The racial worldview of F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald's mocking of the ideas of Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard in The Great Gatsby recently came up a couple times at Alternative Right. Fitzgerald, however, seems to have been more sympathetic to Tom Buchanan's point of view than he let on in public (continue reading):

In May 1921, soon after his unhappy first visit to Europe, he wrote to Edmund Wilson:
God damn the continent of Europe. It is of merely antiquarian interest. Rome is only a few years behind Tyre and Babylon. The negroid streak creeps northward to defile the Nordic race. Already the Italians have the souls of blackamoors. Raise the bars of immigration and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons and Celts to enter. France made me sick. Its silly pose as the thing the world has to save. I think it's a shame that England and America didn't let Germany conquer Europe. It's the only thing that would have saved the fleet of tottering old wrecks. (Letters 326)
Fitzgerald recognized the racism implicit in these possibly jocular statements and seemed to abhor it. "My reactions," he wrote "were all philistine, anti-socialistic, provincial and racially snobbish." Yet he continued in the same vein as previously: "I believe at last in the white man's burden. We are as far above the modern Frenchman as he is above the Negro. Even in art!" And so on (Letters 326).

[Alan Margolies. The Maturing of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Spring, 1997), pp. 75-93.]
Margolies argues that while Fitzgerald was a wicked racist who engaged in ethnic stereotyping, Nordicism (along with lynching) was one form of racism he opposed. His evidence includes this quote from Fitzgerald: "No one has a greater contempt than I have for the recent hysteria about the Nordic theory". But Margolies leaves out the context:
These men were sustained by no democratic idealism, no patriotic desperation, and by no romance, except the romance of unknown adventure. But they were sustained by something else at once more material and more magical, for in the only possible sense of the word they were picked men--they were exceptionally solid specimens of a healthy stock. No one has a greater contempt than I have for the recent hysteria about the Nordic theory, but I suppose that the United Sates marines were the best body of troops that fought in the war.

[From Fitzgerald's review of Thomas Boyd's Through the Wheat.]
"I'm not a Nordicist, but. . . ." It seems to me this public disavowal, along with the dismissive treatment in The Great Gatsby of ideas with which he privately expressed agreement, is better explained by Fitzgerald's status concerns (not wanting to appear "philistine" or "provincial") than by any real change of heart. Margolies notes that "sometime between 1921 and 1931" Fitzgerald:
became aware of a volume that included a discussion of Goddard's work with the Kallikak family (30-33) and Samuel J. Holmes's survey of contemporaneous theories of eugenics, The Trend of the Race.
Margolies knows this because Fitzgerald gave an inscribed copy to his father-in-law, who died in 1931.

Margolies summarizes some relevant passages from Gatsby:
When Tom Buchanan talks about "The Rise of the Coloured Empires' by this man Goddard," he is referring to Nordicism. "It's a fine book and everybody ought to read it," he says. The idea is if we don't look out the white race will be utterly submerged. It's all scientific stuff," he says stupidly; "it's been proved" (14). Daisy Buchanan makes fun of him. More importantly, Fitzgerald's narrator Nick Carraway affirms the novelist's distaste when he tells us that "[t]here was something pathetic in [Tom's] concentration as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more" (14). The topic recurs later in the Plaza Hotel. "I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife" says Tom, suspicious about Gatsby. "Well, if that's the idea you can count me out. . . . Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions and next they'll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white." Again Nick sneers at these ideas, referring to them as "impassioned gibberish" (101). [. . .]

Tom is obviously a Nordic, especially with his straw-colored hair. He has two truly American names, combining possibly the first names of Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine and the last name of President Buchanan. (Naming characters after American henoes was riot new in Fitzgerald's work.) Tom has "a gruff husky tenor" voice, "a rather hard mouth," "two shining, arrogant eyes," and a body with "enormous power" (9). Wolfshiem, the Jew, on the other hand, has tiny ratlike eyes that glance furtively around the room and seem to stand out in the darkness. He eats "with ferocious delicacy" (57), like an animal. Even his name suggests something subhuman. Yet, there are similarities between Wolfshiem and Buchanan. Tom is involved in a murder; Wolfshiem is presumably a bootlegger and a counterfeiter, and, above all, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series.
Margolies notes that around "1940, Fitzgerald denied [to his secretary, Frances Kroll Ring] that the portrayal of Wolfshiem was anti-Semitic" but that Fitzgerald may have been "protesting a little too much, especially since Ring herself was Jewish." Continuing from Margolies:
The portrayal of Jews in The Last Tycoon is also largely positive. Stahr, the hero, is Jewish; his nemesis, Brady, is Irish. Fitzgerald, we are told, did this purposely. "It was a time when Hitler dominated the news and Scott avoided making the villain Jewish," writes Frances Kroll Ring (49). Apparendy, he was changing. To Tony Buttitta in 1935 he had said of his new friend's name: "Sounds Italian. I hated Italians once. Jews too. Most foreigners. Mostly my fault like everything else. Now I only hate myself" (5). [. . .]

But Fitzgerald's attitude toward Jews was not consistent. [. . .] Alcohol apparently also caused the bigotry to surface. Frances Kroll Ring writes:
[W]hen he was in a devilishly alcoholic state, he was quick to tell me that Sheilah [Graham] was "part" Jewish, that Jean, the nurse, was "part" Indian, as if it were some secret that would bring me over to his side against them. He knew that I was Jewish, but I was his secretary and confidente and had given him no cause for name-calling. (49)
And while many Jews are portrayed favorably in The Last Tycoon, the portrayal of Schwartze, a formerly successful moviemaker who commits suicide, may not satisfy everyone. Again Fitzgerald was portraying a Jew as animal-like. Schwartze is "a middle-aged Jew who alternately talked with nervous excitement or else crouched as if ready to spring" (4). Further, once again Fitzgerald dwelled on the Jew's nose, although again some may feel Fitzgerald is merely contrasting features of different individuals: "[T]he exaggerated Persian nose and oblique eye-shadow were as congenital as the tip-tilted Irish redness around my father's nostrils," says Cecilia Brady, the narrator (7).
Incidentally, Margolies also writes:
But similar to his feelings about other groups, Fitzgerald was not consistent during this later period in his attitude toward African Americans. To Tony Buttitta in the summer of 1935, he referred to "Negro rights and equality" as "gibberish" (164).
A more perceptive author than Margolies points out:
An obsessive concern with ethnic differences has always been a part of American culture, but in some periods this concern has been more intense and explicit than in others. The 1920's, the time of the reborn Ku Klux Klan, immigration restriction legislation, and the pseudo-scientific racism of Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard was one of the periods when concern about ethnicity was most evident on the surface of national life. [. . .]

The writer who is usually considered to have created the most penetrating literary accounts of the American 1920's is F. Scott Fitzgerald. If this estimate is correct, the characters of his fiction should manifest some concern about ethnic distinctions. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that in Fitzgerald's masterpiece of the 1920's, The Great Gatsby, a heightened awareness of ethnic differences does constitute a significant element in the book. This aspect of The Great Gatsby has been previously commented upon, but the tendency has primarily been to deal with the material of the book as evidence for charges that Fitzgerald possessed racist and anti-Semitic attitudes, or as evidence against such charges, rather than to explore the function in the novel of the consciousness of ethnicity. [. . .]

A refusal to indulge in Tom's paranoid-like rantings does not mean that Daisy and Nick are unconcerned about ethnic differences. An awareness of these differences is especially evident in the case of Nick through whose eyes the action unfolds. As narrator, he tends to point out the ethnic affiliation of the individuals with whom he comes in contact whenever their ethnicity is not of an Old American type as is his own. In part, this persistent consciousness of ethnic identity functions as an adjunct of Nick's keen sense of socio-economic status. From his vantage point in the upper middle class, he is aware of the substantial gulf that separates him from the lower class and the lower middle class, and is doubly aware because the members of these classes that he encounters are often of a different ethnic descent. [. . .]

Ultimately, Nick's awareness of ethnicity is based not on associations with socio-economic status, but on a heightened consciousness of physical distinctions and mannerisms, overlaid by an unstated belief in the superiority of his own type. During the few hours of the drive into New York City with Gatsby and their noonday lunch at the Metropole, Nick applies common anatomical stereotypes to a group of Southeastern Europeans riding in a funeral procession ("tragic eyes and short upper lips"), finds the countenances of the parvenu black "bucks" and their woman to be ludicrous ("I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry"), and scrutinizes the somatology and physiognomy of the Jewish Meyer Wolfsheim4 to whom he has just been introduced with magnifying glass detail: "small, flat-nosed... large head ... two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril" (pp. 82-83). The discernment of the nasal hair is a remarkable feat since the restaurant is so dimly lit that Nick even has trouble in locating Wolfsheim's eyes. This fine nasal hair which could hardly have been observed in situ by Nick must have been projected onto Wolfsheim from some stereotype of Jewish physiognomy in the mind of the narrator (and, perhaps, the author).5 [. . .]

Whereas the Dutch version of the American dream was available to any human who happened to come along at that moment in history, and Gatsby's version can be aspired to by anyone with the requisite imaginative potency, Nick's version is exclusive and provincial. It is basically limited to affluent Middle Western Americans who are white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, or willing and able to be acculturated to WASP modes. This is what Jay Gatsby has left behind "in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night."

Though no proponent of the views of fervent ethnic baiters such as Tom Buchanan, Nick is presenting an ethnocentric interpretation of the American dream, excluding from it a whole section of the nation, the East, as well as those with intense ethnicity of a different sort than his own, such as unreconstructed Swedes and the Jewish Meyer Wolfsheim. For all his superior intellect and sensibility, Nick's point of view is not so very different from that held by the likes of a George F. Babbitt ("New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia...," Babbitt exclaims, "No decent white man, nobody who loves his wife and kiddies and God's good out-o'-doors and likes to shake the hand of his neighbor in greeting, would want to live in them.... New York is cursed with unnumbered foreigners").9 These biases were shared by millions of Americans in the 1920's, representing another way, in addition to those often noted, in which The Great Gatsby is a superb document of that complex decade. [. . .]

Evidence from other sources than The Great Gatsby indicates that Fitzgerald possessed at least the usual amount of ethnic prejudice for a white American of his era.

[Peter Gregg Slater. Ethnicity in The Great Gatsby. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 19, No. 1, (Jan., 1973), pp. 53-62]
A footnote:
Fitzgerald's interest in physical stereotypes of Jews, and other ethnic groups, is evident in a passage in his note-books: "Jews lose clarity. They get to look like old melted candles, as if their bodies were preparing to waddle. Irish get slovenly and dirty. Anglo-Saxons get frayed and worn" (The Crack-Up, ed. Edmund Wilson [New York: New Directions Books, 1945], p. 151).
Another academic sees in The Great Gatsby:
the diminishing moral authority of uplift stories in an age of declining faith in the nation's ability to assimilate new immigrants. [. . .] A story of entrepreneurial corruption, accented by the language of nativism, competes with and ultimately foils the traditional narrative of virtuous American uplift. In this way, Gatsby stages a national anxiety about the loss of white Anglo-Saxon supremacy in the Twenties.

Nick informs the reader in the opening pages that, despite his herb's criminal connections, "Gatsby tumed out all right at the end" (6). In order to fulfill this expectation, the novel's famous conclusion must elide the narrative struggle— perpetrated by Gatsby's nativist rival, Tom Buchanan—over the ethnic as well as ethical nature of our hero's enterprise. On the book's final page, Tom's interrogation into Gatsby's clouded past is displaced by Nick's inspirational vision of Gatsby's inviolate dream of the New World. The narrator conceives a myth of American origins by imagining the Dutch explorers' initial contact with a virgin continent. Through this incarnation Gatsby becomes great: a forward-looking visionary who not only transcends the crisis of his contemporary moment but who is associated with ihe nation's legendary pastoral promise.

The frequently dted conclusion of The Great Gatsby illustrates nationalism in its generalized form as well as in a manifestation peculiar to the 1920s. Broadly speaking, Fitzgerald represents the Janus-faced logic of nationalism by offering, on the one side, a promising future in the prophesy "tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning—" and, on the other, an immemorial myth of American national origins envisioned by "boats ... borne back ceaselessly into the past" (189).' [. . .] we might say that Nick's belief in Gatsby's gift of hope for a more perfect future is inverted in the expression of his hero's vision of a inviolate past. Gatsby's Janus-faced wonder at "the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us" is mirrored in the eyes of Nick's sixteenth-century Dutch explorers.

In death Gatsby is freed from his venal partnership with immigrant gangsters and remembered within a lineage of explorers of northern European stock. Fitzgerald might have retumed his reader to the "Columbus story" (9) used near the beginning of the novel to map the geographical configuration of Gatsby's "ancestral home" (162). Instead, Nick resurrects his hero's fallen reputation by transforming Gatsby's glimpse at Daisy's green light into the desire in the "Dutch sailors' eyes" for the continent that "flowered" before them as "a fresh, green breast of the new world." Against the current wave of immigration, Gatsby is "borne back ceaselessly" into a Nordic past as recollected within the climate of the Tribal Twenties, when conceptions of whiteness both narrow and become a sign not of skin color but of national identity. [. . .]

While Nick consistently dismisses Tom Buchanan's racial nativism as "impassioned gibberish" (137), his own narration re-enforces both the stereotypical degeneracy of the new immigrant (especially the Semite) and the minstrelsy of the Negro.

[Jeffrey Louis Decker. Gatsby's Pristine Dream: The Diminishment of the Self-Made Man in the Tribal Twenties. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 52-71.]
Returning to Fitzgerald, physically:
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (he was named after the author of the National Anthem, a distant relative of his mother's) was a stocky, good-looking young man with blond hair and blue eyes who might have stepped from the gay pages of one of his own novels.

[Matthew Joseph Bruccoli. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald]
Ethnically, Fitzgerald described himself as "half black Irish and half old American stock with the usual exaggerated ancestral pretensions," at one point writing to his daughter:
Jesus, we're the few remnants of the old American aristocracy that's managed to survive in communicable form-we have the vitality left. And you choose to mix it up with the cheap lower middle class settled on Park Avenue.
In 1937, while his daughter was at boarding school, he had written:
I will bet two-thirds of the girls at Miss Walker’s School have at least one grandparent that peddled old leather in the slums of New York, Chicago, or London, and if I thought you were accepting the standards of the cosmopolitan rich, I would much rather have you in a Southern school, where scholastic standards are not so high and the word “nice” is not debased to such a ludicrous extent. I have seen the whole racket, and if there is any more disastrous road than that from Park Avenue to the Rue de la Paix and back again, I don’t know it.

They are homeless people, ashamed of being American, unable to master the culture of another country; ashamed, usually, of their husbands, wives, grandparents, and unable to bring up descendants of whom they could be proud, even if they had the nerve to bear them, ashamed of each other yet leaning on each other’s weakness, a menace to the social order in which they live—oh, why should I go on? You know how I feel about such things. If I come up and find you gone Park Avenue, you will have to explain me away as a Georgia cracker or a Chicago killer. God help Park Avenue.
In a 1940 letter to his daughter, Fitzgerald explicitly rationalizes compartmentalizing public and private political views:
I think it was you who misunderstood my meaning about the comrades. The important thing is this: they had best be treated, not as people holding a certain set of liberal or conservative opinions, but rather as you might treat a set of intensely fanatical Roman Catholics among whom you might find yourself. It is not that you should not disagree with them—the important thing is that you should not argue with them. The point is that Communism has become an intensely dogmatic and almost mystical religion, and whatever you say, they have ways of twisting it into shapes which put you in some lower category of mankind (“Fascist,” “Liberal,” “Trotskyist”), and disparage you both intellectually and personally in the process. They are amazingly well organized. The pith of my advice is: think what you want, the less said the better...
Finally, here's an abstract for a paper I haven't read but which seems consistent with my impressions:
Journal of American Studies (1998), 32:399-420 Cambridge University Press

“His Mind Aglow”: The Biological Undercurrent in Fitzgerald's Gatsby and Other Works

BERT BENDER Professor a1
a1 Department of English, Arizona State University, PO Box 870302, Tempe, Arizona 85287-0302, USA


They talked until three, from biology to organized religion, and when Amory crept shivering into bed it was with his mind aglow…

(Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise)

Readers familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald's early work might recall that in those years just before the Scopes trial he wrote of Victorians who “shuddered when they found what Mr. Darwin was about”; or that he joined in the fashionable comic attacks on people who could not accept their “most animal existence,” describing one such character as “a hairless ape with two dozen tricks.” But few would guess the extent to which his interest in evolutionary biology shaped his work. He was particularly concerned with three interrelated biological problems: (1) the question of eugenics as a possible solution to civilization's many ills, (2) the linked principles of accident and heredity (as he understood these through the lens of Ernst Haeckel's biogenetic law), and (3) the revolutionary theory of sexual selection that Darwin had presented in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). As I hope to show in the following pages, his concern with these issues underlies such well-known features in the Fitzgerald landscape as his insecurity in the “social hierarchy” (his sense of its “terrifying fluidity”), his emphasis on the element of time, his interest in “the musk of money,” his interest in Spengler and the naturalists, and his negative portraiture of male violence. The principles of eugenics, accidental heredity, and sexual selection flow together as the prevailing undercurrent in most of Fitzgerald's work before and after The Great Gatsby, producing more anxiety than love from the tangled courtships of characters he deemed both beautiful and damned.


John Smith said...

wolfsheim's character in Gatsby was my first tip off to some latent racism/prejudice on Fitzgerald's part.

Anonymous said...

But what was the relationship between the Irish and the Old American stock? The Irish seem all over the place.

n/a said...


Prior to the potato famine influx (and often even post-famine, outside of large urban areas), the Irish tended to assimilate.

E.g., Fitzgerald's direct paternal ancestor was evidently Irish, but must have settled in Maryland before 1800, and Fitzgerald counts that side of his family as undifferentiated "old American".

George Gilder, who has been held up by some as a "WASP" exemplar similarly has at least one 18th-century Irish ancestor.

Anonymous said...

He may not be descended from the Gaelic Irish but from those the Irish called "Olde English".

"Some names of Norman origin have the prefix Fitz, from Latin filius "son", such as Fitzwilliam, Fitzgerald, and so forth."

For instance the Irish in St. John's Newfoundland, brought there as early as 1680 for the fishery, originated primarily from Waterford, Wexford and Kilkenny, sites of the Norman invasion. It also fits with Lodge's notion of a group of people who had already proven assimilable by the English. In other words there was precedent.

"It is found, in the first place, that the illiteracy test will bear most heavily upon the Italians, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Greeks, and Asiatics, and very lightly, or not at all, upon
English-speaking emigrants, or Germans, Scandinavians, and French. In other words, the races
most affected by the illiteracy test are those whose emigration to this country has begun within the
last twenty years and swelled rapidly to enormous proportions, races with which the English speaking people have never hitherto assimilated, and who are most alien to the great body of the
people of the United States."

SDaedalus said...

Very good post & comments

Fitzgerald was very conflicted about his Irish origins.

Fitzgerald is a Norman name, so his direct paternal ancestor was probably not old Irish. But the Normans intermarried, so the likelihood is that at least half of his paternal gene pool was old Irish.

The propensity towards alcoholism may well have been linked to his Irish genetic origins as well, ironically, if he had been Jewish this would have been less likely.

Anonymous said...

Alan Margolies = Jew

Margolies or Margolis is a Jewish name.