Was Gatsby black?

By Elizabeth Manus

By Salon Staff
Published August 11, 2000 7:22PM (EDT)

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These double back flips of reasoning serve only to illustrate the narrow-mindedness of their self-absorbed sources. Such people can only relate to the theme of a literary work by squeezing it into their own restrictively defined situation, instead of recognizing the universality of their situation in a larger world. It is not "the manifestation of Fitzgerald's deep-seated apprehensions concerning miscegenation between blacks and whites." It is only the story of "the outsider trying to be an insider, of the self-invented man." The story is popular, and relevant, because of its widespread application to all men of all social, and racial, groups. This sort of thing happens to all of us, Professor. If it has also happened to you, one can only say, "Welcome to humanity."

-- Tom Chisholm

The most obvious flaw in the argument is: If it takes an African-American scholar versed in the nuances of "passing" to derive the information that Gatsby was black, wouldn't it require someone with a similar background to write it? Was Fitzgerald "passing" then?

Rather than spend his time looking up the number of times the color yellow was used, the professor might better use his time researching Fitzgerald and supporting where Fitzgerald obtained all this specialized knowledge.

-- Bobbi Stas

It is obvious to me that the character Gatsby was Jewish, not Black. His name was originally Gatz. Gatz or Getz is a common Jewish name. His first name was Jay, another common Jewish name usually representing Jacob. It was common for Jews to change their names coming to this country in the early part of the 20th century since many Anglo immigration agents couldn't deal with Eastern European names and Anglicized them. Many Jews chose to have English-sounding names to make themselves more acceptable in the Anglo society. This is just what Gatsby did.

-- Linda Dorfmont

"Gatsby" was about class more than anything else. Both in the terms of rich vs. working class and in terms of people from pedigreed families vs. people from broken homes. Secondarily it was about the Midwesterner as outsider in the East.

Fitzgerald was a straightforward writer and if he had meant for Gatsby to be a passing black, it would have been clearly indicated in the text.

-- Joy Shaffer

Thompson's theory reminds me of a satirical term paper I wrote as a high school sophomore. I proposed that the movie "The Wizard of Oz" was a drug parable. Dorothy was on an acid trip (LSD was discovered the year before the movie was made); the Wicked Witch tried to kill Dorothy and her gang with bad heroin -- the poppy field. And the Good Witch revived them with cocaine -- falling snow. My "reasoning" went on and on.

I knew I was I kidding.

-- Kent Westmoreland

I think, given what social attitudes were like during Fitzgerald's era, that if he had hinted that his character was black, "The Great Gatsby" would never have been published. Or, at best, it would have been marginalized and forgotten.

Our good Professor should not be condemned to the loony academic fringe (yet).

-- Reginald Bullock Jr.

Thank you, Elizabeth Manus, for your interesting and thought provoking article regarding "The Great Gatsby." It is always refreshing to have great works reviewed and the ideas associated with these works placed under a microscope. I am an African-American female and I have not only read the book but also viewed the film. I never looked at it the same way the professor has done. Perhaps I need to question my own assumptions.

-- P. Lowder

I doubt that Fitzgerald intended for Gatsby to be read in this way, but Thompson has every right to interpret it thus, and am quite offended by [Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J.] Bruccoli's statement that "This kind of thing is bad for literature, bad for Fitzgerald, bad for 'The Great Gatsby' and bad for students." Thompson's possible mistake is in attributing his alternate interpretation to Fitzgerald. Bruccoli's mistake is intellectual self-righteousness.

The academic establishment considers authorial meaning the single "right" interpretation of a story. I think that that is one central interpretation, but certainly not the only valid one. It insults many intelligent readers by ignoring or ridiculing the diversity of ways that they may meaningfully interpret a work. Although of course Thompson is male, I have observed time and again that women are usually far more willing than men to downplay the importance of authorial meaning and seek out personal or alternate interpretations, so the rigid academic stance appears to reflect the traditionally male perspective of academia.

Asked if Gatsby could be interpreted as Thompson suggests, Bruccoli responds with what appears to be horror or disgust: "God no." Wrong, Mr. Bruccoli. Thompson has come up with a fascinating reinvention of a beloved classic work, one that may intrigue some readers more than the standard Lit 101 spin on it. In what way is that "bad for literature"?

-- Elizabeth Durack

Salon Staff

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