1. Few books have suffered Americanism's presumptions more unremittingly than has The Great Gatsby. This has again become apparent in the recent outpouring of work that draws attention to dynamics of racialization in the novel--to how Fitzgerald's book engages discourses that render racial and ethnic difference recognizable, including how certain characters are made to bear distinguishing racial or ethnic markers. By highlighting the novel's interest in race and its role in the development of discourses that continue to administer the recognition of race and ethnicity in America, this new criticism--most appearing in the last 10 years or so--purports to rescue The Great Gatsby from the sentimental attractions of a universalized, imperial American identity. Like the scholarship it claims to challenge, however, this new criticism reveals the enduring hold of the Americanist romance and its confidence that the novel offers a straightforward description of something called "America" or "American" identity. In its attention to representations of racial difference in the novel, much of this new work--as represented by such critics as Michaels, Goldsmith, Thompson, Washington, and Nies--is enabled by an assumption that practices and signs already bear racial meaning. This scholarship thus often ends up reifying a variety of presumably characteristic raced American identities in place of a presumably characteristic unraced (if surreptitiously white) one, reinforcing the very formations whose genealogy it purportedly seeks to unearth. Thus this essentially statist inquiry into American literature and culture presumes, as it is administered by, the self-evidence of "American" history and identity. Foucault, we should remember, indicted just such rightist thinking in Discipline and Punish, where he warned against "writing a history of the past in terms of the present" (31). In this essay I show how The Great Gatsby resists precisely the recognizant expectation upon which historicism, especially in the guise of an analysis of the novel's interest in racialization, is based, and how in doing this it points toward the possibility of a more open and critical form of reading.

2. By repeating the primal error of assuming coherence between text and nationalized--and racialized--symbolic order, of seeking the national in the individual, recent criticism overlooks the irreducible complexity of the novel's attention to identity and betrays a desire to buttress the ideological coherence of "America" as that entity is currently understood. One reason for the enduring critical fascination with the novel's rendering of American selves, to be sure, is that The Great Gatsby is intimately engaged with tropes of identity. But the narrative structure of this engagement, ever suspicious of the sentimental enticements of recognition, precludes taking "American" identity--even racialized or ethnicized American identity--for granted. Despite more than two-thirds of a century of criticism portraying The Great Gatsby as the avatar of the American novel, (1) the manner in which the novel is thought to represent America continues to be taken for granted, relying on the same assumptions about identity that drive the "romantic speculation" about origins to which Gatsby himself endlessly gives rise (48): unswerving attention to the significance of Gatsby --both in the text and in its criticism, either as an unmarked typical American or as an index to the hold of discourses that encode race and ethnicity--precludes focus on the presumption that he means anything at all.

3. If the desire to read American history into The Great Gatsby ends up locating in the novel particular racial or ethnic representations of American identity, in doing this it also illuminates the book's cynical relationship to the representational enticements of a nationally encoded identity: the irreducible complexity of the novel's attention to identity--its narrativization of a longing for precisely the kind of stable identity that Americanist criticism has so consistently found in it--in fact challenges the instrumentalist critical tendency to anchor interpretation of the novel in the recognizability of "America." Notably, the novel is deeply troubled about the positivism underlying what Nick calls Gatsby's "appalling sentimentality" (118), remaining ambivalent about both what Gatsby has done with the sentimental category of "America" and how Nick responds to it, and illustrating a longing for the imaginative and ideological matrix out of which this sentimentality arises. This book enacts a deeply problematical drama of identification whereby the representational capacity of identity--ultimately American identity--is an object alternatively of desire and skepticism. Interpreted through Nick's insecure scepticism rather than through Gatsby's deluded optimism--and therefore through doubt about identity's ability to signify rather than through faith in its representational promise--the novel ultimately lacks faith in the symbolic orders on which stable conceptions of identity rely. When read for its narrative production of this cynicism rather than for its construction of raced American identities that we already know how to recognize, The Great Gatsby offers a means to liberate criticism of American literature from the straitjacket of an increasingly racialized Americanism.


The Great Gatsby and American identity
4. In order to show what is at stake--and especially what is lost--in reading the novel in terms of identities that can already be recognized, I start with an examination of how Gatsby has recently been read for race. This new scholarship falls into the historicist habit of relying on recognition as the final warrant of legitimacy. Looking for the national present in the literary past, it takes as self-evident the very racial and ethnic differences--along with the behaviors that, according to racialist logic, constitute those differences--that it presumably wants to challenge. Thus this criticism, which seeks to uncover racial particularities elided in an existential fantasy of universalized American identity, remains constrained by a positivist national fantasy that particular identities can reliably be recognized.

5. With Our America, Walter Benn Michaels is probably the most visible recent critic to pay close attention to The Great Gatsby's engagement with race and ethnicity. In arguing generally for a "structural intimacy between nativism and modernism" (2)--for a link between modernism's "fantasy about the sign" as material and self-sufficient and nativism's fantasy about identity as inherited, racial, and determinative of beliefs and practices--and more polemically that "the great American modernist texts of the '20s must be understood as deeply committed to the nativist project of racializing the American" (13), Michaels rereads The Great Gatsby as an anxious meditation on racial identity. Michaels is most interested in characters--in particular, Gatsby and how other characters think about him. At root, Michaels suggests that Gatsby functions in the book as a figure of the threat of racial admixture. As the text's most transparent register of xenophobic concern, Tom is most overtly sensitive to this threat: "For Tom ... Gatsby (ne Gatz, with his Wolfsheim 'gonnegtion') isn't quite white" (25). Thus Michaels cites the confrontation at the Plaza, where Tom begins by mocking Gatsby's lack of origins--"Mr. Nobody from Nowhere" (Gatsby 137)--and "ends by predicting 'intermarriage between black and white'" (Michaels 25), as evidence of how the text evinces anxiety about the danger of inherited racial difference. Indeed, Tom isn't the text's only racist in Michaels's account: Nick also seems to think Gatsby wants to defile Daisy's--and nativist white America's--racial purity. Nick understands Gatsby's love for Daisy as "the following of a grail. [Gatsby] knew that Daisy was extraordinary, but he didn't realize just how extraordinary a 'nice' girl could be" (25). Michaels argues:

‘"Nice" here doesn't exactly mean "white," but it doesn't exactly not
mean "white" either. It is a term ... that will serve as a kind of
switching point where the Progressive novel's discourse of class
will be turned into the postwar novel's discourse of race.’