Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Literature of Passing

One of my favorite short novels is the book Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen, a Harlem Renaissance writer. Her two short novels, Quicksand and Passing are usually sold together in one volume as Quicksand and Passing. Both books are excellent and worth reading, but Passing is one of those books that my interpretation completely changed after I talked to a friend. The book is about a two black girls (Clare and Irene) who are good friends. One of them, Clare, has extremely light skin hence can pass as a white person. Because of this, they go different ways. Clare marries a white man and lives among his world. Most of the book is about the relationship of the two women when they meet up again as adults. The "passing" in the title meant racially passing to me as I read through the book, but this friend pointed out that Clare was also passing as a gay woman pretending to be straight. This blew my mind. She pointed out passages in the book where there are erotic undertone to how Clare describes Irene and how Irene has a sexless marriage. I've always wanted to reread the book. It is so short, I am not sure why I haven't.

I have been thinking about this lately because I recently read an article in Salon about a professor, Carlyle V. Thompson, at Medger Evers College in Brooklyn that is proposing that Gatsby (from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby) is a light skin black man passing in the white world. This is the first time I have heard this and it is intriguing. This book came out just a few years after Larsen's and it is possible that Fitzgerald did recognize the hypocrisies in our nation's racial politics and coded it therein. The textual evidence is light, with Gatsby hair being "close-cropped" and he owned 40 acres and a mansion (as opposed to 40 acres and a mule).  The best case for this is that Gatsby's past is unknown and mysterious. No one knows anything about him. He changed his name from Gatz to Gatsby and claims that his family is all dead. The only overt reference to race in the book is when Tom Buchanan (Gatsby's rival for Daisy), a Nordic with a body with "enormous power" and "two shining arrogant eyes," starts talking about the black race taking over the world. Tom says "next they'll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white." This is pre-Hitler set in an era when eugenics was discussed casually.  Miscegenation was still controversial. The only person that seems uncomfortable with Tom is our narrator, Nick Carraway.

If anyone is passing in The Great Gatsby, it is Nick. His family's discomfort for his isn't only because he is single. It is possible that he is a gay man passing in a straight world. He tells us of his experience with the "feminine" male photographer Mr. McKee that "I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands." Indeed. We are then given an ellipsis ridden paragraph and four hours missing from the plot line. This is about as homo-erotic as we get in any novel of the sexually repressed Jazz Age.

I am not sure how relevant it is whether Gatsby is black or Nick is gay. It just throws more depth in an already masterful tiny book that I can be reread many times without catching everything. Should I give it a fourth read? I'm sure I will get around to it, eventually. Fitzgerald lived in Paris for a short time hitting the jazz clubs with Zelda and Hemingway. His exposure to other ways of life was undoubted rich. I have no doubt it had an effect on him.

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