Eugenics, Class, and The Great Gatsby

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”

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,

4 Chloe Burke, “The Public and Private History of Eugenics: An Introduction,” The Public Historian, 29, no. 3 (2007): 8,

5 Ralph Brave, and Sylva Kathryn, “Exhibiting Eugenics: Response and Resistance to a Hidden History,” The Public Historian, 29, no. 3 (2007): 33-51,

6. Image: “Dr. TJ Eckleburg”


18 thoughts on “Eugenics, Class, and The Great Gatsby

  1. I really like your exploration of wealth within the eugenics movement. I wonder how the families of those who were institutionalized or sterilized knew what eugenics was or if they had any recourse to the actions of the state? It would be really interesting to see how socioeconomic status and eugenic beliefs correlate.

  2. I really am interested in question “How can we reconcile the good and the bad in prominent Americans who supported eugenics?” I think that first and foremost, as you point out, we need to be open and honest in regards to famous people in history who were involved with eugenics. How else can we get the conversation going if we are not upfront about the past? Even the less than flattering realities of American history.

    1. Totally agree, Michelle. It’s always a struggle recognizing and reconciling the fact that good men often fight for terrible causes. I find myself wondering, though, whether there is anything museums can do to tell both sides of the story. Should we be involved in making a value judgment about a person, or even encourage visitors to do the same?

      1. Museums can certainly tell both sides of the story, and they should prompt visitors to make value judgments before they make any themselves. It is morally bankrupt to have an honest display of evil, then ask people to not see it for what it is. At the same time, museums can show that good and evil were done by the same people. This can teach the public that judging a person’s value can be hard, and/or that we all need to be aware of the ways that we can ignorantly commit wrongful acts. Both of these are edifying lessons.

    2. I was thinking about this, too, Michelle, especially after reading the Alexander Graham Bell article (I didn’t know about his oralism before reading). National heroes seem to be created with very little attention to their faults. But, if museums bring in these other sides of the narrative about figures such as Bell, I think they could attract a public that loves to hear about the ‘Faults of the Rich and Famous.’

  3. I hadn’t remembered this part of The Great Gatsby, so thank you for discussing it!

    I’d like to think the way we can reconcile the good and bad in prominent Americans who supported eugenics is by telling the whole story, the good AND the bad. I think it’s easier to think about people in “good or evil” terms, with no complexity, but I think that it’s important to not gloss over the fact that people are complex! We have many layers, and it is important to recognize that fact. If we only learn, for instance, about how Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and forget about his involvement with eugenics, we are missing a big piece of the puzzle. I think museums can play a part in righting the wrongs in the interpretation of history by encouraging a more complex, and hopefully more accurate, take on history.

    1. I think this is a great point, Megan. I also think that museums can present these difficult topics without necessarily demonizing the people who made bad choices (not that I am condoning them). But I do think telling stories in their totality is important for understanding the motivations of individuals, and in preventing such mistakes from occurring again.

    2. This may sound silly, but I was just watching a show that brought out the point about Alexander Graham Bell and his eugenics viewpoints (it was rather eerie timing). But I think you are absolutely right, humans are complex. To make an honest historical interpretation, we need to examine those complexities to understand the bigger picture. Besides that is what makes history dynamic anyhow.

    3. I agree with you, Megan, that there is more complexity than just the good and bad. We do not have to demonize people in the past, but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore the less pleasant parts of history. I have always been told to consider these figures within their context. In today’s world, Bell’s stance would make him a despicable character. But in his time with the popularity of the eugenics movement, he stance seems more understandable. That’s not to say that he is right or that I agree with him, I just don’t think judging a whole person off of one aspect is worthwhile. I think it is just as important to learn the reasoning and circumstances that spawned and supported such notions as it is to look at the people who held them.

  4. The Great Gatsby clip here reminded me that a novel such as “Rise of the Colored Empires” actually exists. Has anyone ever read The Camp of the Saints? I read it for a class in undergrad, and honestly I wouldn’t recommend it to most people at CGP for its grotesque commentary on racial development–or regression, as it seems. Basically, French writer Jean Raspail wrote an interpretation of the apocalypse in the 1970s, where Third World peoples grew so numerous that with sheer numbers they overwhelmed the hard power of the Euro-dominated world. Because conditions were so horrible in these Third World countries, the emigrants brought pestilence and almost animalistic sexuality in a threatening, but non-violent mass.

    The imagery is disturbing, but the clincher is Raspail’s “told-you-so” cast of characters–the respected leaders of the Euro-dominated world. Fearing the consequences of keeping out or even murdering the overwhelming waves of less fortunate migrants, half of these leaders had no choice but to welcome them. The other half, along with the respected middle class, blamed the first half for ignoring the doctrine of the early twentieth century: eugenics. It was their fault that the world was overtaken by a lesser race of less intelligent and degenerate people, only because European conquerors had done so little to keep them in check and take “responsible” measures in population control. They make a futile attempt to restore the world to what it was, but hardly leave a mark on the new order of things.

    Frighteningly racist? Absolutely. And less than fifty years old. Raspail was uncovering the anxious remnants of a eugenics perspective in the modern world, waiting to be reborn when fear arises. With that in mind, is there any danger in uncovering the eugenics discussion? I know it’s a dramatic way to look at it, but if some people look up to prominent Americans of the past who wholeheartedly believed in eugenics, is it possible that they could consider it as a valid point of view, or bring back some of its popularity?

    1. I agree with you Emily, but I wonder whether the question applies to newer concerns over the growing ability to determine relations between genes and inherited traits. If it is possible to predict the likelihood of a baby being born with a life-threatening disease, I can see the argument for consulting parents on the risks of having a child (but not preventing them). However, less dangerous traits could also be grouped into this more “modern” sense of controlled genetics. If it was theoretically possible to know for sure that a child would be born deaf, would people try to justify research into ways of eliminating such a gene? As we leaned in the “Chasing Aleck” article, many people who are deaf value this part of their identity. Would preventing certain traits perceived as detrimental be seen as valuable, or an attack on diversity? I do not think that approaching the history of prominent eugenicists will popularize the old eugenics, but it is possible that people could treat this older view as a greatly misguided version of what modern eugenics proponents might argue. It is hard to tell whether this might happen without assessing how much of the general population values the perceived “ability” to prevent things like blindness or deafness in the future.

    2. Get out of my head, Patrick. I had these very same thoughts while reading for this week’s discussion. I could easily see eugenics becoming popular again within our society. If public opinion were to sway towards eugenics, it would very easy for eugenics related legislation to be pushed by politicians (and the people). It’s scary to think how fast we could fall back into eugenics, and how easy it would be for us to do so. Especially since so many of us were surprised to discover eugenics was a popular science belief upheld by Americans. We like to think of ourselves as better than those beliefs, but as we can see we weren’t in the past. I just can’t believe I’m only learning about this in graduate school. What if I had stopped my education in high school? What would my opinion be on eugenics then?

  5. Patrick, you do bring up a very valid question. After reading R.A.R. Edwards’ article about Alexander Graham Bell’s views towards the Deaf community, it made me think of a building on Clemson University’s campus named after “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman. Edwards brings up the question of whether the dorm should still be named after Bell and what that means. A similar discussion of whether the name of Tillman Hall should be changed was a constant debate in Clemson’s history department. Out of curiosity I Googled to see what Tillman thought of eugenics. Lo and behold I found a blog that is dedicated to being “pro-white, pro-Southern, pro-independence.” I was led to a post using Ben Tillman’s speech that outlines a great deal of racist ideology and eugenics is one thing mentioned. Incidentally, one of the tabs on the blog relates to tracking one’s Scots-Irish ancestry, another can of worms to unpack. So yes! People use this stuff all the time to argue for some really unjust, antiquated ideas. However, I feel, or truly hope, that telling the history of a historical figure’s views on eugenics, or any tough topic, would be more alarming for audiences than exhilarating.

  6. I am really interested in knowing how much the general public was in support for eugenics and how much it was associated with class and social standing of the time. It kinds of reminds me of the movie Gattaca (1997) in the sense that the children who were born with the help of genetic manipulation were made them superior and of a higher class standing than those who were naturally conceived.

  7. I think that many of these comments are falling into the trap that the public historians worried that would happen, namely thinking that these issues lay in the past. To this day, the government focuses efforts of birth control on the working class and women of color under the guise of reproductive freedom. Semi-permanent birth control methods like Norplant or Implanon–small capsules injected under the skin and release hormonal birth control and are effective for up to 5 years–are hawked to women through Medicaid. The idea is that they are cheaper in the long run and take little to no personal responsibility. The idea being that birth control methods should be chosen with the least cost to the “tax payer” and that poor women of color are not responsible enough to take birth control pills. At the same time these implants side effects are terrible. Hardly any woman who have them injected keep them for the entire life of the implant/ Now I’m all for reproductive freedom, but women should be able to choose for themselves their own methods. In my view, policies like these are simply another way that the government tries to control the reproductive choices of women who depend on government assistance.

    1. I thought the government was trying to worm its way out of providing birth control by slut shaming the women fighting for their right to contraception? At least, that’s the impression I have been getting lately. I have a few friends with the arm implant version of birth control. They had some side effects, but overall I’ve heard positive feedback from their experiences. If Medicaid is targeting women to take this form of birth control, it is still the choice of the women whether or not they choose to do so. This, I believe, is the big difference between the US now and the US in the past. Choice.

  8. Wow, very good point Jill. Kirsten, I like how you tied in class as a reason why the eugenics movement became prominent. I think a good start in reconciling the good and the bad Americans who were in support of eugenics is by exhibiting stories as Megan has mentioned. In addition, I would like to see an exhibit on the different theories as to why eugenics was prominent- one being what you mentioned, class. Fear was instilled in African Americans to essentially ‘keep them in their place.’ I would not be surprised if eugenics was as you said “the reaction of wealthy individuals to the increasing social mobility of the lower classes” to essentially do the same.

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