Essay on Harlem Renaissance Connection to 'The Great Gatsby': Critical Essay

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The Great Gatsby is a commentary on life in the 1920s as it pertains to prohibition and the racial injustice facing African Americans. It provides several instances of the underground use of alcohol and the general feeling of superiority among white people. F. Scott Fitzgerald uses Tom Buchanan to portray the way that many white people believed that African Americans were not equal to them. On many occasions, people drink and serve alcohol openly, showing how prohibition had little to no effect on drinking. Fitzgerald exposes the evils of everyday life in the 1920s through the characters and the way that they think and act.

The prohibition of alcohol was a battle of religion, industrialization, and the advancement of women’s influence and rights in legislation. Women were determined to prevent the harmful effects of alcoholism that led to the abuse and neglect of them and their children. (Dubois 1) The Prohibition Amendment was directly coordinated with the suffrage and advancement of women's rights. Bootlegging, the illegal importation of alcohol, which was headed by the notorious Al Capone, was running rampant, increasing danger and forcing crime rates to skyrocket. People made hard liquor and beer at home in buckets and bathtubs, creating what was known as “bathtub gin”. Alcohol continued to be served in back-room clubs known as “speakeasies”. (Pearson 1) People would simply put the liquor in coffee cups and serve it to people while others remained under the assumption that it was simply coffee. The enforcement of liquor laws was futile, with police getting killed, and people simply making their own liquor, which typically required a search warrant in order for the police to seize it. The repeal of prohibition laws with the 21st Amendment led to a fall in organized crime and police deaths, along with the development of educational programs on alcoholism, encouraging temperance, not just abstinence. (Pearson 1)

The Great Gatsby provides several examples of life during prohibition. Jay Gatsby is often accused of gaining his wealth as a result of illegal liquor trafficking. Gatsby’s shady friends are implied to have run organizations that used bootlegging as a means of profit. “He’s a bootlegger”, people gossip as they take advantage of his generous and lavish parties, drinking the alcohol that he provides them. These people display a sense of resentment and distaste for Gatsby, however, they do not care about his alleged misconduct enough that they will not partake in the product of his supposed bootlegging. These people have no qualms when drinking to the point of drunkenness, partying, and celebrating in their house, to his music, and eating his food. The notoriety that Gatsby has gained, simply by being wealthy, is nearly entirely unfounded, but it is the lore that follows him for his entire adult life.

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African Americans were one of the many ethnic groups who migrated to the North in search of the lucrative and secure factory jobs that were created as a result of World War 1. Because of this mass migration, New York City became a place of cultural mixing, displaying the arts and music of the different people groups who lived there. (Hall 3) However, this migration was not accepted by everybody. The hatred for Harlem, the largest African American community in the United States, was due to the surrounding white communities, which suffered due to the economic failure of the neighborhood. These white communities, in turn, made legislation that heavily favored white neighborhoods and kept African American neighborhoods in a state of poverty, perpetuating and fueling the tensions between both races. The prejudice gave birth to a new movement of art, literature, and music known as the Harlem Renaissance. (Hall 3) W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon were poets who wrote some of the most well-known poetry of the era. “The Weary Blues”, a compilation of poetry by Langston Hughes, was written to describe the plight of the African American community. (Stevenson 2) Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller were musicians whose blues music had a giant contribution to the formation and acceptance of the belief that African Americans were every bit as capable as white people. (Stevenson 2) Jazz, a genre of music that is solely American, was born as a result of the Harlem Renaissance. The Great Depression marked the end of the Harlem Renaissance, leaving no immediate effects, such as legislation, to protect African Americans. However, the writings of Dubois were said to have influenced the civil rights movement, with Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin both naming him as an inspiration. (Stevenson 3)

Within The Great Gatsby, there are references to the fear of black people becoming a more dominant race. “Civilization’s going to pieces”, Tom Buchanan says, believing that the white race is going to be drowned out by the crossing of black genes into the white bloodline. Tom says that it is up to the white race to watch over all of the other races, implying that the white race is some sort of dominant parental figure, watching over and guiding all other subordinate races. Tom speaks of how the white race has made scientific and artistic contributions to society, believing that white people are smarter, more creative, and of a higher value than black people. This prejudice is not debated, but accepted, with the other people at the party not objecting, but essentially nodding along as Tom expresses his outrageous radical beliefs. This displays how discrimination was accepted as normal, with nobody standing up to object to his rants. People generally believed that black people were less than white people, as this was how they had always viewed things.

The Great Gatsby provides many excellent examples of the illegal liquor trade during the prohibition era, along with instances of racial prejudice, fueled by the Harlem Renaissance. With all of this in mind, it is easy to see how Fitzgerald has created a perfect literary embodiment of the 1920s. Fitzgerald’s commentary carries with it many different examples of life during an era of frivolity and economic boom, coupled with a deep-rooted hatred of one’s neighbors and the illicit production of a commonly abused substance. His use of his characters to present attitudes and actions that were commonplace during the era is a perfect illustration of the way that time has changed, and society along with it.

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Essay on Harlem Renaissance Connection to ‘The Great Gatsby’: Critical Essay. (2023, November 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from
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