Reflections on Teaching Poverty & Wealth through American Literature

PALS warmly welcomes a guest post by Leah Milne. Milne is assistant professor of multicultural American literature at the University of Indianapolis. In this post she writes about a recent literature course of the subject of poverty and wealth. Milne reflects below on the course trajectory and potential lessons for future iterations of the course.

I just completed my first semester teaching a course entitled Poverty and Wealth in Literature, and part of my preparation involved envisaging the possible student responses to the subject and texts. Learning, for example, some general facts about the student body gave me a better sense of the audience, including the percentage of first-generation college students, the median income of their parents, and so on. My particular institution, for instance, is a small, private liberal arts college where about 40% of the students are first-generation, and many receive scholarships and/or financial assistance. Despite knowing this, however, discussing such a controversial subject as socioeconomic class elicited some surprises that I hope to better anticipate in the future.

I started the semester with two poems. Asking groups to interpret a poem or two on the first day of class is an easy way to establish the rigor of a course. In this case, the course required extensive literary analysis and classroom discussion. Since the course was directed towards students in their first semester of college, none of whom were English majors, I wanted to make the work requirements of the class clear. At the same time, these particular poems—Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” (1883) and Gary Soto’s “Oranges” (1983)—established two scales of socioeconomic class that I planned for us to tackle that semester: the intimate and personal as represented by Soto’s nostalgic “Oranges,” and the global and grandiose as represented by Lady Liberty’s call of “worldwide welcome” in Lazarus’s poem.

While these two impulses of addressing both the intimate and the grandiose in class issues certainly formed the general foundation for the course, I had to quickly guide students in directions I had not predicted so early in the semester. For instance, during a class discussion about inequality on day 2, I felt compelled to encourage students to avoid the Oppression Olympics, a term I picked up from Elizabeth Martínez in her book, De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century (1998). Martínez addresses the problem with competing for the “gold medal of ‘Most Oppressed’” when she states, “Pursuing some hierarchy of oppression leads us down dead-end streets where we will never find the linkage between different oppressions and how to overcome them” (5). In other words, suggesting that we can rank who experiences the most oppression compounds the problem of inequality without addressing or solving it.

The most useful way I found for my students to comprehend the linkages that Martínez describes was through intersectionality. The originator of the term, Kimberlé Crenshaw, gave a TED talk explaining the dilemma of linked oppressions by way of Emma DeGraffenreid, a black woman who sued General Motors (GM) for discrimination. A judge ruled against DeGraffenreid, citing that GM had in fact hired black men and white women, and thus couldn’t possibly be discriminating against black women. Crenshaw illustrates what she calls the “urgency of intersectionality” by drawing attention (at 11:00 in the video) to the “law’s refusal to protect African-American women simply because their experiences weren’t exactly the same as white women and African-American men.” Considering intersectionality allowed my students and I to contemplate privilege without focusing on one singular characteristic like race, nationality, age, or location. Thus, for example, experiences of being poor looked very different in Zitkala-Ša‘s Yankton Indian Reservation and Carlisle Indian School in the late 1800s than in the relatively egalitarian community of Shaker Heights in the late 1990s, described in all of its glorious contradictions in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.

Intersectionality also allowed us to complicate perceptions of wealth. For instance, the wealthiest character we discussed this semester was Dr. Jo Baker of Destroyer, Victor LaValle’s graphic novel and Frankenstein follow-up. In addition to having a name that hearkens back to the entertainer and agent of the French Resistance during World War II, Baker is also the last living descendant of Victor Frankenstein, with access to a nearly unlimited amount of wealth for her scientific and technological experiments and inventions. However, this wealth has its limitations, particularly given her status as a black woman. When her son, Akai, is killed by policemen in a shooting akin to that of Tamir Rice, Baker continues the Frankenstein heritage by using her knowledge and resources to attempt to bring Akai back to life. It becomes clear to students, though, that Baker’s vast wealth and knowledge are not enough to fully counteract her linked oppressions as a black woman.

I was fortunate enough to moderate an interview with the author at the Indianapolis Central Library and the Center for Black Literature and Culture. As an added bonus, LaValle visited my students on the day they were to discuss his comic series, and one asked him if Akai would be okay at the end. Pleased, LaValle responded that her concern was the best response he could hope for, especially given the reluctance of many to discuss intersections of race and class that differ from one’s own. In fact, empathy—most specifically, our inabilities to empathize fully with others—emerged as the central frame through which I guided many of our class discussions on inequality. Even if one of us were, say, a mother, a black scientist, or as wealthy as Jo Baker, our abilities to fully comprehend her pain at losing Akai would never completely match up. The best we could do was try to empathize while recognizing our limitations in doing so. As one student related, “I know I will never be able to truly empathize, but I will attempt to empathize more.”

I found it helpful to further complicate affective responses such as this one by discussing intersectionality through the public perceptions about the causes of poverty, the latter described in an article by Laura R. Peck, and which I summarized for the students using examples from our texts. For instance, a significant subplot of Ng’s aforementioned Little Fires Everywhere is a transracial adoption involving a Chinese-American baby named—depending on your take on the issue—either May Ling Chow (her birth name) or Mirabelle McCullough (her adopted name).

Students can characterize the poverty of the birth mother, Bebe, as individualistic—blaming her for being, say, lazy or immoral. On the other hand, they could point to fatalistic determinants, suggesting that luck or divine will is the reason for her poverty. Finally, they could highlight structural determinants, such as the lack of systemic support for new mothers and/or newly-arrived immigrants to the US, or the low wages provided to restaurant workers and others in the service industry. Analyzing their responses to the causes of poverty, students were better poised to empathize with someone whom they may have otherwise dismissed as simply a bad mother. As one student admitted at the end of the semester, “My perception of socioeconomic issues have changed as I was very unempathetic towards certain aspects of poverty. However, after reading and learning about the determinants of poverty, I am much more aware and open-minded about issues of class.” Or as another student stated, “There are so many more determinants of poverty than most people realize. In general, there is a stereotype that people in poverty do not work hard, etc. However, many factors that individuals cannot choose heavily contribute to class inequality.” Similar applications were applied to the adoptive mother, Linda McCullough, and her sometimes clumsy attempts at motherhood, with Ng providing background into Linda’s sheltered upbringing and her family’s long and honored history in Shaker Heights. In fact, Ng’s work flourishes in such nuanced characterizations; each member of the Richardsons—the white, upper-middle-class family at the center of the novel—have unique ways of dealing with these aspects of identity.

Finally, specific structural considerations of poverty resonated in ways I had not predicted. For instance, equitable access to housing—and its connections to issues such as redlining and gentrification—became a surprisingly prominent theme in many discussions. Whether it was discussions of race-based covenants in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun or observations of nearby neighborhoods experiencing gentrification, housing functioned as a concrete anchor for contemplating the material consequences of inequality. Housing also allowed me to return to the grander ideals that began the semester, highlighted in Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”: If we as a nation truly wanted “the homeless [and] tempest-tost” on our shores (13), then we would have to reckon with the conditions that they would face upon their arrival. And if we really believed that the American dream is possible, then we needed to consider how we might best help others attain that dream.

The next time that I have the opportunity to teach this course, I plan on emphasizing the importance of learning through discomfort and of thus directly confronting more concepts like intersectionality that can propel the conversation forward in a productive manner. I also hope to incorporate more opportunities for self-reflection. I believe that doing so will guide students toward a deeper recognition of the ingrained norms and beliefs they have about class and the ways it interacts with and is affected by government policy, individual responsibility, and social and cultural beliefs. Finally, in reading literature alongside these discussions, I aspire for students to see the importance of literature — and the arts in general — in providing us different perspectives on these complicated issues.


Leah Milne is an assistant professor of multicultural American literature at the University of Indianapolis. She teaches courses on American literature, nationality, young adult novels, postcolonial literature, and women writers. Her comparative book project examines writer-characters and forms of self-care in post-1945 ethnic American novels, focusing on texts by authors such as Louise Erdrich, Percival Everett, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jonathan Safran Foer. She received her doctorate degree from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. Her work has been published in numerous academic journals and edited collections, including MELUSPostcolonial Text, and College Literature. Find her on Twitter @DrMLovesLit.


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.


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.