SMACK!


THE MIGRANT IN NEW YORK, continued

African Americans only show up twice in The Great Gatsby. Once is in the aforementioned Queensboro Bridge scene, and the other is at Myrtle's death scene where one of the witnesses to the car accident is, "A pale well-dressed negro" (140). Gatsby's New York is somehow devoid of a notable African American presence which is odd considering that the area of Harlem and its Renaissance is flourishing at this time. The picture of New York that Fitzgerald paints is not complete due to the absence of Harlem from the scene. Lutz writes, "While isolationists, fundamentalist, and other traditionalists did their best to push a 'return to normalcy,' as Warren G. Harding's 1920 presidential campaign slogan put it, the decade continued to be one of cultural experiment and innovation. For white culture this often included imbibing large quantities of African American culture" (2). While Fitzgerald includes Tom Buchanan's foolish nativist rhetoric, the reader never gets to see the flip side to Buchanan's stance, that being the white interest in and cultivation of black culture. "Slumming, dropping down social levels to vacation time, release; this was a premier sport for smart white Manhattan..." (Douglas, 74), yet the Gatsby crowd never drops into any of the cabarets which were hot spots for hipster socialites craving a few drinks and a good time during Prohibition. Gatsby's parties serve as a way for Gatsby to try to meet up with Daisy again, and they also provide a safe harbor and an alternative to slumming in Harlem.

Critic Decker finds a purpose behind the ubiquitous absence of blacks. "The absence of African Americans alongside the novel's conspicuous appropriation of black culture is what makes it a definitive text of the so-called Jazz Age" (56). Decker is asserting that Fitzgerald's exclusion of African American culture at a time when African American culture was highly popular makes Gatsby more indicative of the era - the era when leaving minority groups out was highly popular as well. This once again creates Gatsby to be a product of the era and not a proper reflection, and that in turn causes it to be less of a Jazz Age text. A true Jazz Age novel would include the area of New York where Jazz was flourishing and would not simply ignore it. In Carl Van Vechten's 1926 novel Nigger Heaven, the African American character Byron thinks to himself, "Each of us has his own standard of thought and behaviour and yet we are forced by this prodigious power of prejudice to line up together. To the white world we are a mass. . ." (189). Byron's sentiments fit in with Fitzgerald's exclusion of African Americans -- their appearance in Gatsby is brief and ends up being the sole representation of a large, diverse, and influential group of Americans.

Fitzgerald's story of a young man's quest for love, money, and power in 1920s New York falls short in being the quintessential Jazz Age novel. Gatsby's cultivation of the American dream is based upon having the right kind of background that will allow him to marry a high society Southern belle. "The real problem is that he (Gatsby) is 'without a past' and to get Daisy he must get a past," writes Walter Benn Michaels (26). If this is Gatsby's biggest problem, then his story does not make for a compelling reading of what brought some migrants to New York in the 1920s; this is not to say that Gatsby does not accurately depict the obstacles lower class whites faced during this period of history when it was in vogue to shun certain classes of people. Fitzgerald does a convincing job of showing how difficult it is to find a legitimate means of making it big in America, especially in New York City. He also incorporates a number of issues that the city and the decade are awash in: anti-Semitism, racism, bootlegging, fashion trends, and, even, baseball. All these issues somehow influence Gatsby's actions and his fate.

However, the American dream in Gatsby gets swept up in a sentimentality with such thoughts as Nick's at the end of the novel, ". . . gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes - a fresh, green breast of the new world" (182). By thinking this, Nick makes the reader believe that if Gatsby did have roots that reached back to the founding days of America that perhaps he could have survived. The factor of race, something imbedded into America's cultural past and present affects the American dream in ways not depicted in Gatsby. The American dream for racial minorities means striving for basic equality and privileges. Fitzgerald never documents this and tells a story about whites who have to overcome an economic and social barrier, and not an oppressive, threatening racial one. Gatsby may be the victim of prejudice against what is essentially known as "white trash," but because of his skin color he has the freedom of movement and the ability to obtain certain jobs and privileges that minorities are locked out from. By leaving out a part of the landscape and mood of New York City, Fitzgerald presents a skewed image of the country and the city that Gatsby has to succeed in. Gatsby dreams of leaving the common and simple North Dakota life he was born into, which he does by going to college, meeting Dan Cody, and joining the army. Before he met Daisy he wanted to make a fortune, and then when he does meet her, this fortune becomes necessary. The hardships African Americans have to overcome at this time make the story of the black Southern migrant a more moving one, and a better example of what it truly means to chase the American dream.

The short story "The City of Refuge" by Harlem Renaissance writer Rudolph Fisher is set in the part of New York City that Fitzgerald leaves out of Gatsby. The American Dream represented in this story involves a very different experience of arriving unknown in New York. New York is by no means the land of milk and honey, but Fisher shows that the city is not a hopeless place, and this is because of the rights available to African Americans in New York City that are withheld in the South because of the region's racism. The dream at the heart of "City" is conjured because of the oppressive South that African Americans lived in coupled with the emergence of Harlem as a thriving area for the race. The realistic portrayal of Harlem that Fisher employs sets "City" apart from Fitzgerald's exclusively white New York tale. Gatsby's dream eludes him because it is based upon attaining a place at the dinner table of the elite, which he cannot do because he lacks an American aristocratic background. In "City" it is the organization of the city, vastly different from the way of life in the South, which causes the central character to falter in his quest for the essential American dream.

Fisher tells the story of King Solomon Gillis, a North Carolina native who has shot a white man and, "with the aid of a prayer and an automobile, probably escaped a lynching" (3). Gillis gets to Washington where a bootlegger gives him one hundred dollars and directions to Harlem in exchange for the car. Fisher describes Gillis' arrival in Harlem as, "Jonah emerging from the whale" (3) when Gillis ascends from the subway into the city. Gillis successfully completes his sojourn to New York City and he is delivered into a new life. He emerges into the light from the darkness of the South, the crime he committed, and "the terrifying subway train" (3). Stepping onto Lenox Avenue Gillis is not only safe from his persecutors but has also survived traveling through the bowels of the city. He soaks in the Harlem street scene:

Negroes at every turn; up and down Lenox Avenue and down 135th Street; big lanky Negroes, short squat Negroes; black ones, brown ones, yellow ones; men standing idle on the curb, women, bundle-laden, trudging reluctantly homeward, children rattle-trapping about the sidewalks; here and there a white face drifting along, but Negroes predominantly, overwhelmingly everywhere. (3)

* * *

The outdated ways of the rural South are what cause Gillis and others like him to be living in a time warp of sorts that makes it difficult to adjust to Harlem. Margolies discusses the migrant, "In the South from which he fled, the agrarian atmosphere and the more clearly defined caste barriers tended to isolate him" (33). The system in the South limited occupations primarily to the agricultural sphere, and this kept blacks from learning about other trades, skills, and ways of life. Gillis' South is stuck in a nightmarish post-Reconstruction culture. "Most blacks went back to their prewar positions as agricultural laborers for the lords of the land," writes Donald L. Grant (139). Sharecropping, a watered down form of slavery, ". . .should have been a stepping-stone to land ownership, instead became a scheme to maintain the status quo" (Grant,145). Blacks were held back economically and psychologically. The lynch mob operated to instill fear into the African American psyche. Lynching was a way for whites to keep an upper hand in race relations. "The lynch mob of the New South assumed a major role in maintaining blacks as a case of peasants and serfs" (159). There was not much to live for in the South. Economic conditions were bleak because African Americans were not considered people as much as were considered capital. The so-called protectors of society -- the police, sheriffs, and courts -- looked the other way when the lynch mob rode into town. Under such stifling conditions moving North seems like a logical decision, even if such a decision is based upon folklore about the wonders of the North.

Deutsch writes, "The bulk of Fisher's stories, however, demonstrate the change in geography did not necessarily improve one's legal standing or social condition, nor was the change in values always for the better" (168). With this statement Deutsch falls into the same trap as Decker. These critics ignore what the underlying meaning of the American dream is. Decker asserts the American dream did not exist in the twenties, therefore, it should be excused from Gatsby discussions; Deutsch contends that the dream Fisher's characters chase is unattainable because there is no such thing as a better place. Even if Gillis does meet a disappointing fate, at least he was able to move to a place where he could freely walk down the street without fearing for his life. Gillis does value freedom and goes searching for it in Harlem and his motives should not be overshadowed by the end result of his search.

Fisher shows the difficulties the city is wrought with, but he also understands that there is a degree of truth to the romance of the Harlem, primarily because of its difference from the oppressive ways of the South. Gillis' story embodies the spirit of Harlem with his wide-eyed excitement, but it also contains the realities of living in such a crowded, busy, and changing place. Gillis falls for the romance of Harlem, but he does not grow weary of it in time to save himself. Gillis ends up in Harlem because of what he had heard about it:

"Ever since a traveling preacher had first told him of the place, King Solomon Gillis had longed to come to Harlem. The Uggams were always talking about it; one of their boys had gone to France in the draft and, returning, had never got any nearer home than Harlem. And there were occasional 'colored' newspapers from New York: newspapers that mentioned negroes without comment, but always spoke of a white person as 'So-and-so, white'." (4)

The lore of Harlem reaches from the far-flung corners of the United States to the West Indies. These stories and descriptions entice nomadic souls, vagabonds, dreamers, hard workers, and curiosity seekers to the part of Manhattan James Weldon Johnson called, "the greatest Negro city in the world" (Locke, 301). While Harlem is regarded as a fun and lively place, it is also a place that offers a person the option to be just another face in the crowd. This option is precisely what entices Gillis to Harlem because it means he can be safe from persecutors and still part of something special. He does not have to escape to some remote, desolate area and live in hiding; instead, he can blend into the exhilarating atmosphere of Harlem. Fisher tells how the shooting Gillis committed is the catalyst that compels him to go to Harlem. "The shooting, therefore, simply catalyzed whatever sluggish mental reaction had been already directing King Solomon's fortune's toward Harlem" (4). Gillis does not just head to Harlem because the streets are supposedly paved with gold, but because Harlem offers an asylum to someone in his position. It is necessary that Gillis head North to avoid being burned at the stake, "The land of plenty was more than that now; it was also the city of refuge" (4).


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