Was Gatsby Black?

Gatsby It’s a subject that has been explored in several novels: Passing, Kingsblood Royal, The Stain. What if a person appears to be of one race when they are actually of another, not as well-accepted, race. Then there are the others works which deal with the experience of racial inequality from the other direction, such as Black Like Me. But there is a third, and far more subtle, method of exploring the difference between the races and that is to say nothing and leave it all up to the reader to make assumptions from the text … assumptions that might not be true.

Early-on in my study of literature at the university the class was reading Faulkner’s Light In August. Obviously a very important book replete with textual difficulty and powerful themes. But in the midst of it all, the professor quietly asked: “What color was Joe Christmas?” He followed up reading a passage where a white scar is described as standing out on Christmas’s face … a white scar? Is the suggestion being made that Joe Christmas is a black man? If so, it changes the reading of the narrative and themes drastically. Is there reader prepared for such a shift?

My experience suggests that the common reader will slough off the conundrum and, perhaps using a form of Occum’s Razor, ignore the white scar. I find this attitude fairly common. How many readers, when confronted with the blatant unreliability of Patrick Bateman, still argue that American Psycho is gory and horrific, rather than satirical and symbolic? Even when the passages are pointed out which expose the unreality of Bateman’s brutality, the average reader will cling to the fantasy that all that blood and gore was real.

This brings us to an interesting scholarly thesis as reported in a Slate article titled Was Gatsby Black? by Elizabeth Manus.

The general theme of the College English Association conference in Charleston, South Carolina, was “Back to the Future: Diversity for the New Millennium.” Carlyle V. Thompson, an assistant professor in the department of literature, languages and philosophy at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, participated in a panel on “Passing and Colorism in American Fiction” and presented his thesis titled “The Tragic Black ‘Buck’: Jay Gatsby’s passing in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby.’”

Thompson pointed out many instances of textual evidence in Fitzgerald’s novel: Gatsby wears his hair trimmed short, or “close-cropped,” as Thompson puts it. He owns 40 acres and a mansion, instead of 40 acres and a mule. He changes his name from Gatz to Gatsby, much the way black individuals looking to pass change their names to begin a new future. And he tells Nick Carraway that his family is dead. “The word ‘dead’ is significant in that those light-skinned black individuals who pass for white become symbolically dead to their families.”

Are you sufficiently intrigued to go back and reread The Great Gatsby? It sounds like Thompson makes a good case … maybe a better case than that white scar. Is this Gatsby’s great secret?

Gatsby

 

4 responses

  1. A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke. Then there’s that advice to fiction writers that suggests if you introduce a loaded pistol, it had better go off before the end of the book. Schlock writers throw in irrelevant details but great writers are very careful about what they reveal.

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  2. I don’t buy “white scar” bit. Surgery for skin cancer left me with a white scar and I’m quite pale, not even tanned. The other things are more interesting. I wouldn’t reread The Great Gatsby just for that, but I’m sure if I ever do read it again, this will be in my mind.

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    • This is fiction, remember. So the question is not whether a white scar can occur on a pale skinned person but rather why Faulkner choses to emphasize that detail with no further explanation.

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