Reading about eugenics this week reminded me of this scene from The Great Gatsby. 1
I have included a shortened version of this scene from the book, published in 1925, below:
“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard?”
“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.
“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. 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’s getting very profound,” said Daisy, with an expression of unthoughtful sadness…
“You ought to live in California —” began Miss Baker, but Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair. 2
In this scene in the 2013 movie it is evident that Tom Buchanan, an upper class man from old money, equates race and ability with class. He flippantly gestures towards a black waiter as he says the line, “other races,” while his dinner guests roll their eyes. His guests, the audience to his speech, act as a stand-in for the movie viewers, mirroring our discomfort and disgust for his bigoted views. However, in the book the dinner guests react more to Tom’s delivery and aggression than the content of his diatribe. Beyond this dinner scene, Fitzgerald depicts African Americans and Jewish people in stereotypical terms throughout the book, revealing his prejudices. 3 In this dinner party discussion of eugenics, the movie modifies the tone and attitude in the book to reflect the sentiments of a modern audience.
As I read the articles on eugenics for this week’s class, I couldn’t help but wonder how widespread this movement was. The articles focused mainly on wealthy, prominent supporters: people, like Alexander Graham Bell, whose involvement in eugenics would surprise modern audiences. Beyond the publicity campaigns aimed at the masses and events such as the “fitter-family” and “better baby” contests, I did not see much evidence of lay people’s involvement in or support of eugenics. 4 This led me to wonder how much class played a role in this movement; how much eugenics was the reaction of wealthy individuals to the increasing social mobility of the lower classes.
Today, eugenics is not a part of the mainstream narrative of American history. Like other unsavory aspects of our national past, it has been hidden, in part due to the wealth and power of its initial supporters: “The director of one foundation, named for a prominent, progressive California eugenicist, told us that the eugenics leader’s nephew served on the foundation board and was embarrassed to have anything to do with this history.” 5 It is amazing to me that there is such resistance to confront eugenics in the museum field. This resistance to address eugenics is also evident in its treatment in popular culture. In the 2013 movie, The Great Gatsby, these issues of class and race are portrayed in a way that reflects current thinking, glossing over the implications of the eugenicist views at the time of the book’s publication.
The individuals who were institutionalized or sterilized against their will deserve to have this history acknowledged, and the public needs to confront the history of eugenics in our country and come to terms with what it means for society today. The power imbalance that influenced the popularity of eugenics in its heyday in many ways is present today. How can we reconcile the good and the bad in prominent Americans who supported eugenics? How can we address the prejudices at work in pieces like The Great Gatsby and their treatment in popular culture?
1 Video: “The Great Gatsby – Civilization’s going to pieces” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTSaBGzrBBU
2 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, (New York: Scribner, 2004), 18.
3 Alan Margolies, “The Maturing of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Twentieth Century Literature, 43, no. 1 (1997): 75-93, http://www.jstor.org/stable/441864.
4 Chloe Burke, “The Public and Private History of Eugenics: An Introduction,” The Public Historian, 29, no. 3 (2007): 8, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/tph.2007.29.3.5.
5 Ralph Brave, and Sylva Kathryn, “Exhibiting Eugenics: Response and Resistance to a Hidden History,” The Public Historian, 29, no. 3 (2007): 33-51, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/tph.2007.29.3.33.
6. Image: “Dr. TJ Eckleburg” http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/dr_tj_eckleburg_by_hasunkhan-d5hwgkj1.jpg