Diagnosing the American Dream:

Trouble in the Vibrations of The Great Gatsby

By Peter W. Wakefield, Emory University

Not an earthquake, but currents and vibrations: F. Scott Fitzgerald introduces Jay Gatsby as a seismograph—”[…] there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes thousands of miles away” (Fitzgerald 2). This paper explores those vibrations, finding in Jay Gatsby’s geographic registration a diagnosis of tectonic fault lines in the American nation and in an American identity that are inseparable from the land and history of the American continent. My suggestion is that Fitzgerald’s novel is disturbed by a darker version of failed American dreams than the usual school analysis of this classic novel dares broach. Specifically, I want to excavate issues of American racism and White supremacy in The Great Gatsby and relate these to lynchings and national anti-lynching debates that were contemporaneous to the composition of this novel and especially prominent in New York City, where Fitzgerald either lived or yearned to live during the time he wrote his most famous work.

Fitzgerald himself—vain and ambitious despite his eloquent insights—never articulated a political, let alone a racial, moral to his own story, but I want to argue that his art, as all great art, shook with the troubles of his time. Beneath the veneer of erotic passion, (White) jazz, and drunkenness, the corrupting politics of nostalgia drive The Great Gatsby. This nostalgia is specific: it pines for an impossibly un-racialized past, for an imagined European source, for an enchanted American cultural epicenter. The novel laughs defiantly at protagonist Tom Buchanan’s pathetic and now too-familiar bloat, crude wealth, and social recklessness. In the portrayal of Tom we can find a caution for unrestrained American nationalism. But the novel’s solutions to deep American traumas are more elusive. I end by hinting at two paths I find in Gatsby: first, an embrace of embodied limitations (in other words, an ever-hopeful love of an imperfect person); and, second, the constitution of a subtler public through literature itself.

Textual Tremors

I want to go socially and historically deeper into this novel than the interpretation that my students bring to the text from high school English, where this novel has, since the early 1960’s, been part of the American canon. Let me capture their pat reading in five sentences, simultaneously recapping the novel for those of you who, yourselves, may have last read it in high school. First, it’s about the green light, which symbolizes Jay Gatsby’s obsessive love for Daisy and, by extension, symbolizes the American Dream. Airy, enticing, Daisy met Jay as a young enlisted man in Louisville, Kentucky, days before his departure for WWI, and something magical and dreamy happened between them. Five years later, Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan, whose sweltering commuter train takes him to “some woman in New York” (Fitzgerald 15), and regularly stops next to a vast valley of ashes. Gatsby’s plan for winning Daisy back has been to get wildly rich (illegally, but whatever), in hopes to dazzle Daisy with Jazz-Age parties in his frosting-on-top mansion. But Gatsby’s low-class roots tragically catch up with him and he is shot after a gory car accident. The famous eye glasses of a certain Dr. Eckleburg, representing God, gaze out from a billboard over the valley of ashes. In the end, Daisy picks Tom. (Okay, so that’s seven sentences, but the last one is very short.)

While my students’ standard interpretation mentions class immobility, it leaves out arguably more crucial issues for the American nation: namely, racial violence, immigration, sexism, and the cultural implications of war—both civil and international. Near the beginning of Chapter 4, Gatsby takes narrator Nick Carraway on an automobile ride into the city. The scene is brief and easily glossed as an ornate narrative device that establishes hints of both Jay Gatsby’s biography and of the shadiness of his story (and of Nick’s narrative). Gatsby tells Nick about family money: “I am the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West—all dead now” (65). Nick asks where in the Middle West? Gatsby doesn’t miss a beat: “San Francisco,” he says. Gatsby thus simultaneously stretches his origin story from coast to coast, and impugns his own imagined geography. Narratively, the drive ends when Nick and Gatsby cross the Queensboro bridge to New York City, described with extravagant enchantment:

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. (68)

But this scene is not just about the modernity and magic of New York. Looking closer, we find salient, sharp contrasts to the “white heaps and sugar lumps” of the city. Fitzgerald, on the one hand, looks to the preceding century and the American nation’s ties to foundational immigration:

We passed Port Roosevelt, where there was a glimpse of red-belted ocean-going ships, and sped along a cobbled slum lined with the dark, undeserted saloons of the faded-gilt nineteen-hundreds. (68)

The people of this nation have come across the sea, and their recent past was guilded. On the other hand, Fitzgerald shocks modern readers (and students) by having Nick turn toward his contemporary immigrants with racist slurs of his time:

A dead man passed us in a hearse heaped with blossoms, followed by two carriages with drawn blinds, and by more cheerful carriages for friends. The friends looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of south-eastern Europe […] As we crossed Blackwell’s Island, a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.

“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all….”

Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder. (68-69)

To look past the dream of Gatsby, embodied in that last line, the threats to the American nation in this passage are embodied by tragic-eyed southeastern Europeans (whose “heaped” flowers echo the “white heaps” of New York), and by a carnevalesque role-reversal between Blacks and Whites. Anything can happen given this situation. Gatsby’s possibility is the volatile possibility of a racial confrontation, a confrontation that Fitzgerald presciently laid at the heart of American identity in this novel. Though Fitzgerald himself likely embraced the racist slurs we see in his novels, he sensed, like Gatsby’s seismograph, the symptoms of the defining social injustice of America.

Scholar and commentator Maureen Corrigan, in her 2014 study of Gatsby, insightfully explores the geographic significance of Queens in the early 1920’s, roughly the date of Fitzgerald’s composition:

These days, Blackwell’s Island is called Roosevelt Island, […] but in Fitzgerald’s day it was a sinister place—home to a prison, a charity hospital, a smallpox hospital, and the Women’s Lunatic Asylum of New York City. (Corrigan 93)

For Fitzgerald and his narrator, Nick, this island, beneath the Queensboro Bridge and close at hand with the immigrant neighborhoods of Queens, represents the margins that define the dreamy, modern city, and that, as the novel progresses, consume the energy that drives both Gatsby and Tom.

Beyond this jarring and indigestible passage, I want to argue that racism, social injustice, and white supremacy frame this novel. In chapter one, Tom explodes over the otherwise desperate dinner party, pontificating about a book he has read, “by this man Goddard”:

“Well these books are all scientific,” insisted Tom, glancing at [Daisy] impatiently. “This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

“We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Daisy, winking ferociously towards the fervent sun. […]

“This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and—” After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again. (13)

Not only is Tom’s violent vehemence played for a menacing laugh in this passage, we also gather, in Tom’s astounding hesitation, that Daisy’s inclusion in the Nordic category is questionable, at least to the supposedly expert judgement of her own husband. Daisy’s dark hair and enticing voice thus become mute markers throughout the novel of questions about racial purity, neatly paired with Gatsby’s twice-mentioned “tanned” skin. (Note also that Tom doesn’t use slurs, like “bucks,” to refer to black men. Nick’s glaring phrases are thus thrown into higher relief.)

Further, chapter two’s drunken party, which seethes with marital dissatisfaction, variously pins romantic problems on “kikes” and “Catholics” (Fitzgerald 33-34). After Nick and Gatsby get to lunch in New York in chapter four, we meet Meyer Wolfsheim, whose most distinctive fashion statement—cufflinks made from human molars—reinforces the anti-semitic trope. Amazingly for a novel composed in the early 1920s, Wolfsheim appears again in the novel’s final chapter, where we learn that he runs a sham business called “The Swastika Holding Company” (170).

Finally, the climax of the novel’s conflict gives the lie to students’ easy interpretation that this is a story about romance hindered by differences in wealth and class. In chapter seven, in a stifling room on a steamy day at the Plaza Hotel, Gatsby tries to tell Tom that Daisy never loved him. Tom loses it, and, yes, attacks Gatsby’s pink suit and his obscure family origins. But the prologue to Tom’s rant reminds us that his rage is also about race: “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” (130).

Vibrations of Fitzgerald’s Nation

“When I sing ‘Let My People Go,’ I can feel sympathetic vibrations from my audience, whatever its nationality. It’s no longer just a negro song. It is a symbol of those seeking freedom from the dungeon of fascism.” (Paul Robeson, qtd. by Redmond)

My quick survey of The Great Gatsby raises the question of what rumblings of race and white nationalism might have been moving Fitzgerald as he composed his novel about the “extraordinary gift for hope” (2) that Gatsby derived from his connections to the American continent. The case I build now is admittedly circumstantial, but draws support from the extraordinary work of Shana Redmond, whose study of Paul Robeson describes a circuit that runs through social movement, artistic expression, national identity, and scientific questioning. Strikingly, given my emphasis on Gatsby’s seismographic character, Redmond’s suggestion is that vibration is the current that completes the circuit she discerns. Social movement, art, identity: These are terms that reflect the relationship between writing and the state, saliently posited by J. W. de Forest’s 1868 call for a “Great American Novel.”

(Incidentally, it’s worth mention the work de Forest proposed as “the nearest approach to the desired phenomenon” [de Forest, 28]—i.e. as the closest thing to the great American novel: Uncle Tom’s Cabin—a novel about race if ever there was—a point I return to, below. Note further that I am not attempting to tie Fitzgerald’s biographical position to any particular character in the novel, rather to explore the experiential backdrop against which Fitzgerald’s work as a whole was presented, perhaps as an aspiration to become the Great American Novel that J. W. de Forest (1868) says was hitherto lacking.)

I briefly sketch a landscape of racial action marked by three moments coincidental with the composition of Fitzgerald’s greatest novel—namely, the period of summer 1922-April 1925: 1) the Dyer Anti-Lynching bill, positively reported out of U.S. Senate subcommittee in July 1922; 2) a February 1924 rally in New York City supporting the Dyer bill and involving the musically accomplished and decorated 369th regiment, known as the Harlem Hell Fighters; 3) the lead-up to the re-publication, in 1927, of rally-organizer James Weldon Johnson’s novel, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, originally released in 1912, which focuses on the lynching of a black man, and the passing of the main character as white. I submit that precisely these movements around lynching, jazz, and passing registered as inarticulate but prescient vibrations of American national identity in the seismographic record of The Great Gatsby.

1) Lynching

In mid-July, 1922, Fitzgerald, then 26 years old, in a letter written at the White Bear Yacht Club, Minnesota, makes first mention to Scribner’s editor Max Perkins about the start of a new novel that was to become The Great Gatsby (Corrigan 106).

This timing coincides with the favorable reporting out of Senate Judiciary Committee of the Dyer Anti-Lynching bill, approved the preceding January by the House. This bill, proposed by Leonidas C. Dyer, Republican representative from Missouri, followed several other 20th century attempts to curb lynching, but was unique in that it provided for federal penalties up to $5000 against local law enforcement who failed to protect lynching victims. The NAACP was to mount a major campaign to publicize and support the Dyer bill between 1922 and 1924, when it was finally halted by a filibuster in the Senate (NAACP).

On July 22, 1922, the day after the Senate committee approved the bill, fiction author, songwriter, and chief officer of the NAACP James Weldon Johnson published an open letter defending the bill’s constitutionality in the New York Tribune and New York Times (Papers, 11). A mass lynching one month before, June 22, 1922, in Herrin, Illinois, is cited in some articles as influential in the passage out of committee of the Dyer bill. The July 5, 1922 The Advertiser, Montgomery, Alabama, ran an editorial that suggests that Illinois would have been forced into bankruptcy, if the Dyer Bill had been in effect, because of the number of crimes in Herrin (Papers).

Lynching, and the movement against lynching was vibrating through the American nation at precisely the time that Fitzgerald began his work on Gatsby, the work that would “register earthquakes” from across the continent. New York City was to become the epicenter of this anti-lynching movement. But the questions reverberated across the country. By the end of July 1922, the NAACP archives show editorials from around the country—Indianapolis, Lexington, St. Louis, Atlanta, Detroit, etc., analyzing “lies that will be told” when the bill is debated by full Senate (Papers). My suggestion is that Fitzgerald, holed up at his country club outside St. Paul, Minnesota, and constitutionally, constantly projecting himself toward New York City, would have felt the shudders that lynching was causing across the nation.

Lynching, of course, is still causing us to shudder. It is worth noting that in April 2018, the Montgomery Advertiser ran a full-page, front-page apology for its early-twentieth-century coverage of lynching, which regularly faulted the victims. The reckoning with the paper’s past coincided with the opening in Montgomery of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, which commemorates victims of lynching (“Our Shame”).

2) WWI and the Jazz Age

Students learn to classify Fitzgerald as a “Jazz Age” author, a label Fitzgerald himself sometimes adopted. But, as supposedly representative of a term that is meant to convey a modernist anomie and abandon subsequent to the traumas of WWI and prescient of the traumas of the Great Depression that were to follow, The Great Gatsby is strikingly casual about both jazz and what narrator Nick Carraway calls “the Great War.”

Nick says only that his enjoyment of the “counter-raid” made him “restless” (Gatsby, 3). Gatsby, who recognizes Nick from “some wet, gray little villages in France” (Gatsby, 47), mentions what must have been a harrowing two-day battle behind enemy lines, but only as a prelude to the proud display of his medal from “Little Montenegro” (Gatsby, 66).

The jazz and decadence of the novel, similarly, are superficial and decorative. Chapter three’s most celebratory party at Gatsby’s mansion features an entirely fictional jazz performance: Vladimir Tostoff’s “Jazz History of the World” (Gatsby, 49). On scant evidence offered by the novel, we have to say that the jazz is performed by and for white people, without any sense of how the “history of the world” related to the formation of jazz as a genre. To understand Fitzgerald’s invention of a spurious jazz title, we might compare the fact that Fitzgerald’s epigram for The Great Gatsby, attributed to Thomas Parke d’Invilliers, is also spurious—part of a running inside joke of inventing pithy quotations among Fitzgerald’s literary cronies (Corrigan 79).

To excavate the jazz vibes that Fitzgerald might actually have felt in New York City in the early 1920’s, we must come back to race, WWI, and Paul Robeson. The 369th regiment of the U.S. Army was the first American unit ever to receive the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest honor of wartime valor (Men of Bronze). The irony of this fact requires further context. The 369th was recruited as the first black (segregated) regiment in the U.S. army. But recruitment was initially difficult since prospective soldiers rightly feared poor treatment by the army of a racist United States. Hamilton Fish, who would later become a congressman and strong supporter of the Dyer Anti-Lynching bill was a white officer assigned to organize the 369th regiment. Fish early on secured the enlistment of a then-famous jazz orchestra leader, Jim Reese Europe. Subsequently, most of Reese Europe’s black jazz orchestra enlisted because they wanted to play with the renowned conductor, and the 369th, among other accomplishments, was known for its jazz playing. Regarding waging of war, however, the U.S. Army gave the regiment wooden broomsticks for weapons and made the black soldiers work as stevedores in France, until the French government integrated them into a French unit. It was then that the 369th, who came to be known as the Harlem Hell Fighters, earned their decorations in Nick Carraway’s “Great War.”

Now the circuit begins to close. The 369th returned to New York City after WWI to a large parade and much fanfare. Fitzgerald, who himself enlisted to go to WWI, in part because of failing grades at Princeton, could easily have known about the Hellfighters and their jazz, not least because of their high-profile homecoming in Manhatton. Moreover, Hamilton Fish, by then a member of the U.S. Congress, agreed to be a main speaker at the February 10, 1924 rally in support of the Dyer Anti-Lynching bill. James Weldon Johnson appealed to Fish to invite the 369th to jazz up the rally, alongside Paul Robeson himself, who had also agreed to sing there (Papers).

Where was Fitzgerald on February 10, 1924, when he was putting the finishing touches on his manuscript? I have no evidence that he attended the large New York City rally, but biographers have established that Fitzgerald and Zelda lived from September 1922 through early spring 1924 in a cottage at Great Neck, Long Island, commonly taken as the real-world referent of The Great Gatsby’s East and West Eggs. My suggestion is that Fitzgerald’s fascination with jazz and the City would have somehow registered the vibrations that Robeson refers to explicitly—vibrations of justice in the face of lynching and racism, which touched to the heart of one of the great jazz orchestras of the time.

Robeson scholar Shana Redmond, expansively capturing the import of Paul Robeson’s singing, picks up on the terminology of vibration, and supplies a theoretical framework for the relationship I see between Fitzgerald’s composition and the political movements of his day:

The simplest kind of periodic motion is a harmonic motion, suggesting to those of us with ears and minds tuned towards organized noise that the simultaneity of pitches and chords constitutive of harmony are the most common, accessible, and therefore most revolutionary vibrations available. Robeson understood this. Vibration was a key feature in his creation of a movement science, in which he combined his exceptional technique with the new knowledge, new theories, new questions that […] are generated by social movement collectives. (Redmond)

Like Robeson, Fitzgerald saw his art vibrating, in both a passive and an active, moral sense, with the social and scientific catastrophes of his time.

3) James Weldon Johnson’s “Autobiography

If James Weldon Johnson’s prominent role in a major political rally of 1924 was not enough to raise him to the consciousness of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Johnson’s literary fortunes might have been. Anonymously published first in 1912, Johnson’s fictional (despite its title) Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man was taken up by Knopf publishers and re-issued in a modern edition of 1927, to which not only Johnson’s name was added, but also a Europeanizing “u” in the spelling of “coloured.”

Fitzgerald’s correspondence of the period (including with Willa Cather, whose short stories were concurrently published by Knopf) conveys how keenly he was courting publishers and modernizing artists in and around New York City, including on Great Neck, where many of them apparently gathered (Corrigan 111). It seems likely that Weldon Johnson’s literary success and circulation among publishers in the years prior to the 1927 re-issue of the Autobiography would have come to Fitzgerald’s attention.

Moreover, while there are no direct parallels between the two works, the overlap of themes between Gatsby and the Autobiography is striking, especially when viewed through the lens of J.W. Forest’s call for a Great American Novel. Like Forest, Johnson’s unnamed main character focuses extensively on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, referring to it as a “fair and truthful panorama of slavery” (Johnson 24). One can speculate about the extent to which either James Weldon Johnson or F. Scott Fitzgerald were striving to respond to Forest’s call for the defining work of the American nation. But Fitzgerald’s attempt to register the vibrations of the nation is explicit, and he likely would have compared himself to others who were attempting the same task.

Again, the geographic sweep of Johnson’s novel has much in common with Fitzgerald’s. Specifically, Johnson’s main character traverses the continent and Europe, in an explicit search for the defining character of the American South and North. Fitzgerald’s short story “The Ice Castle,” published shortly before Gatsby, an echo of Fitzgerald’s own experience courting the southern belle who was Zelda, similarly attempts explicitly to encapsulate South and North in its characters. While the North-South divide is not explicit in Gatsby, Daisy’s hometown of Louisville may supplement the Queensboro bridge scene as coded markers of the nation’s race question.

Finally, there is Johnson’s salient and well-wrought description of a magical New York City, which irresistibly invites comparison with Fitzgerald’s “white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money” (Fitzgerald 68). Here is Johnson:

New York City is the most fatally fascinating thing in America. She sits like a great witch at the gate of the country, showing her alluring white face and hiding her crooked hands and feet under the folds of her wide garments—constantly enticing thousands from far within, and tempting those who come from across the seas to go no farther. (Johnson 48)

Diagnosis of the American Dream

My circumstantial historical case suggests that the national vibrations picked up by Fitzgerald and distilled into a work that even he saw as “the very best I am capable of or even as I feel sometimes, much better than I am capable of” (qtd. in Corrigan 116) integrally involved race, migration, miscegenation, passing, even (implicitly) lynching. In this context, Gatsby’s most haunting assertion sounds like a warning: “‘Can’t repeat the past?’ [Gatsby] cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can’” (Fitzgerald 111). I want to read Fitzgerald as darkly diagnosing the dangers of an American identity perennially tempted by a delusional nostalgia. Ambivalently, we are drawn to Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope” (2), and shocked by the grim outcome of his attempt to make him and Daisy “great again.”

Fitzgerald himself was alternately too vain, ambitious, drunk, and obsessed with Zelda to articulate an easy political solution to America’s abiding national and moral predicaments. But he was eloquent enough to shake up his readers. His fertile prose shakes up his readers and demands interpretation. He elicits a conspiracy of readership that recognizes this work as commensurate with a great nation, and, simultaneously, as indicative of the nation’s necessary directions for moral justice. The Great Gatsby has been validated by public school systems across the U.S., but its greatness transcends what students are taught.

In a crucial passage, Gatsby realizes that he has a Platonic opportunity to transcend the grim, unjust world, to mount “to a secret place above the trees” (Fitzgerald 110). (Are we to think here of another purpose which trees served in the South?) But the condition of his release from “the old warm world” (161) would be renunciation of Daisy. Instead, he chooses to kiss her. “At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete” (111). I want to read Gatsby’s embrace as a commitment to the incarnate world, in which, for all the frustrations of our beating “against the current” (180), we must preserve hope, reject illusions of a charmed past, and be attuned to the vibrations of injustice that the ground and the continent convey to us.

(This paper was originally delivered June 30, 2018, at Writing, the State, and the Rise of Neo-Nationalism: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Concerns, London, a conference organized by Boston University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning. My thanks to conference organizers Christopher Coffman and Thomas Finan, and to Megan Sullivan, director.)