passing narratives

Even if it’s an idea that I’m not completely behind, approaching The Great Gatsby as a passing narrative is useful for investigating race in America. To effectively ‘cast’ Gatsby as a Black man, I first think of Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in the Coen Brother’s film version of True Grit. I remember watching the first scenes of that movie and looking hard at Mattie as she settled father’s affairs. ‘That girl is Black people.” The character’s possible Blackness, intended or (likely) not by the filmmakers, made the movie more interesting to me and added complexity – and plausibility – to the narrative. Because, of course (even) a (one-drop) Black girl could travel alone with her Black male servant/chaperon to wrap up her slain father’s business. And of course she’d be independent and competent beyond her years. Of course she’d ally herself with those on the fringes of society. And in the end, of course she’d ultimately wear her (sexless) mutilation with pragmatic dignity. It’s a lot less fantastic – but not less compelling – if Mattie’s context includes a Black family history.

My ideal passing Gatsby, then, would be Wentworth Miller. In the first two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the only high school boys who seek support from Buffy and the gang are Larry Blaisdell who confides that he’s gay to Xander and Miller’s Gage Petronzi who asks Buffy to walk him home after he’s attacked by Angelus. Before the Scoobies’ interventions, both Larry and, if he’s read as Black, Gage hide their ‘otherness’ behind the jock bully’s macho façade, only Gage is a swimmer – not a football player like Larry. And a Black Gage’s eventual death by swim team is absurdly tragic.

Similarly, Miller-as-Gatsby would add nuance to both Daisy and Nick’s relationships with Gatsby. Daisy’s from the South – not the Midwest like Nick and Tom – so it is plausible that either she recognizes Gatsby’s Blackness and is attracted to it and knows it must remain entirely hidden, or that Gatsby takes extra pains to conceal his Blackness and believes that Daisy’s acceptance of him is evidence that it can be completely wiped out. If Nick has sussed out or was outright told that Gatsby is Black, then Nick’s Gatsby fascination is a lovely metaphor for white Jazz Age enthrallment with Black culture – no matter how fraught a passing Black Gatsby’s own relationship with his heritage might be. It also makes lines like Tom Buchanan’s ‘‘An Oxford man!’ He was incredulous. ‘Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.’’ smart; had white Gatsby had kids, they’d be Kennedys who’d get all those ‘markers’ of class correct, but not so for a passing Black Gatsby (nor our self-declared Black president, alas…)

In the end, however, I like the way it all plays out according to the prevailing wisdom; the hammer that drops slyly, remorselessly on a white Gatsby and leaves him floating dead in his pool (!) waits for anyone of any race who messes with Western patriarchy.