acting as a sort of subtle commentary on Tom’s racist ideologies.

Jay Gatsby, though, occupies center stage. The novel bears his name and Nick’s narration revolves around him. Recall that Gatsby’s surname is actually Gatz, a name of German ancestry. Gatz hails from North Dakota, a state whose capital is named after Otto Von Bismarck. With this in mind, Gatsby could possibly fit Tom’s classification of Nordic. If this is the case, then that means that Tom’s ideas are nothing more than a smokescreen to maintain his own positions of power and wealth. Gatsby tries to break into the wealthy elite society of the Buchanan’s, but he ultimately becomes thwarted. According to Tom’s ideas, Gatsby, being Nordic, should have succeeded. He does not. Tom still looks down on him from a position of false superiority.

Tom’s racist thought, essentially, embodies what Nick recalls his father telling him at the very beginning of the novel: “’Whenever you feel like critizicing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’” Tom goes against this idea. He sees himself as a superior specimen, but in actuality, his superiority stems from “the advantages” he has received throughout his life. If he could succeed based on his blood, then Gatsby and the Finn could have as well. However, that does not happen. Each of them exists in a state of inferiority to the Buchanans.

All of this seems especially important considering continual comments about immigration from Trump. He has repeatedly stoked fears by referring to individuals escaping violence and poverty in south and central America as contagions and threats to the sanctity (read purity) of the United States. As such, he has deployed troops to the border to confront people seeking asylum from oppression. He has fervently claimed he is a nationalist. He has spoken about trying to repeal birthright citizenship. These sound eerily like Tom Buchanan. What or who does Trump want to support with these scare tactics?

Ultimately, we need to take away from The Great Gatsby that wealth and power lie at the heart of the social structures. Those within the towers want to maintain their positions and keep everyone else out. To do this, they concoct fantasies and stoke fears. We do not need to succumb to these tactics. We need to speak back to them.

Contributor bio:

TeutschMatthew Teutsch is a graduate of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and currently, a Fulbright Scholar in American Literature in Bergen, Norway. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. In the classroom, he strives to provide agency to students through collaborative and active learning assignments. He does this in both composition and literature classrooms.

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Reading the Monster and its Moment

We kicked off our Halloween content last week with Elaina Frulla’s post about teaching Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This week we are pleased to have a comprehensive text on teaching the idea of monsters from Adam Golub. Golub is professor and director of the M.A. program in American Studies at California State University, Fullerton and the  co-editor with Heather Richardson Hayton of Monsters in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching What Scares Us (McFarland, 2017).  In the following post, Golub provides an overview of how he teaches his students to approach the monster in his American Monsters course. 

Introduction

I teach monsters.

I tell people this and sometimes they think I’m talking about my students. Not at all, I assure them.

Golub_978-1-4766-6327-2 I teach about monsters. I teach about zombies and werewolves and witches and vampires and Bigfoot and King Kong and all kinds of imaginary creatures. I teach students how to study and learn from monsters, how to analyze and contextualize monsters. I teach students that monsters change over time, that they adapt to our shifting fears and anxieties, that studying monsters can tell us something about what we desire and what we fear and what we can’t bear to imagine. I teach students that studying monsters can, in fact, reveal something about ourselves—about the ways we’ve chosen to organize, categorize, surveil, repress, and, at times, try to escape who we are. Monsters are us, I tell my students. When we study them, we study ourselves.

I teach a course called “American Monsters” in an American Studies department. The course has an interdisciplinary and historical focus. My overarching goal is to help students understand how monsters embody difference and help construct our ideas about what is “normal.” Moving from the colonial era to the present, we analyze monsters from literature, art, film, folklore, music, television, and comics. We strive to locate these monsters in context, to understand how they connect to the historical era in which they appeared and inspired fear. Every monster has its moment, I remind my students. Our goal is to figure out why this monster, at this time, in this place, and to what end?

black-and-white-creepy-ghost-15271

In teaching students how to “read” the monster, I am effectively teaching them a framework for analyzing culture: they must necessarily engage in a close reading of the monster, then contextualize the monster within its broader milieu, and then determine its cultural significance—its cultural work. They must break down the monster into its component parts, situate it in history, and try to figure out what it is doing, to us and for us. I present this framework as a series of questions I encourage students to get into the habit of asking whenever they encounter a new monster, or a familiar monster in a new context.

Deconstructing the Monster

Close reading begins with the monster’s appearance. What does it look like? I tell students to pay attention to size (how big? how small? how proportionate are its body parts?), skin (is it scaly or slimy or translucent or what?), and composition (is it a hybrid, a recombination of things that are typically separate in nature, like a werewolf, or Medusa, or a Sharknado?). In addition, I ask students to consider the monster’s gait, posture, and speed. How does it move? What about its voice, or the sounds it makes? Does it groan, is it eloquent, is it silent, or something else?

Then, we consider the monster’s actions as depicted in the story that is being told. We look at the origin of the monster, its creation or first appearance. We look at the monster’s victims and how it harms them. We look at the hero or heroes who defeat the monster. We also think about the monster’s geography: where it dwells, where it roams. How are these places transformed by the presence of the monster?

Paying attention to the monster’s body, actions, and geography can help us understand how these various elements work together to construct ideas about monstrosity. This, in turn, leads us to analyze the construction of normal. If the monster’s skin is scaly, or hairy, or pale, then what does that tell us about what we consider “normal” skin to be? If a zombie’s lumbering walk is believed to be scary, what does that tell us about our assumptions about mobility? If the film version of Frankenstein groans and talks with simple words, what does that reveal about our ideas about literacy? If King Kong lives on a remote, “uncivilized” island, what does that tell us about how we view nature and savagery? If the monster in a slasher film kills teenagers who are behaving badly, then what does that say about our perception of adolescents?

Night-of-the-Living-Dead

These acts of description and analysis—of breaking down the monster and the monstrous into component parts—become the basis for our next move: reading the monster in context.

Reconstructing the Moment

Context, I remind my students, is the big picture. It is the “real” world around the imaginary monster. It is the set of broader cultural currents that give shape to a particular era and help us make sense of the monster. Context helps us understand why and how the monster’s appearance, behavior, and geography all resonate with its moment. What is it about this monster that might have felt familiar to audiences in a given time period? What about it might have shocked? In Monsters in America, Scott Poole makes the point that monsters are “meaning machines that embody the historical structures and trajectory of the American nation” (21). To this end, my students and I work together to figure out what the monster can show us about history.

Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)For example, we analyze the 1931 film Frankenstein—about a created being with an “abnormal” brain that ends up being chased by angry villagers—against the backdrop of eugenics, lynching, and debates about religion and science in the progressive era. When analyzing the first zombie film, White Zombie (1932), which is set in Haiti and features a zombie master who has a workforce of enslaved undead, we talk about the history of slavery and colonialism. When we read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), a story about the last man on earth contending with neighbors who have become vampires, we look at the Cold War, segregation, and suburbia. When discussing Charlene Harris’s novel Dead Until Dark (2001) and the HBO Show True Blood, which explore themes of “coming out of the coffin” and “vampire rights,” we talk about LGBTQ social movements and debates about marriage equality in the early 21st century. When reading Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006), we locate it in the context of globalization, immigration, loss of faith in institutions, and fears about viral infection.

Context helps us understand how the themes of a monster narrative reverberate with larger issues, fears, and anxieties in the culture. Our close reading of the monster helps us build a bridge to related discourses about the “monstrous” and the “normal” when it comes to science, religion, race, gender, sexuality, immigration, and the body, for instance. And to push it one step further, I always ask students to think about how these discourses are shaped by power relations: to what extent are monsters speaking truth to power by bringing attention to those who have been marginalized, silenced, and victimized by these discourses? Inserting the monster into its moment challenges us to understand both how the monster was shaped by history and how the monster in turn may have influenced the cultural conversation. Monsters, I tell my students, are products of their time, but they are also productive. Monsters are mirrors and makers of culture.

Making Sense of the Monstrous

This brings us to the third interpretive move we practice when reading monsters: trying to determine their cultural work. The concept of “cultural work” suggests that cultural texts are not neutral, they do not exist in a vacuum. Culture, rather, is a dramatic act. Whether it is a monster or a t-shirt, a novel or a statue, a joke or a song or a game or a gesture, culture makes meaning. The products of culture perform important work on the stage of history. They can reinforce dominant ideas or challenge and undermine them. They can serve as the building blocks of our personal, social, and national identity. They can influence how we see, treat, and expect certain things (or don’t expect things) from others and from ourselves. Collectively, culture can work to construct, regulate, and also subvert “normal.” To be sure, the monster is performing cultural work. It’s doing something besides just scaring or entertaining us, and our job is to try to figure out what that work might be. And we make our best educated guess as to the work of the monster by tethering close reading to context.

When I teach students how to read monsters, I am teaching them how to analyze culture—how to interpret expressive forms, their ideological work, and their resonance with audiences across time. Monsters are figments of our imagination, they are texts authored by our fears and desires. As such, they can be read into a historical context and understood as agents in the construction and maintenance of belief systems. To deconstruct monsters is to deconstruct discourse and representation. Figure out what the monster means, and the work it does to sustain, discipline, and disrupt ideas about what is normal and how we should behave, and you’ve learned something about how culture works, I tell my students. You’ve also, I daresay, learned something about yourselves.

Works Cited

W. Scott Poole, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunted (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011).

Contributor Bio

Adam Golub is professor and director of the M.A. program in American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, where he teaches courses on literature, popular culture, music, theory and methods, and monsters. He is co-editor, with Heather Richardson Hayton, of Monsters in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching What Scares Us (McFarland, 2017). His writing has appeared in American Quarterly, Hybrid Pedagogy, The Journal of Transnational American Studies, The Society of Americanists Review, Quarterly Horse, and elsewhere. He also writes fiction and is developing a new course on creative work in American Studies. He received his Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, M.A.T. in English from Boston College, and B.A. in English from Vassar College. His academic and creative work can be found at everydayfictions.com and he is on Twitter @adamgolub.