Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Maturing of F. Scott Fitzgerald

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Maturing of F. Scott Fitzgerald

Article excerpt

During the few past years, as our society has become even more conscious of the negative effects of ethnic stereotyping, there has been increased criticism of Fitzgerald's depiction of African Americans and Jews in The Great Gatsby. Some question the portrayal of the African Americans who pass Gatsby and Nick Carraway on the Queensboro Bridge: "As we crossed Blackwell's Island," Nick says, "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" (55). That physical description as well as the use of the word bucks is disturbing. Others question the portrayal of Meyer Wolfshiem, suggesting that it reflects the opinions of those who believed that Jews were less than human, more like animals: "A small flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril. After a moment I discovered his tiny eyes in the half darkness" (55).

An obvious response is not to excuse Fitzgerald but to suggest that the United States during the writer's lifetime was racist and anti-Semitic in many respects, and, further, that Fitzgerald was not the only major writer of the time to employ ethnic stereotypes (see, e.g., Fiedler 78-81, Gross and Hardy 1-104). In addition, one must note that his short stories appeared in some of the most popular magazines, and the editors of these publications, as well as his editors at Scribner's, the publishers of his books, while making certain not to include overtly sexual or blasphemous passages, did not seem to object to this ethnic stereotyping. But these explanations do not seem to satisfy everyone.

What is less obvious is that despite this stereotyping - and it was not restricted to African Americans and Jews - Fitzgerald felt differently about two vicious forms of racism that existed during his lifetime, Nordicism and lynching.

Criticism of Fitzgerald's attitude toward African Americans and Jews, of course, is not new. As early as 1947, Milton Hindus in Commentary concluded that "Fitzgerald does not allow a single redeeming characteristic to his Jewish gambler, not even so much redemption as Shakespeare allows to Shylock in his dominantly villainous portrait." Further, while allowing that the portrayal reflected "the fashionable anti-Semitism of the 1920's," Hindus stated that "anti-Semitism is a component part of the novel" (510; the italics are Hindus's). In 1967, Robert Forrey, in Phylon: The Atlantic University Review of Race and Culture, pointed to many examples of Fitzgerald's disparaging references to African Americans and concluded: "On the question of race, Fitzgerald does not belong in the liberal tradition in American letters" (295). Both Forrey and Hindus agreed, however, that Fitzgerald's later fiction, in particular The Last Tycoon, reflected a much more sympathetic outlook. In the years since these articles appeared, others have added their voices, most agreeing in general with these early opinions (see, e.g,. Donaldson 182-88).

The greatest amount of stereotyping in Fitzgerald's writing involves African Americans, who are portrayed mainly as servants and comic characters, and it began very early. In Coward (1913), an amateur play set in the South before the Civil War and written by Fitzgerald in St. Paul when he was 17, humor is achieved by having Jefferson, the butler, speak in malapropisms. "I renounce Mistah James Holworthy," he says when Holworthy enters (St. Paul Plays 64). Stereotyping is also used for humor in "The Camel's Back" (1920) when a waiter is called on to marry a couple at a dance; it is supposed to be a joke but turns out less than funny when we discover that he is also a Baptist minister. He is introduced as "Jumbo, obese negro" (Six Tales of the Jazz Age 54). Soon after, when he takes out a Bible, one white onlooker says, "Yea! Jumbo's got a Bible! …

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