Jazz & The Threat To American Identity In The Great Gatsby

Diving into the heart of a melancholic American classic.

great gatsby
Paramount Pictures

One of the greatest American classics of the 20th century, The Great Gatsby is novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ingenuous shot at painting 1920s American society. Set between Long Island and New York City, the plot can be succinctly summarized in a sentence: Jay Gatsby tries and fails to reattain his high school sweetheart Daisy, who frames him for murder and runs off with her husband, Tom Buchanan, without a second glance. All of this is observed by the narrator, Nick Carraway.

For all its glimmer and glory, the novel leaves the reader with a melancholic, bitter aftertaste, and we are at once forced to confront the Gatsby within ourselves. Our futile struggles, our accomplishments made of ash and dust. Our endless quest for the unattainable.

Fitzgerald himself coined the period of the 20s “The Jazz Age.” An interesting choice, to use the word jazz. Jazz is, of course, most obviously related to African-American heritage, and to use a term so intricately suggestive of the deterioration of America as White Americans knew it, is to connote the social turbulence at the heart of the 20s itself.

great gatsby
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Whenever Fitzgerald invoked jazz, he was often, simultaneously, invoking Blackness,” writes Gabrielle Bellot on JSTOR Daily. In the author’s third and most popular novel, The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, “jazz appears as a constant background music.” Jazz certainly makes an appearance in the famous scene of Gatsby’s extravagant party, wherein the orchestra conductor announces to play “Mr. Vladimir Tostoff’s Jazz History of the World.” But this imaginary piece by an imaginary composer neglects all of actual Jazz history. Vladimir is about the farthest you can get from a Black name.

In a similar, tongue-in-cheek fashion, the ignorant obsession with Jazz by the White and affluent is reflected on the treatment of Gatsby, who, regardless of the material wealth he has achieved by the beginning of the story, is nevertheless treated as a “common swindler” by those with old, inherited wealth. The beneficiaries of old money — with Tom Buchanan at the top — have their identities heavily rely on the identities of outsiders: namely of lowly, common people who struggle desperately but never can quite reach the former’s place.

“As we crossed Blackwell’s Island 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.”

Jay Gatsby threatens the very unreachability of Tom’s proud upper-class status, through a lavish show of wealth and an affair with Tom’s wife, Daisy. In the same way, the unstoppable popularity of Jazz in the 20s was a threat to the social status of White Americans, the status they’d always thought was unshakable and true. Fitzgerald masks the immediacy of this threat by erasing the African American heritage of the music in his novel, just as White Americans at the time exploited jazz for leisure, while entirely ignoring its cultural and historical gravity.

But while White Americans latched onto their ignorance, the Harlem Renaissance was steadily brewing. Jay Gatsby is, throughout the story, an embodiment of a much larger, American upperclass fear.

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“The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.” – Tom Buchanan

The Great Gatsby is most often cited as a tale of the American Dream — its pursuit, illusion, and disillusion. Gatsby himself is prey to the dream, earning and cheating his way up the capitalist ladder until he can’t possibly go a rung higher. But as he finally reaches the top, the love of his life eludes him, and with that final slip he comes crashing down, vanishing off the face of a spectacular America.

Yet, to Fitzgerald, the real American Dream is not America’s fancy parties and Rolls Royce cars, but its past. Nick, upon observing Gatsby’s great fall, reminisces about the very beginning of the country, when Dutch sailors first laid their eyes upon the “fresh, green breast of the new world”:

“For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

Some unfinished business, some incomplete fairytale from our past holds us back. We can’t face forward because we’re attached to what’s behind: the made-up stories we used to confuse as destiny, the blissful ignorance that we didn’t know was blissful or ignorant. The yearning that plagued White American identity in the Jazz Age also plagues each one of us. None escape the tentacles of the American Dream.

In the last paragraphs of the story, Fitzgerald reveals what Gatsby really embodies — not accomplishment, not failure, but an utter, fruitless pursuit of a long gone innocence. The novel finishes with the first-person collective pronoun:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Lyon Nishizawa

Contributor

Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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