The idea of writing about race in The Great Gatsby is interesting. I have read this novel a few times now and have never thought of it in terms of race, but race is always present, in any novel.

First, though, I needed to find out what “race” means. Is it culture (or just linked with culture)? Is it the psychical attributes? As I learned from PBS,org, “…humans have not been around long enough…to evolve into separate subspecies or races. Despite surface differences, we are among the most similar of all species”– and despite what Tom’s “scientific” book “The Rise of the Colored Empires” might say, when we talk about race then, we mean a, “…classifications of humans into populations or groups based on various factors, such as their culture, language, social practice or heritable characteristics.” I point this out because the issue of race has alway fascinated and confused me, and I think that is what draws me to postmodern theory that shows how these terms are socially constructed and not just naturally inherent. With this in mind, I think that race can be looked at in The Great Gatsby in the same manner it can be looked at in Hughes’s poetry: Hughes addresses race… well, how? Is it that Hughes is black? or is it because Hughes writes about Harlem? or both?

I think it is both. Hughes’s race comes out when he writes about Harlem, jazz, blues, bee bop, and the culture that informs him, as a black man in Harlem–That is to say, Hughes writes about his ‘culture, language [and] social practices.’

Fitzgerald, as some people have pointed out, speaks about race by not speaking of it (but he does speak about the “white race”), and in doing so, it makes “white” the default, normalizing race. However much Fitzgerald does not directly invoke race, race is implied when Nick talks about his Ivy League days, when Gatsby says he went to Oxford because it is well known that there were no “colored” people at these ivy league schools at this time, we might also wondered if there were any colored people at Gatsby’s parties, and we can infer, with people like Tom going to these parties, that the only colored people there were walking around with silver trays with drinks on them for guest; And while Nick has a Finnish woman as a servant (and why is her race invoked?), we never learn the race of the “eight servants, including an extra gardner” that prepare Gatsby’s mansion for the party. Why does Fitzgerald feel it important to name the race of Nick’s maid but not the eight servants?

I believe the novel addresses race more in these subtle moments than in the obvious ones, such as Myrtle’s aside about the “shiftlessness of the lower orders”, the “These people” (36), which is interested that “shiftless” is used to describe “these people” when it is the rich Tom, Daisy, and Myrtle who wander around shiftlessly and amorally.

Another subtle moment of race in the novel is the extravagant buffet of the party: “…hors d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold” (44). Food is, I believe, one of the biggest signifiers of race. If this party were given by my family, there would be a whole roasted pig, congri, white rice and black beans; if this were a party in Harlem, the food would be bar b q, pigs’ feets, watermelon– the point of this (reading it again what almost feels like racist comments) is that Fitzgerald takes the time to write about the actual food that is displayed, which is intricately linked to race and class. Just as the location is linked with race; just as having Daisy come over for tea and lemon cake (Gatsby’s big plan to meet her again) is linked with race because this activity is itself a very “white.”

These moments are peppered through out the novel. In telling the reader that Klipspringer plays rag time jazz, Fitzgerald is making a comment about race because this is not the jazz that Hughes is writing about in his poems. In other examples, Fitzgerald mentions a person’s race (the Greek who sees Myrtle struck by Daisy, for instance), and then other times he doesn’t. While there are plenty of moments that Fitzgerald ignores race, there are also plenty of subtle moments he does.

The Ninth Elegy
Rainer Maria Rilke

Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely
in the form of a laurel, slightly darker than all
other green, with tiny waves on the edges
of every leaf (like the smile of a breeze)–: why then
have to be human–and, escaping from fate,
keep longing for fate? . . .

Oh not because happiness exists,
that too-hasty profit snatched from approaching loss.
Not out of curiosity, not as practice for the heart, which
would exist in the laurel too. . . . .

But because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

And so we keep pressing on, trying to achieve it,
trying to hold it firmly in our simple hands,
in our overcrowded gaze, in our speechless heart.
Trying to become it.–Whom can we give it to? We would
hold on to it all, forever . . . Ah, but what can we take along
into that other realm? Not the art of looking,
which is learned so slowly, and nothing that happened here. Nothing.
The sufferings, then. And above all, the heaviness,
and the long experience of love,– just what is wholly
unsayable. But later, among the stars,
what good is it–they are better as they are: unsayable.
For when the traveler returns from the mountain-slopes into the valley,
he bings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead
some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue
gentian. Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window–
at most: column, tower. . . . But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing. Isn’t the secret intent
of this taciturn earth, when it forces lovers together,
that inside their boundless emotion all things may shudder with joy?
Threshold: what it means for two lovers
to be wearing down, imperceptibly, the ancient threshold of their door–
they too, after the many who came before them
and before those to come. . . . ., lightly.

Here is the time for the sayable, here is its homeland.
Speak and bear witness. More than ever
the Things that we might experience are vanishing, for
what crowds them out and replaces them is an imageless act.
An act under a shell, which easily cracks open as soon as
the business inside outgrows it and seeks new limits.
Between the hammers our heart
endures, just as the tongue does
between the teeth and, despite that,
still is able to praise.

Praise this world to the angel, not the unsayable one,
you can’t impress him with glorious emotion; in the universe
where he feels more powerfully, you are a novice. So show him
something simple which, formed over generations,
lives as our own, near our hand and within our gaze.
Tell him of Things. He will stand astonished; as you stood
by the ropemaker in Rome or the potter along the Nile.
Show him how happy a Thing can be, how innocent and ours,
how even lamenting grief purely decides to take form,
serves as a Thing, or dies into a Thing–, and blissfully
escapes far beyond the violin.–And these Things,
which live by perishing, know you are praising them; transient,
they look to us for deliverance: us, the most transient of all.
They want us to change them, utterly, in our invisible heart,
within–oh endlessly–within us! Whoever we may be at last.

Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us,
invisible? Isn’t it your dream
to be wholly invisible someday?–O Earth: invisible!
What, if not transformation, is your urgent command?
Earth, my dearest, I will. Oh believe me, you no longer
need your springtimes to win me over–one of them,
ah, even one, is already too much for my blood.
Unspeakably I have belonged to you, from the first.
You were always right, and your holiest inspiration
is our intimate companion, Death.

Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future
grows any smaller . . . . . Superabundant being
wells up in my heart.

translated by Stephen Mitchell

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.