Mapping Don DeLillo’s White Noise

PALS is very happy to welcome Katie Fitzpatrick back to the blog. Her first post can be found here. Fitzpatrick currently works at the Coordinated Arts Program in the University of British Columbia. The following post describes a mapping classroom activity where students reacted to passages from Don DeLillo’s White Noise.


After reading
the first third of Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, my students asked me if there would ever be a plot, if anything would ever happen. While reading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the class had worried about Offred’s fate in the Commander’s house. While reading Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, they had wondered about the dark mysteries underlying Hailsham’s idyllic appearance. Now, they were intrigued by the strange conversations in White Noise, but they couldn’t begin to guess where it was all headed. I explained that there would, eventually, be a plot (DeLillo observes that “all plots tend to move deathward” and a gun appears in the third act), but that I had chosen the book for a rather different reason.

White Noise is a novel that I like to teach in first-year literature courses because it addresses so many Big Ideas – from death and religion, to consumerism and the media – both explicitly and elliptically. It is clear from the get-go that DeLillo is trying to express something profound but it’s never immediately clear what. For this reason, the book provides ideal practice for first-year English students who are just learning how to trace a Big Idea across a text.

This year, I am teaching a 6-credit, full-year course (ASTU 100) in the University of British Columbia’s “Coordinated Arts Program.” The course (capped at 25) provides first-year students with 3 credits of university writing and 3 credits of introductory literary studies. At the point in the semester when I assigned DeLillo, my students were preparing to write a research essay that asked them to trace how an abstract concept is elaborated or challenged across a literary work (with the help of four scholarly sources). I told them that reading White Noise would help them to develop the skills necessary for that assignment; in reading DeLillo, I explained, I didn’t want them to follow a plot so much as an idea.

When reading Never Let Me Go and The Handmaid’s Tale, our class had focused both on very large issues (narrative style, plot, and character) and on very narrow close-readings of individual sentences and passages. Now, I explained, it was time to read between and across scenes – to note repeated themes or motifs, to consider how different passages echoed or contradicted one another. When I expressed that I wanted students to practice “tracing connections between passages” one asked (I’m paraphrasing): “Can we make a map like a conspiracy theorist with all the passages?” She used some hand gestures to paint the picture; she was imagining the chaotic walls of sticky notes and long-lens photos and red yarn and scrap paper often depicted in crime procedurals and conspiracy thrillers. This struck me as perfect. “Yes,” I said, “Let me think about it.”

The next week, I came to class prepared to run this activity. I selected and printed nine key passages from the first half of White Noise (we hadn’t finished reading it yet). Some were passages we had already discussed or close-read in class, others were new. I also brought nine magnets from home, so I could “pin” the passages to the magnetic whiteboard, which would serve as our “conspiracy map.” Next, I set out a number of supplies on tables near the whiteboard. I placed extra copies of each key passage around the tables, so students wouldn’t have to wait in line to read a passage on the whiteboard. I also put out whiteboard markers, pens, and sticky notes. I had purchased a multi-colored pack of sticky notes, and I assigned the colors to five key themes that I saw echoed in several of the passages: death, religion, consumerism, the crowd, and the simulacrum. Lastly, I displayed the instructions for the activity on a slide, projected at the opposite side of the room.

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When class began, I instructed students to move around the tables and the whiteboard, eventually reading all nine passages. I encouraged them to note their responses and observations in several ways: 1. If they noticed a particular theme in a passage (say, consumerism) they could simply post a sticky note of that color on or near that passage 2. They were encouraged to also write an annotation on the sticky note (in pen). These annotations could explain how/where they saw the theme in the passage, note other observations, pose questions, or answer questions previously posed by others. 3. If they noticed a theme or idea expressed across two passages, they were encouraged to use whiteboard markers to draw a connecting line/arrow and to describe the connections they saw.

Students spent about 30-35 minutes on the activity, and remained focused and engaged the entire time. At first, they were very quiet; they silently read passages and tentatively added sticky notes and comments. As the activity continued, they became more animated and confident, commenting on the increasingly chaotic appearance of the board and on their peers’ observations. When the board was completed, I allowed them to take notes or photos (in a reference to the novel’s “Most Photographed Barn,” they dubbed it the “Most Photographed Board”), and then reconvened class for a wrap-up discussion.

During the discussion, I asked students to share any connections they had found especially surprising or interesting. I also asked them how this activity had changed their understanding of the character of Murray (three of the nine key passages I selected were his speeches). Our “conspiracy map” had helped students to perceive some continuity in Murray’s seemingly random observations, particularly when counter-posed to quotes from the novel’s protagonist, Jack Gladney. Overall, they could now see that Jack tended to take a pessimistic attitude toward crowds and consumerism, while Murray tended to take an optimistic view. I asked them to consider whether DeLillo (or, if you prefer, the text) was giving more credence to one outlook or the other, if one was more obviously satirical or exaggerated. Lastly, I gave students a short homework activity: they had to write a paragraph about two of the passages and one idea connecting them, considering whether the two passages treated that idea in similar or different ways.

Because I teach two sections of the same course back-to-back, I was able to run this activity twice in a row. It was interesting to note how the “conspiracy maps” in the two classes differed. The color-coded sticky notes allowed me to quickly perceive the main themes each class had identified. For example, one class had marked a scene where Babette (Jack Gladney’s wife) appears on television with yellow sticky-notes (religion) and pink ones (the simulacrum), while several students in the other class had marked the same passage with blue sticky-notes (death). I also observed that one class tended to identify surprising new themes with a single word (“UFOS,” “disease,” “academia”), while the other class used the whiteboard markers to offer more elaborate responses to my pre-identified themes (“both Murray and Jack seem to be constantly thinking about death but Murray seems to have confidently accepted it because he can articulate it so well”).

Teaching the activity twice also allowed me to make changes from one group to the next. At first, I assumed the activity would take all of my 50 minute class. When students finished after 35 minutes, then, we were all a little unprepared for the wrap-up discussion, and it started off slow. By the time the second group arrived,  however, I was more prepared. I told that group I would later be asking them to share a connection they found especially interesting or surprising; thanks to that simple warning, they were ready for the discussion, which got going faster. Meanwhile, I had developed our conversation about Murray spontaneously with the first group, but posed questions about him more deliberately with the second. If you replicate this activity in your own class, I recommend planning out your wrap-up discussion more than I did (and I’d be curious to hear what you come up with!).

Overall, however, I would describe the activity as highly successful. It was fun, creative, and thought-provoking. It also got students interacting with the text, one another, and the classroom in new ways, thus echoing some of the “active learning” strategies I learned from Cathy Kim and Linda McGuire while teaching at Muhlenberg College last year. Moreover, because the idea was generated by a student, it demonstrated my willingness to adapt the course in response to their input. Most importantly, students practiced tracing connections between and across passages – both during the activity itself and in the related homework assignment. This is a skill that proved very useful when it came time to design and execute their final essays (which they are drafting as of is this writing). While not every student is writing on White Noise, those that are have developed their own twists on topics covered in the “conspiracy map,”  analyzing masculinity & consumerism, for example, or academic & popular ways of knowing.

Lastly, the “conspiracy map” helped students to see White Noise as a novel less concerned with the unfolding of a plot and more concerned with the working through of ideas. Eventually, Jack Gladney becomes embroiled in the plottiest plot – attempting to kill his wife’s lover – but by the time students reached that section, they saw it as embedded within a larger, more intricate network of ideas. As a result, we were all able to read Jack’s discussion with the disbelieving nuns as the novel’s true climax – the moment when the concepts we were tracing (religion, death, the simulacrum) achieved their most complex inter-articulation. Ultimately, the activity helped us all to perceive what “happens,” or fails to, in White Noise.

Bio:

Katie Fitzpatrick teaches in the Coordinated Arts Program at the University of British Columbia. Next year, she will be joining UBC’s “Arts Studies in Research & Writing” program as a Lecturer. Dr. Fitzpatrick also works as an Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and her writing has appeared in both public and scholarly venues, including The Nation, Aeon Magazine, The Chronicle Review, Twentieth-Century Literature, and Post45.

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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.