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.


PALS Summer Post Roundup

Site visits and page views are lean for PALS between the May and Labor Day. A summer readership drop-off is a common occurrence for many academic blogs, perhaps especially so for a blog focusing exclusively on teaching. Our traffic successes follow the rhythms of the academic school year. (You can read more about our traffic flow here). Our visits are robust during the fall and spring terms, but drop off during holidays and extended breaks. Again, the readership drop-off phenomenon isn’t exclusive to PALS, as these tweets from Robert Keys show.


By the way, if you’re not visiting Keys’ Adverts 250 Project throughout the entire year, you’re missing out!

We even joked about this drop-off earlier in the summer. Our joking paid off and turned into one of our summer blog posts! Side Note: We’re always looking for guest post pitches. Hit us up with your ideas!

The summer months have always been lean for PALS since our rollout in the late summer of 2015. Our readership has climbed over the subsequent years, but the summer drop-off has remained a constant. However, the summer of 2018 topped all previous summers for site views and visitors, no doubt facilitated by a rather substantial uptick in content generated by our regular and guest contributors. PALS usually takes the summer months off, a practice reflecting the fact we understand our success is tied to the rhythms of the academic year.

However, in the summer of 2018 we posted a lot more than usual, which might explain our uptick in visitors to the site. Today’s post is a rundown of our summer 2018 content; it covers May through Labor Day. Think of it as an extended ICYMI as your semester starts to ramp up!

Teaching (Vocation Optional) by Meagan Ciesla

I bring this up because the idea of teaching as a vocation has been on my mind. For many of us in academia, we came to teaching through some other pathway: an interest in lab research, reading that kept us up at night, writing we didn’t want to stop doing. And although teaching is for many enjoyable work, it is often not a calling, but a career.

Teaching Japanese Internment Using Julie Otsuka’s When The Emperor Was Divine by Jessica Thelen

Since I teach at a small, predominantly white institution, I knew that bringing in historical contexts before starting Otsuka’s novel would greatly contribute to students’ understanding and engagement with the text. This was made clear when, on the first day of this mini unit, I asked my students if they had learned about Japanese Internment in school or in some other context, and only a handful of students raised their hands out of a class of twenty-eight.

Dear College Professor: On Your Incoming Students by Clay Zuba

I’m a high school English teacher. I’m writing to you regarding our students, their preparation for college, and how you can best build on this preparation in your classrooms. I freely admit that I am still learning to teach my own students. And I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do. But in my younger days, almost every faculty member with whom I spoke at least once said, “students today . . .”

School’s Out: How to Focus Your Writing With a Summer Writing Group by Randi Tanglen

As many of us know from teaching writing workshops and incorporating peer revision into the classes we teach, writing is a collaborative and community process. Our students’ writing benefits from the feedback and support their peers provide. Yet for many of us, the demands of teaching and instruction make our own scholarly and creative writing an isolating and solitary process. Further, because many of us who read the PALS blog tend to emphasize teaching and pedagogy, our writing might not always be the priority we would like it to be on a day-to-day basis. A summer writing group may help you and your colleagues address concerns about writing in isolation and how to prioritize your own writing.

Some End-of-Semester Thoughts on Academic Struggle by Caitlin Kelly

In my current position I have the opportunity to serve as advisor to first-year students and this was my first time to do that. In one way or another, almost every conversation with my advisees turned to struggle. While some of the struggle they face comes from outside of the university community, a lot of it comes from within. I can only speak to the students I’ve taught but one of the things I’ve noticed about selective institutions is that there is a sense that all high-aptitude students are capable of anything if only they try hard enough.

Schooled in Barbecue by Thomas Hallock

I confess, I had other expectations. Being summer, the time when teachers become learners, I asked Mr. Walker to teach me how to cook ribs. He agreed to school me.

The Field of Reads: Weird Adventures in Course Design and Planning by Greg Specter

The assigned books in my fall honors class are a weird mélange. Notice that I didn’t say “The books that I assigned…” A few of the included texts come via a menu of options generated by a committee of instructors teaching different sections of an honors class in the fall.

Intro to Postmodernism: Questioning the Truth Claim by Matthew Luter

Literary postmodernism is a tough concept to introduce to my high school students. Many students have never heard the term postmodern at all; a few are aware of it as a kind of buzzword that has become a right-wing boogeyman; and more than a few are a little turned off by how academically highfalutin’ it sounds. In order to introduce it to my students, I developed a set of tasks that lean into rather than steer away from the complications of literary postmodernism.

Writing Academically with Emotional Clarity by Brianne Jaquette

I also have come to realize that I didn’t just need to write more; I needed more explanations for what makes good writing. I think the focus on what makes for competent writing in academia is a bit off. Yes, people care about our argument. They care about our sources and our research. But rarely is anyone talking about the quality of our writing, and we fall into bad habits of super long explanations and wordy clauses. We think we already know how to write, so we do not ask anyone about the clarity of our sentences. We only ask, “Does this argument make sense?”

Making Space for Voice and Choice: Assignment Design in an Online Course by Jacinta Yanders

However, in recent semesters, I’ve been thinking more and more about student ownership in the classroom and working to provide opportunities in which students have a hand in shaping the course. In the spring semester First Year Writing course I taught, for example, I had students generate the assessment criteria for their essays and vote on what they believed to be the most important elements of that criteria. By this point, students had seen and worked with sample essays as well as given feedback on drafts from their classmates. They had some sense of concrete moves that came across well to them as readers and other choices that hindered them. Collectively, they were responsible for setting the stakes for the essays and ultimately revising their work to meet those stakes.

This is not a Desk Copy by Greg Specter

It is no wonder the books start getting beaten down physically just by going in and out of bags. Corners dinged. Corners bent. Corners peeling. Stains. The physical destruction of my books is disconcerting for someone that takes care of their books. I take pride in reading a book and finishing it in mint condition. The semester is cruel to my books.