Christianity and the “Great Gatsby” Summer Theme Party
I’m planning a Great Gatsby theme party this summer. I’ve long wanted to plan such a party as I live an idyllic New England community (albeit not on the Long Island Sound) where playing lawn games, drinking old fashioned drinks and dressing in 1920’s attire seem quaint rather than out of place. My desire for such a party and the coincidence of the newly released movie are the makings of an epic summer event. Granted, my plans for the party use Gatsby more as an excuse than a re-creation, yet I’m oddly drawn to the book.
[NO SPOILERS here. I’m haven’t even seen the movie yet and don’t know if I will. Commentary on issues of race and religion related to the movie can be found here on the Racialicious blog. ]
The Great Gatsby has intrigued me since I was first required to read it in high school. I’m confident I missed most of what I was supposed to gather from the cynical critique of “America” leveled by Fitzgerald as it relates to race and economics. I was distracted by the love story and the lack of sympathy for Gatsby as he sought after an unattainable “American dream.” I also read the book in an all-women’s school where we discussed gender roles and how characters broke or were molded by them. I could write a whole blog about Jordan Baker who is one of the most interesting characters in my opinion. Here, I am less interested in how gender functions in Gatsby, though much could be said about this. For those not familiar with the charaters or basic plot line, the new version of high school cliffnotes can be found on wikipedia.
As I re-read the text in anticipation of the summer party (after all, I’m an academic, I can’t very well throw a theme party without doing a little research), I was struck by how Fitzgerald highlights the tenuousness of white racialization in the United States in the 1920’s. And yet, there is an utter lack of analysis of religion.
Yes, there is one almost absurd (and I mean that in the literary sense of the word, as well as anit-semetic rendering of the time period) attention to religion. Meyer Wolfsheim is “othered” as Jewish in the text by his religious affiliation, but also by his physical appearance and illegal profession. His character is certainly emblematic of what Fitzgerald is doing with issues of race and whiteness throughout the text as it relates to notions of America and the American dream, as noted by the comments Tom Buchanan speaks in the early sections of the book about white racial superiority. On the other hand, Fitzgerald must have been aware of the Social Gospel movement and intra- and inter- Protestant notions of a superior race and American exceptionalism. The Social Gospel movement raised the consciousness of Protestant religious communities about oppression related to economic industrial expansion and race to a lesser degree, embodied by a theological shift to social salvation from a myopic focus on individual salvation. However, that move was premised on a very limited view of what type of society was worth saving, one shaped by a manifest destiny agenda and marked by uninterogated whiteness, heterosexism, and vocational classism (notions that still linger today).
Yet, there is no discussion of Christianity, not even a reference, other than the point that everyone else was not Jewish like Wolfsheim. Perhaps at the time of writing the role of Protestant Christianity in white racialization and economic development was too embedded to spur analysis. I presume, and maybe incorrectly that Tom Buchanan and Nick Carraway are Protestant, probably of a reform Congregational type given their affiliation with Yale. Daisy is more difficult to place as she and Jordan Baker come from Louisville. The silence makes it appear more clear to me that unless religion is named, it is a normative default of Protestantism.
I mention all of this, not to provide a history lesson so much as to point out how novels like this can help us recognize both the benefits and limitations of historical notions of race, especially whiteness in the U.S. context. I am a Roman Catholic, Midwestern, one and two generations removed from immigrant grand and great grandparents. I have come to understand in limited ways how my whiteness changes depending on how I am affiliated. Though they have never named it, my grandparents and parents must have (had) similar experiences as they moved through class structures and educational levels. I remember stories as a child, about how Catholics weren’t considered Christian and have had students in my classes say “Christians and Catholics” as though one is exclusive of the other. Of course in all-Catholic circles as a child, I learned stereotypes of other Christians. As a white child, I was also taught stereotypes about black and brown people. Most of this had religious overtones about personal responsibility and the role of charity in salvation — something I can now identify but didn’t know then.
As I walk my own journey of race consciousness and seek to be anti-racist, I find myself wondering why we don’t hear about Gatsby’s religious affiliation. Was he Catholic? Or maybe Lutheran given his birthplace of North Dakota? Surely, religious otherness would have been just one more layer that kept him from a “true” whiteness and thus “American” dream in the 1920’s that comes with education, money, skin color, AND religious affiliation. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is a powerful reminder that the “American dream” was (and still is to some degree) less of an idealistic equal opportunity and more a gendered, sexualized, education-related, racialized, and religiously affiliated birthright.
None of this leads me to cancel my summer Gatsby themed party. The party is not of course a celebration of Gatsby or Tom/Daisy Buchanan, or even the skeptical and at times unreliable narrator Nick. It is rather a speaking back not only in the guest list (which is racially, sexual orientation, gender, religiously and class diverse), but in the very act of talking about the book for today’s context. What do we do with an “America” that is still deeply class divided, unable to talk about religion’s influence and legacy, and sadly unaware of how whiteness shapes all of us? Of course, these conversations will happen during croquet matches and over mint juleps!