The Master Race? Xenophobia and Racism in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
This post originally appeared over at Pedagogy and American Literary Studies on November 19, 2018.
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 F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, 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, white becomes 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 origintates 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.