Eugenically Speaking — How F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Love or Eugenics?’ prepared the way for Gatsby

The Great Gatsby wasn’t the first time that F. Scott Fitzgerald had confronted the rising tide of bigotry that had been surging around Eugenics. As an 18 year-old student at Princeton University, Scott had written what even his contemporaries — and more extraordinarily still, his fellow students — had regarded as a vicious but highly entertaining challenge to the idiocies of the pseudo-science. The year was 1914. It was a brave move indeed. Dr Edwin Grant Conklin was not only the university’s much respected Professor of Embryology, he was also one of America’s most outspoken and uncompromising Eugenicists.  Just four years before, one of its leading science graduates, Harry H. Laughlin, would take up a full time role as Superintendent at Charles B. Davenport’s Eugenics Record Office on Long Island. Laughlin and his wife Pansy had written their own comedy-drama on the subject. Acquired or Inherited, a four-act introduction to the basic principles of race betterment was staged before new students at its base at Cold Spring Harbour during the 1912-1913 period. It seems that everybody everywhere was thinking up colourful and witty ways to either applaud or the condemn the science — even typically straightlaced scientists like Laughlin. [1]

As was customary with shows put on at Princeton, the series of compositions that Scott would sit down to write in March 1914 were for a completely new and original musical production. Princeton’s ‘Glee Club’ — The Triangle Club — would stage a self-penned production every year. Musical comedies were always the go-to choice for most students, Princeton’s exuberant male actors desperate to dress-up in drag, and its writers seizing the opportunity to produce witty, rumbustious commentaries on topics relevant to that time. In the best tradition of satire, whether it is Rabelais, Erasmus, Voltaire, and or even Swift, the annual Princeton review was a chance to be political without seeming political, a chance to kick back against the orthodoxies and absurdities of the system without actually damaging the system. It was a time for carnival. A time for fun. The production that year was Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi!, a two act musical comedy lampooning the subject of marriage, courtship and eugenics. ‘Dysgenic marital choices’ — the kind of choices in love that would lead to a degenerative, backward race — were commanding a lot of attention in 1914, especially in the columns of women’s journals. The mad mathematics of Gilded Age greed and ambition had been equitably passed down to the sciences of the Progressive Era. Even in love they were looking for gold. As the last floundering motions of tradition thrashed about in the icy cold waters of the North Atlantic with the R.M.S Titanic, America’s Old Money families tried to salvage what they could of their dreams and their genes from the wreck. Like the R.M.S Carpathia, men like Conklin, Laughlin and Davenport raced to the rescue of its few survivors.

The play, Fie! Fie Fi!-Fi!, was about as topical as it got for the bright young teens of Princeton. Based on the ‘latest Scientific findings’, the eligible young men and women of 1914 were being encouraged to choose mates that would ‘optimise’ their race. The cult of ‘selective breeding’, popular among racehorse owners, was now being extended to humans. In the earliest days of the science, New Jersey, where Princeton is based, had been among a handful of states in America to impose a law prohibiting marriage on the principles of Eugenics. In 1904 ministers were being advised that no license would be granted where either party was an habitual drunkard, an epileptic, a drug addict or an imbecile. Nine years later in 1913, a second wave of ‘Eugenic Marriage Laws’ would sweep across America. The revised laws, which would be enforced by a staggering 29 states that year, permitted marriages to take place only after rigorous medical examinations had been performed. Doctors would look for evidence of venereal disease, epilepsy, feeble-mindedness, alcoholism, drug abuse or any signs that either of the parties was born of an ‘inferior’ mixed-race. Penalties for ‘miscegenation’ included fines of up to $2,000 and up to ten years in prison. Eugenicists had promoted the new laws as an attempt to curb the appalling hereditary consequences of venereal disease and defective births. Americans were being told that ‘Better living’ and ‘better babies’ meant a better and healthier nation. Spreading its invidious, crank gospel in 1914 was William Grant Hague: “To cultivate the human race on prescribed scientific principles will be the supreme science of all the future,” he roared. The surly old real estate investor held the opinion that it was only when human effort was being channelled in pursuit of the fundamental laws and principles of the prize-winning thoroughbred that “progress and efficiency” would be ensured. [2]

The more cynical American saw the new marriage laws (probably correctly) as an attempt to stem the tide of sexual promiscuity and shape the mores of the time. Scott’s theatrical composition, Love or Eugenics absolutely nailed it. The youngster had captured the spirit of discussion in the wittiest and most playful of ways. In Mocking Eugenics, Professor Ewa Luczak explains how the songs written by Fitzgerald for the musical cheekily address the conflict between the bizarre rational choices that men and women were forced to make in the advancement of eugenics at the expense of romantic love and impulsive sexual attraction. The point that Luczak makes, and it’s a good one, is that in resisting social constraints and expectations, the ‘Un-Eugenic’ union celebrated not only the reckless anarchy that was pure, sentimental love, it also promoted “individualism” — the triumph of the human spirit over the uncompromising world of convention. [3] Love was a kind of poetry you wrote upon the world. As religion and tradition moved toward their inevitable collapse, Scott, like his hero Percy Bysshe Shelley before him, thought that love and poetry offered the only credible remaining basis for a civilising moral life. It was only these that provided the spark of human creation — the opportunity to rise above the drab material world to a supernal reality — the world of liberty, the world of the spirit, the only thing that could wake us from our cosmic sleep. Not for the first time in his life would one of Scott’s compositions be used to not only defend the rights of spiritual and intellectual growth, but also the founding principles of the American Constitution: that liberty meant “freedom from arbitrary and unreasonable restraint”. Scott and his friends had found themselves making bold if ambiguous attempts at preserving not only the dream of romance but the romance of the American Dream.

Scott’s naturally acerbic take on things had probably been strengthened by two things that year: his failure to pass his first year exams and his continuing failure to set the campus alight as a star of track and field. He was applying the simplest of logic: if he couldn’t be a top ranking academic then at least he could be a great football or great baseball player. But although he wasn’t bad, he really wasn’t that great either. Scott was the glass that was neither half-full nor half empty. He was the classic Mr Average, occupying a unremarkable par position in the Unextraordinary League of Gentlemen.

Whilst his first semester at Princeton had started promisingly enough, the heavy slog of the post-Christmas period had brought his social and academic limitations into sharp focus. The freshman was a little confused: on the one hand he possessed the much sought-after ‘Nordic’ look. He had the light, golden hair, the piercing pale blue eyes and the facial features of a racially ‘pure’ Adonis, but being a little short for an athlete, he lacked the tall, muscular stature that was needed to be a truly outstanding star. He was almost great but not quite. And if this wasn’t bad enough he was a passionate Irish Catholic in an oppressively Protestant world. [4] The appointment of Roman Catholic, Patrick Joseph Tumulty as President Taft’s Chief of Staff in 1911 had ushered in a period of intense anti-Catholicism. Until then, Catholics had generally been barred from occupying senior government posts and whispers were going round that Rome had designs on pulling Taft’s strings at the White House. Prominent American ‘patriots’ responded to the appointment of Tumulty by founding The Menace, a virulently anti-Catholic journal that sought to expose an alleged Papal conspiracy to take religious control of America. In 1913 the hydra of anti-Catholicism was finally unleashed in earnest with the formation of the National Order of the Knights of Luther, co-founded in Scott’s hometown of Saint Paul by businessman, John D. Roberts with his patriotic associates, C.W. Bibb and D.J. Reynolds. [5] If Scott’s future success and happiness were to come down solely to ‘Eugenics’ — meaning literally ‘good genes’ — then the seventeen year old student wasn’t even close to being at the front of the queue. In the Princeton encyclopaedia book of life Scott was neither one thing nor the other. He wasn’t rich and he wasn’t poor. He wasn’t a genius and he wasn’t stupid. For the duration of his time at Princeton, Francis Scott Fitzgerald remained a semi-transparent figure haunting the lonely boundaries between mediocrity and greatness.

A born devil on whose nature nurture can never stick

At seventeen years old, and just five foot seven, Scott had discovered that the benefits of life at the budget end of the superior Nordic scale were a decidedly mixed affair. The entries in his ledger for February 1914 reveal that he was having trouble fitting in. Not for the first time in his life, Scott was feeling alienated. The sense of dislocation he’d felt at prep school had followed him to Princeton. As personalities began to appear, so did the cracks. The freshmen were quickly dividing into the five main lifestyle categories: the Elites, the Athletes, the Academics, the Deviants, and the Others. Scott found himself balancing awkwardly around each of the group labels. The death of his grandmother Louisa McGuillan in 1913 was the only reason that Scott had been accepted by Princeton in the first place. Without that windfall inheritance the family would never have been able to afford the college’s exorbitant tuition fees. He should never have been there and he knew that. The other problem was his faith. Until very recently the university had imposed strict quota on Catholic students. Despite relaxing admittance to other faiths, Princeton retained a strong Presbyterian bias, serving as a crucible for the privileged and often very Protestant liberal elites. Having failed his entrance exams twice, Scott was here on a wing and a prayer. First there was a series of squabbles between its houses and its clubs, and then there were the squabbles within its houses and clubs. The tensions coincided with the departure of some friends and a succession of failures in his first year exams. [6] In later years, Scott would share his frustrations and self-loathing with his friend, John O’Hara, “I am half black-Irish and half old American stock with the usual exaggerated ancestral pretensions. The black Irish half of the family had the money and looked down upon the Maryland side of the family who had, and really had, that certain series of reticences and obligations that go under the poor old shattered word “breeding”. Being born in that atmosphere of crack, wisecrack, and counter-crack I developed a two-cylinder inferiority complex.” [7]

Perhaps responding to an SOS from Scott, his old mentor at the Newman School for Boys, Father Sigourney Fay dropped by for a visit, probably reiterating his belief that boys cannot exist on ‘personality’ alone. As a competitive young man of sixteen Scott had been desperate to develop a larger than life personality. He wanted to dazzle and shine. Even at prep school, Father Fay had tried to convince him that personality wasn’t the only route to being happy or successful. Personality, the priest moralized, was a ‘physical matter’ entirely, something that would vanish over time. A “personage”, on the otherhand, would provide the basis on which “glittering things” could happen. If Scott could channel his energies and ego, he had more than enough potential to overcome his modest start in life and do something brilliant and worthwhile. [8] Fay’s timely arrival at Princeton was likely to have provided the kind of reassurance that Scott needed, because a few weeks later, he started “working hard” on the club’s production, Love or Eugenics. [9]

Scott’s Ledger, 1914. Squabbles in house, Fay drops by and working hard on play

Contemporary biographers have made much of the fact that by the time that Scott was sitting down to Love or Eugenics for the club, Princeton’s Professor Conklin had devised a series of lectures on ‘Eugenics and Heredity’. An article in the Daily Princetonian dated February 25, 1914 reports that a ‘vitally interesting’ subject was to discussed that day in the University’s Palmer Lab. His address that afternoon would go some way toward explaining how the laws of heredity that determined the lives of animals and plants could be extended to men. The address he was to give would be gruellingly academic, and certainly not a talk for beginners. During the course of his lecture, Conklin would be dealing with the hardcore mechanics of biology, using terminology that was likely to have been largely inaccessible to the average and not particularly successful student of literature. Previously, the opinion of science was that environment and conditioning had been more important factors than heredity in the development of genius and men. It had been held that “all men were created equal and became unequal through unequal opportunity”. Education, it was believed, could make up for the deficiencies of birth and heredity could be positively improved upon by “environment and training”. Conklin was here to make a ‘sensational’ announcement: none of this was now thought to be true. Heredity, he declared, was the only factor that mattered, and he had the science to back it up. [10]

In actual fact, Conklin’s ‘sensational’ announcement was nothing of the sort. The idea had already expressed by his mentor, Sir Francis Galton. As Joel Michell points out in his 2021 article, The Art of Imposing Measurement Upon the Mind, the idea had already been embedded in Galton’s 1869 publication, Hereditary Genius in which Galton, drawing on a ‘convenient jingle of words’ made famous by Shakespeare, went to enormous lengths to demonstrate that natural ability, and genius in particular, was down to nature and not nurture. Michell makes the tantalising suggestion that Shakespeare’s description of Caliban as “a devil, a born devil on whose nature nurture can never stick” in his final play, The Tempest may well have provided the entire basis for Galton’s idea of Eugenics. It was a story that was likely to have suited the bombastic Ohioan right down to the ground, playing as it did to the then fashionable notion of American superiority. The original Prospero, self-declared Lord of the island, was to all intents and purposes one of the very first Americans. Caliban had been a lowly native. Shakespeare had derived his inspiration for the play from popular tales of the true-life adventures of Sir Thomas Gates, the new governor of the Jamestown colony in Virginia, whose ship had been caught in a tempest off the coast of Bermuda in 1609. When Gates and his crew eventually landed in Jamestown a year later, his unflattering descriptions of the indigenous tribes of Jamestown would give Shakespeare his memorable account of Caliban. The ‘Indians’, Gates maintained, were of such a savage and ferocious temperament that no amount of “fair and noble treatment” had any positive effect. [11] Eugenics, it seemed, had come home.

“His heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night. A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain … For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.”

The Great Gatbsy

There is, of course, little evidence to suggest that Scott ever attended Conklin’s lecture, even less that he had been seduced by the extreme notions of race betterment that the professor was putting forward. It would have been everything that a 17 year-old Catholic outsider didn’t want to hear: your future wasn’t written in the stars but in your genes — some men were born great and others … well, not so great. The “fantastic conceits” that would haunt the mind of Gatsby were exactly like that were haunting Scott at Princeton and giving shape to his hazy self-image. Despite the bluster and the boasts, there was no one more aware than Scott that the rock of his world had been “founded on a fairy’s wing”. [12] It was his dreams and not his genes that had got the young man to Princeton. Conklin had been pushing the idea that nothing was greater to the destiny of the individual (or indeed the race) than heredity — the very opposite of everything that was being celebrated in Love or Eugenics and The Great Gatsby. If Scott had attended Conklin’s lectures, as some scholars have suggested, he would have almost certainly have left the Palmer Lab feeling that academic success at Princeton was unlikely to be a slam dunk affair, as Scott knew only too well, he wasn’t a gifted athlete or academic.

In all fairness, the most likely inspiration for Love or Eugenics? was not the Conklin lecture but a series of small advertisements that had appeared in the campus newspaper, The Daily Princetonian that year. Dr Winfield S. Hall’s Sexual Knowledge and Eugenics, published the previous year by the Bible House International, was being promoted on a regular basis in the college rag from January 1913 right through the summer of 1914. Compared to impenetrable science of Conklin’s Palmer Lab address, this is something that everybody on campus could connect with. The benefits of the ‘Eugenic marriage’ was something that everybody had been talking about. That same spring a new comedy-drama from Henry S Pollard had just been released in theatres. Eugenics versus Love told the story of a couple who had married and moved to California as part of a promotion for a new breakfast cereal. It was the hot, trending topic of its day. It was the hot, trending topic of its day.  To the curious young loins of boys like Scott, the ad for Hall’s book would have looked deliciously compelling. “Ignorance is a crime” ran the headline, especially “sexual ignorance” which, the good doctor lamented, “caused so many social ills and so much unhappiness”. This book was all about the sex matters that mattered most and claimed to contain all that you needed to know, offering in “plain and simple language” the sexual truth regarding the latest scientific researches of medical science in relation to Eugenics and ‘sexual happiness’ in marriage. It was the must-have book for all those eager young bucks curious about the dark arts of race betterment — and the secret of attracting girls. Some students would have probably seen the ad and let sexual curiosity get the better of them, whilst others would have fallen to the floor in stitches. Scott was probably one of them. [13]

Despite the claims being made in the ads, the book was a complete load of nonsense from start to finish. In the chapter Eugenics: Fully Explained, Hall had put forward the argument that improvement through breeding could be accomplished through a very careful choice of mates. Happiness and progress really came down to one thing: being a good and conscientious ‘breeder’.  It was the same for man as it was for animals. If we wished to produce a breed of cows that were large producers of milk, they had only to choose the best milkers for the mothers, and bulls begotten of the best milkers. The eligible young bachelors of Princeton were being encouraged to think about their lives in terms of Hereford, Friesian and Aberdeen Angus cattle. Hall conceded that his view might seem a little extreme, but believed, nevertheless, that the profoundest influence on your own future sexual happiness and the happiness of the future race was effective education and restrictive laws prohibiting sexual reproduction among imbeciles, degenerates, criminals, the insane and the common or garden ‘simpleton’. If this generation of “human debris” became in charge of the State, America was as good as finished. Mating ‘Eugenically’ was the patriotic duty of every American. Hall reminded readers that John S. Sumner and Antony Comstock of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice had in 1910 advised the Vice Commissioner of Chicago to have its church ministers refuse to perform a marriage ceremony without a health certificate as well as a marriage license. [14] Eugenics had suddenly become the natural well-born heir to the Reform Movement. The Bill of Rights was being urgently rewritten with a Bill of no-Rights clause.

Bishop Carroll Says a Word on Eugenics

Even if Scott hadn’t attended Conklin’s Palmer Lab series of lectures, it’s entirely possible that Father Fay’s decision to visit Princeton at that time had been triggered by the talk in some way. As the popularity of Eugenics increased, the Catholic Church of America was coming under increasing pressure to make some kind of definitive statement about where it stood on the issue. As a senior ranking figure at the Catholic University of America, Father Fay’s ear may well have been sought. Eugenics had become something of a clarion for the march towards modernity. The American Protestant press had done much to promote Catholicism as a religion of antiquity. For many Americans, the Roman Catholic clerics were a backward looking cabal of anti-Libertarian fundamentalists. The church of Rome was being presented as anti-progress, locked in interminable cycle of repeating the triumphs and mistakes of the past. Pope Leo’s crackdown on ‘Americanism’ within the church just fourteen years before had done little to change these perceptions.

In January 1899 the Church of Rome had published Testem benevolentiae nostrae, an apostolic letter prohibiting the more progressive and liberal values taking root among Catholic priests in America. The letter, composed by Pope Leo XIII and delivered by hand to America’s most senior prelate, Cardinal James Gibbons, banned all forms of ‘Americanist’ worship. The ban had been imposed as a response to a book on the life of Isaac Thomas Hecker, a romantic Transcendentalist who had converted to Catholicism in the mid-1800s. The Newman School for Boys that Scott attended from 1911 to 1913 had been founded by Hecker’s niece Caroline Hecker-Locke and her husband, Jesse Albert Locke. The book, Le Père Hecker, was the French translation of a book on Hecker’s life by his friend and fellow Paulist, Father Walter Elliot, a respected civil war veteran who had flirted briefly with US ‘alchemy’ during the Colorado Gold Rush. Personality-wise, Elliott could easily have featured among the “pioneer debauchees” who represented the “savage violence” of the American frontier that Scott refers to in Gatsby. In O’Connell’s estimation he was a man like Dan Cody, representing all the “beauty and glamour” of the world. [15]

A diary entry made by Hecker when he was staying at Brook Farm, a commune of liberal, enlightened romantics back in Boston in the 1840s, expresses the same internal conflict that Scott would be experiencing some seventy years later as he grew increasingly estranged from the Catholicism of his youth. There was only one real difference: Hecker had found himself being pulled instinctively toward the Church, whilst Scott had found himself moving instinctively toward something else. Hecker explains:

“The inward voice becomes more and more audible. It says, “I am — obey!”. What proof does man give that he is, if he does only what has been done? Can a man repeat the past with genius? … One true act opens the passage for ten more. Man is left to his own destiny; religion but sanctifies it. The only Catholicon for Man is in being true to God, humanity, himself. We cannot repeat the past, it is impossible, but we can continue and perfect it .. we are bound by duty, humanity, God, to perpetuate and fulfil the present order to realize the future. The life of humanity is one continuous flowing stream.”

Isaac T. Hecker, the Diary, John Farina, Paulist Press, 1988, p.232

For Hecker and the mystics and esotericists of Brook Farm, the notion of ‘genius’ was central to the progress of man both as an individual and as a species. For them, ‘Genius’ was the ultimate expression of freedom, and it was only through freedom from the past that human progress could be made. But herein lay a paradox: the creative imagination relied on existing rules and paradigms to communicate. It operated within a fairly narrow statute of limitations. These might be the broad interpretive frameworks of a dominant language or a dominant concept. In Patterns, Thinking and Cognition, published in 1990, Howard Margolis argues very persuasively that leaps in human understanding, like the discoveries made by Copernicus and Galileo, often demand radical changes to ‘thinking habits’. In order to gain traction within the wider Scientific and social community, a ‘thinking contagion’ is required to help these new ideas spread among dominant and influential social groups (similar claims to those Copernicus was making had been made by Martianus Capella some 900 years earlier but had failed to be recognised by the scientific community). New ideas were, by and large, either a response to old ideas, or an extension of old ideas. Providing there was some degree of comprehension, the familiar would give rise to the unfamiliar, the conventional would give rise to the unconventional, the past would give rise to the future. The genius (or the creative imagination) first identifies repeated patterns and then performs certain ‘inspired’ modifications. It was part inspiration, part extrapolation. The diary entry written by Hecker sees him acknowledging a similar trade-off between the ancient traditions of the Church and man’s quest for spiritual and social growth. The same process occurs in genetics: certain traits are repeated and certain new traits will evolve as a result of breeding. At the heart of the Eugenics debate was the conflict between moving forward and fulfilling man’s glorious destiny. Hecker might have known little of Eugenics but he had an instinctive respect for progress and self-improvement.

The problem for the Catholic Church lay not in Hecker’s forward-looking ways but in O’Connell and Ireland’s efforts to present Hecker as something of an overreacher or a Faust — someone who wanted the Church to recognise the “new state” of the human mind and the new environment in which it toiled. [16] Klein presented Hecker as a kick-ass revolutionary fighting to emancipate the American Church from the absolute rule of Rome and instate a kind of Catholic ‘Duma’. Klein was reimagining Hecker as a modern day Jacques Roux, the Priest hero of the French Revolution. His preface began the line, “He was, as they say over there, one of those who made themselves.” He was not just a man of the time, but “a man of the future”.  [17] In Klein’s not entirely faithful reconstruction of Hecker’s thesis, the shackles of the past were keeping men down.

As a public relations matter, the Catholic clergy of America were faced with a difficult decision; challenging Eugenics would be seen as draconian and anti-progress. It would be viewed as anti-American and seen as further proof that the church was out of step with modern Americans at a time when anti-Catholic sentiments were reaching disturbing new levels. The Old World vs New World battlelines were in the process of being redrawn. Commenting on Eugenics would require the utmost tact and diplomacy. As Professor Conklin prepared his talk for the Palmer Lab, Bishop John Patrick Carroll of Montana, an influential supporter in Father Fay and Shane Leslie’s Irish Home Rule concerns, broke ranks. Carroll was desperate to give some indication of just how objectionable the whole thing was in practice whilst stopping short of challenging the movement’s stated aims of improving the quality of life among all Americans. Today the Catholic Church faces a similar dilemma over statements it makes in relation to intensely divisive issues like abortion, the human genome project, genetic manipulation and Artificial Intelligence. Back in 1914, the issue was ‘Consumer Eugenics’. 

The intimate father-son relationship that Father Fay had maintained with Scott throughout his time at Princeton is likely to have shaped Scott’s own bipolar responses to the issue of Eugenics. As someone who liked to think of himself as a trendy, progressive thinker, certain aspects of the science are likely to have fascinated him, but as an introspective Catholic who once dreamed of becoming a priest, his ethical instincts would have made him cautious. It was a century old problem that wasn’t going away: was it possible for Catholic virtues able to co-exist with the values and practices of the American ideal and the march toward modernity? Could Rome keep up with progress or was intent on beating on, “boats against the current”?

In later years, Father John A. Ryan (a student of Bishop John Ireland in Scott’s hometown of Saint Paul and a friend of his mother’s family) would make a specific point of joining the sub-group of the Protestant dominated, American Eugenics Society. His reasoning was simple: the only convincing way for Catholics to either change or obstruct the Eugenic advance was not from outside the movement, but from within. For several years it fell to the more politically savvy priests like Carroll to shape discussion. Speaking to the Sunday Visitor in January 1914, Carroll had been quick to recognise the increasing popularity of Eugenics in newspapers and magazines: “lectures are being given on it in every city, town and village. Two international congresses have already been held to discuss its theories, fellowships, scholarships and chairs have been established to promote its study”. It was clear to Carroll that Eugenics was being quietly installed in the existing state apparatus. He told the journal that the Church now had little or no option but to speak on the issue. The moral issues involved were just too great. Its members were looking for guidance and direction and the church was obliged to give its opinion. Carroll went on to explain that the basic principles of the science were positive one. Eugenics sought to eliminate racial evils and improve the human race, and on this point alone it was commendable.

In Carroll’s estimation, Eugenics had been there since the dawn of time. The fundamental laws set down by God had always been there to ensure that the worst traits in humanity “could be eliminated and the best ones preserved”. Chastity, love and restraint were in their purest sense ‘Eugenic’. But here was the rub: God had also created the physical, intellectual and moral imperfections that humankind suffered too. It was man’s noble struggle to overcome these challenges that allowed his body, mind and soul to progress. And because it was God who had provided these challenges, then fundamentally at least, Eugenics “relied on religion for its support”. The objections that the Catholic Church had to Eugenics, Carroll went on, was the weight that scientists like Galton and Conklin seemed determined to place on Darwin’s “discredited theory of evolution”. Eugenics was advocating methods of securing racial betterment that were totally at odds with ideals of personal liberty and moral and religious instruction. The Church of Rome had little option but to “recoil in horror” at such practices. Carroll’s chief criticism, however, was that it lacked the spiritual objectives of improving the human race. Eugenics had become too consumed with the material dimensions of living. Physical fitness needed to be balanced up with moral and spiritual fitness. Carroll did, however concede that not all Eugenicists were like Conklin. In more recent years, Carroll had seen how Eugenicists like Dr Caleb Saleeby had been doing their utmost to reverse the situation by focusing more and more on the science’s spiritual obligations and the critical role played by family and environment in race betterment.

One of the very few men that the priest had absolutely no time for at all was George Bernard Shaw, who as far as Carroll could work out was doing his best to ‘degrade’ the science. Shaw’s 1903 comedy of manners, Man and Superman had taken the philosophy of the atheist Nietzsche and Darwin’s theories of natural selection and given them punchy, progressive appeal. Carroll observed that the tendency in Eugenics during the first fourteen years of the century had been to subordinate the moral and spiritual to the purely physical. This, the priest contended, was a subversion of God’s natural order and was bound to have disastrous consequences for man: mankind would fall back into paganism and Christianity would die. [18] The Catholic University of America in Washington, where Scott’s old Newman mentor, Father Fay, now served as instructor arrived at much the same conclusion. In a bulletin report drawn up by Fay’s colleague in the Faculty of Theology, John Webster Melody, the University heaped praise on the resolve shown by Eugenics to improve the quality of life, and the efforts of Dr Saleeby in particular to shift the greater weight of influence away from heredity and onto education and environment. The inequality of opportunity is identified by Scott in the very first lines of the novel when Nick can found recalling a sound piece of advice that he had once received from his father: “Whenever you feel criticizing anyone … just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” [19] Men like Caleb Saleeby and Thomas J. Gerrard were of the opinion that it was an inequality of opportunity that was blame for what were perceived as the ‘weaker’ races. The more we extended our love and compassion to the more disadvantaged individuals in society, the more likely they were to prosper.

What Saleeby detested even more than the uncompromising wheat and chaff viewpoint of Conklin were the “distasteful schemes” being promoted by “literary jesters” like George Bernard Shaw who famously viewed love in marriage as little more than an “obstacle to the general advancement of the race”. Scientists like Dr Saleeby on the other hand, had done a remarkable job in showing that the increasingly fashionable ‘Shavian program’ being propped up by the likes of Conklin was not eugenic but dysgenic. It seemed only logical to resume that marriage without love, either of the maternal or romantic kind, would lead to more divorces and broken families. Saleeby couldn’t fathom the wisdom of any of it. Such a thing would not lead to the betterment of the race, but to its ruin. At the height of flower power in the 1960s, The Beatles resurrected the sentiment: all you really needed was love. [20]

Supernatural Eugenics

Resistance among Catholics to the Eugenics movement was not a new phenomenon. In 1904, the editor of The Catholic Telegraph ridiculed attempts by the Sociological Society of London to promote Eugenics on the basis that it was not possible or indeed ethical to have the propagation of the human race based around a model that was at that time more fashionable for the breeding of thoroughbred horses. A more comprehensive study had been prepared for the Dublin Review by Father Thomas John Gerrard in 1911. Gerrard’s report, The Catholic Church and Race Culture, laid the set out the moral and scholarly basis that was used of provide the backbone of the Catholic University of America’s response to the increasing mass appeal of Eugenics in 1914. In an effort to restore some balance and give the counter-argument an equally persuasive ‘hook’, Gerrard re-centred the Eugenics debate within the equally attractive notion of American Liberty. The vast majority of Americans were still seduced by the idea of the ‘dream’. The mantra of a better, richer, fuller life and equality for everyone still resonated loudly as an ideal. Responding to this, Gerrard posited the idea that the Shavian program of Eugenics being touted by men like Conklin was not only anti-God, it was also anti-Liberty.  If the objective of Eugenics was to improve the racial qualities of the individual then it required the support of the Catholic Church.

For inspiration and encouragement, Gerrard would draw inspiration from the softer side of Eugenics, spearheaded by the British physician and writer Dr Caleeb W. Saleeby who had been attempting to re-focus the aims of Eugenics within the broader agenda of social justice and maternalism. For men like Saleeby it was the psychic element in man, not the physical element that would best enable the individual to rise above the challenges presented by life. The psychical element in man drew not only on intelligence and science but also on love. [21] Unlike men like Conklin, Saleeby insisted on the sanctity of all life and Motherhood. When life had been provided by God, it should be continued. Whatever the circumstances and whatever disabilities the child faced, the mother’s love for the child always triumphed physical health. It was wasn’t the science of race culture that worried Gerrard per se, it was the fact that Nietzsche’s ‘Superman’ notion was appearing with worrying ubiquity within the framework of the more fashionable Eugenics narrative. This would be something that would be addressed more aggressively by Scott’s mentor Sigourney Fay in his anti-Prussianist tract, The Genesis of the Super-Man in 1918. Gerrard believed (wrongly perhaps) that in Nietzsche’s perturbed mind, the Superman had meant something that was ‘other’ than man, “a lawless being considered to be lawless simply because it should be lawless”. Gerrard believed that Eugenicists like Maximilian A. Mügge were quickly buying into the whole weary Nietzschean franchise. Attempts were being made to combine Eugenics and Nietzsche’s Superman in a deliberate effort to spawn not just a Eugenic Science but a ‘Eugenic Religion’. In his 1911 essay Mügge had alerted readers to the fact that Galton and Nietzsche’s ideas had been published within months of each other in 1883 — first Galton with Human Faculty and then Nietzsche with Thus Spake Zarathrustra. They were products of their time, wrote Mügge. Both ideas aimed at a Platonic ideal, “whips wherewith to drive man towards a goal known only to himself”. From a cosmological point of view, continues Mügge, “destruction and star-dust are the ultimate end of man’s career”. [22] Just like Gatsby, man in the 20th century was climbing a ladder to “a secret place above the trees”. [23]

Mügge’s intention to sow the seeds of a Eugenic Religion had set the alarm bells ringing for Gerrard. If anyone should have earned a place at the forefront of designs of a Eugenic Religion it should be the Catholic Church. For the best part of a thousand years the Church had been clearing a path for man’s rise from the Godless primordial swamp. If Mügge was serious about a new era of Eugenics that would improve man’s spiritual nature every bit as much as his physical nature, then Gerrard believed that Mügge should start by adopting the existing principles and ideals of Catholic theology. Gerrard’s efforts were to all intents and purposes a rather desperate attempt to reground or re-centre Eugenics within the paradigm of ethics and orthodox religion.

In an effort to appeal to all those readers who had recently been turned on to Nietzsche, Gerrard made a point of stressing the points on which he and Nietzsche were in complete agreement: Catholic ethics was likewise in pursuit of producing the perfect man; “a man full grown, complete and entire; spirit soul, and body altogether without blame.” If Gerrard had one criticism to make of Sir Francis Galton, the distinguished godfather of Eugenics, it was that Galton’s scope was too narrow. Galton had failed to understand that there are “causes of causes”. It was the causes of alcoholism that were to blame for alcoholics, the causes of poverty that were to blame for people being poor, diseased and uneducated. He was totally on point with Saleeby. Gerrard hoped that any Eugenic Religion would follow the example already set by the Catholic Church in promoting a “genius in morality”—  a state of higher perfection. Gerrard points out that Nietzsche’s ‘Superman’ cannot be produced by purely anthropometric measurements, statistical observations and human experiments based purely on Mendel’s laws. Even in Nietzsche’s ideal there was the need of a sentimental, artistic flavour.  Gerrard was happy to concede that it was this “unknown quality represented by the word Superman”, supported by strong moral codes and Christian ethics, that should be “at the centre of Eugenic religion”. “The perfect man”, Gerrard finishes, “both perfect both in his God-given nature and God-given supernature, needs the higher intellectual light of revelation.”  [24] Gerrard’s essay would be extended and re-published several times over the next five years, in many ways serving as the first and only form word on Eugenics being offered by the Catholic Church until it published its official condemnation of the science — the Casti Connubii — in December 1930.

In the most extraordinary and unexpected of twists, Catholic Priest, Thomas J. Gerrard had found himself advancing views that were not terrifically unlike those of New York’s esoteric Theosophical Society: the aims of Christianity, Gerrard was saying, had a great deal in common with Eugenics and quasi-religious cults like those in California. The Gospels of the New Testament shared the views of the transcendentalists. Both systems of thought, Gerrard believed, sought to unleash man’s “inner light of revelation” — his inner spark. The language that Gerrard had been using was clearly an appeal to the fashionably Nietzschean world of American spiritualist mavericks like Moses Harman, editor of the Light-Bearer journal, and celebrity Eugenicist, Harold Bolce at the short-lived Cosmopolitan Church in San Francisco. [25] Interestingly, Bolce’s musings on New Internationalism in 1907 revealed his support for that other prophet of human expansionism and self-realization, James J. Hill,  the self-made millionaire that Gatsby’s father memorably compares with his son in the final pages of the novel: “He had a big future ahead of him, you know … If he’d of lived, he’d of been a great man. A man like James J. Hill. He’d of helped build up the country.” Bolce had been no less impressed by Hill: “Mr. James J. Hill, has conquered more territory with a coupling pin than Caesar did with a sword. This new master of money and domain, realizing that business knows no boundaries —that the world, commercially and financially, is ready for unification —has merged European gold with American genius and Oriental opportunity.” Hill returned the compliment in his 1912 book, Highways of Progress: America’s “dream of a conquest of world markets” was a bubble that was about to burst. One of the few men who had understood what it would take to control the “markets of the future”, Hill thundered, was Harold Bolce. [26]

In Gerrard’s own progressive gospel, Man was being presented as a ‘light-worker’. It’s easy to appreciate why the more Conservative prelates of Rome preferred to dodge the issue entirely: it was a can of worms. He might not have known it, but Gerrard was using the language of Supernatural Eugenics. A Eugenic Religion was on the rise. Scott may have been gripped by much the same impulse when he sat down to write The Great Gatsby.

Beautiful Little Fools

The novel, on its most superficial level at least, offers a bleak but realistic response to the author’s 1914 Princeton musical composition, Love or Eugenics? For Daisy Buchanan, the woman who cruelly dumps her mysterious low-brow boyfriend in favour of his physically and financially superior rival, the answer to the question couldn’t have been any clearer or more emphatic: “Thanks but no thanks Jay or whatever your name is, I’ll take Tom and Eugenics over love every time”.  For all his imagination and ‘psychical’ gifts, Jay Gatsby is just no match for the fantastically wealthy polo player whose genes can be cultured not only for the greater good of Daisy, but for the entire Nordic race.

Having known many men like Tom Buchanan at Princeton, and having met many more when he was guided around the homes of Long Island’s aristocracy by his friend and counsellor, Shane Leslie, Scott is likely to have perceived the reality of modern-day New York a little less romantically than Gerrard and the Catholic Church. As honourable as Gerrard’s ideals were, there was a certain section of the city who were never going to marry for love. Those weren’t bells ringing out on your wedding day; for many they were the shrill cha-ching of the cash-register. To the Old Money families of America that Tom and Daisy Buchanan belong to, marriage had always about good breeding. In her 1952 autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold, Consuelo Vanderbilt, the socialite daughter of Alva Belmont and William Kissam Vanderbilt, would describe in excruciating detail how she had spent the morning of her wedding to the 9th Duke of Marlborough crying alone in her bedroom. And it was not an isolated episode by any means. Read any decent book on the history of Eugenics and then re-read The Great Gatsby. If you do, you are likely to find that several minor episodes begin to make a good deal more sense: the stories about Daisy crying her eyes out on the evening before her marriage to Tom? Daisy’s hysterical recognition that the best thing for a girl to be in the ‘distinguished secret society’ that she and her husband belonged to was a ‘beautiful little fool’? It’s all there if you care to look.

Daisy Fay, just like so many other girls of her class in America at that time, had been collapsing under the burden of choosing a suitable Eugenic marriage over an undisciplined life of pleasure. Pleasure wasn’t just frivolous in 1920s America, it was dangerous too. Just a few short weeks before Scott transformed the freedom-loving ‘IT-girl’ into a worldwide sensation with his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, Dr Murray Leslie of London had declared war on all loose young women. Standing before a captivated audience at the Institute of Hygiene in London, a stone-faced Dr Leslie explained how the “frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined” was perhaps the single gravest threat that the world was facing at that time. Leslie had done the math and found that there were over a million “excess females of marriageable age” in Britain alone. He had an announcement to make: the flapper’s irresistible philosophy of pleasure for pleasure’s sake was destroying society. It was a grave situation indeed. The consequences of “sex disproportion” and low moral standards were slowly undermining the ethical foundations of humanity. The outlook was bleak; this trend, if it was allowed to continue, would have disastrous consequences on the birth-rate for years to come. [27] Young women were simply not getting married and producing babies quickly enough. “The women most suited to marriage are not marrying,” barked Leslie. “Those who are the fittest, both physically and intellectually, go forth to earn their own living, while less provident women of the unskilled workers class marry and have large families.”  It was quite literally race suicide: the poor and the stupid were rising in numbers. The song said it all: “One thing’s sure and nothing’s surer, the rich get richer and the poor get—children … ain’t we got fun?” [28] It may come as no surprise to learn that Dr Leslie had also been a speaker at the First International Congress on Eugenics in July 1912. It was at this gathering that Frederick L. Hoffman had made some no less sensational claims. According to his research, breeding rates among the Irish immigrants of New York was so prolific that America was fast becoming ‘a Catholic Nation’. [29]

When Scott writes of the nineteen year old Daisy Fay crying on the eve of her wedding to Tom Buchanan, he is responding to views like these. [30] And what are we to make of all those references to blond people and Tom’s powerful Aryan physique? Or the feeble attempts by Gatsby to rise above his station? The novel works on so many levels, but probably none more successfully than as allegory on Love or Eugenics — something that would have resonated a very personal level with Scott, who had suffered (perhaps more than most) along similar lines of rejection, first with his girlfriend, Ginevra King, and then, for a time at least, with his future wife Zelda and her family. The story of Jay Gatsby is really the story of Scott and his own dysgenic circumstances: the great sportsman who wasn’t that great, the great scholar who no matter how hard he tried just couldn’t pass exams, the great lover who was almost always being passed-over for someone ‘better’, the struggling Irish-Catholic immigrant who had landed in Protestant Princeton on a shameful, freak inheritance. Compared to friends like Townsend Martin, the author’s wealthy and respectable roommate, he was the low-born mooncalf, Caliban. Within weeks of arriving at Princeton The Tempest and Doctor Faustus had been among the most probable choices of plays slated for production that year. As a member of the English Dramatic Association, the relevance of the plays to Eugenics is unlikely to have been lost on the author. For someone like Scott, it wasn’t bad luck that he put all his failures down to, but bad genes. Like his creation, Jay Gatsby, the one thing that would allow him rise above his physical and social limitations was his brilliant imagination and his sheer determination to succeed.

Thus Spake the Blonde Northern Girls

The clues had all been there in Fitzgerald’s Absolution, the story of the lies that a young boy tells to his priest as he attends his weekly confession. Published as a short story by The American Mercury in June 1924, Scott had originally intended using the tale as an explanatory prologue to Gatsby. In this story, Rudolph Miller, a beautiful little blond boy with “eyes like blue stones” attempts to outwit God and overcome his sinful circumstances by re-imagining himself as ‘Blatchford Sarnemington’, a swaggering Prussian calvary officer waiting for the charge at Sedan. [31] At his most spiritually vulnerable moment — the moment the boy is about collapse before the priest and confess all — he becomes a dazzling Nietzschean ‘Superman’ leading a rebellion against God. No matter how gross or shameful his past behaviour, the boy believes that he is now free to shake-off his humble surroundings and exist beyond the usual laws of nature and morality. Once secured safely in the armour of his arrogant alter-ego he can effectively sin no more. The boy had become like Nietzsche’s pneumatikoi. For one fleeting moment in time he is quite literally a free man, beyond good and evil.

As the boy runs from the church, the scene described by Scott is full of  subtle Nietzschean imagery. The “girls with yellow hair” walk sensuously along the roads, calling “innocent, exciting things to the “tall young men from the farms” working on the grain. A “blue sirocco” wind trembles nervously over the wheat. The wind is no match, however, for “the blonde Northern girls” who are seducing the boys in the fields. For Nietzsche, the gentle breath of the sirocco — a light southern wind — personified the weak, lazy will of Christian mediocrity that was grossly inferior to the powerful winds of the north. God’s suffocating breath was blowing drowsily across the wheat fields of the young boy’s Midwestern hometown. In the boy’s eyes at least, the townspeople retain a lazy servility to God. The light sirocco breeze saps their will to power. The author seems to be suggesting that any attempt to fulfil one’s potential in a weary, enervated town like this would be impossible. The girls act like sirens, luring the boys to their spiritual deaths. The compromises they had made with God and the suffocating conventions of romance had made the townspeople listless and cowardly. Nietzsche thought it better to live amid the ice and thunderous roaring winds of the north than the warm, fatalistic breezes of the tropical south:

“This tolerance and largeur of the heart that “forgives” everything because it “understands” everything is a sirocco to us. Rather live amid the ice than among modern virtues and other such south-winds!”

These winds, Nietzsche believed, sapped the energy out of man and curbed the egotism of the strong. They were “a conspiracy of the chandala against the free functioning of their superiors and the free progress of mankind”. The majority of men “preferred delusion to the truth”. In Nietzsche’s estimation, it was the winds of the Sirocco that weakened Man’s will. The boys out in the fields were losing themselves to love. In Absolution, Scott’s wilful adolescent observes Christianity crushing the spirit out of man and turning all its townsfolk into ‘dismal fatalists’. It wasn’t that these people weren’t worthy of redemption, it was that it should never have been seeking it in the first place. [32]

The book that seems to have inspired Scott’s reference to a Sirocco wind was Nietzsche’s The Antichrist, republished as a Borzoi Pocket book in September 1923 by Alfred A. Knopf and translated from its original German by Scott’s friend, H. L. Mencken. [33] In the eventual version of Gatsby published in 1925, Scott’s hero fulfils the more spiritual ideal of Eugenics envisaged by Dr Caleeb W. Saleeby and to a lesser degree by the Catholic Eugenics dabbler, Thomas J. Gerrard. The Nietzschean ‘superman’ is there in spirit but he also has a softer, more psychical dimension. Gatsby’s teenage schedule of self-improvement bears witness to this. The list of childhood ‘resolves’ that Gatsby’s father shows to Nick in the final pages of the novel include as much emphasis on moral and intellectual exercise as it does on muscle tone and sports (‘dumbbell exercise, baseballs, sports, read one improving book or magazine every day, be better to parents’). Unlike Tom Buchanan, Gatsby is a more well-rounded individual, his creative imagination and capacity for love making him spiritually, morally and psychically superior to Tom.

A Defence of Gatsby

The basic gist of what Fitzgerald was saying about Eugenics can be found in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay, A Defence of Poetry. In this unfinished essay published posthumously by his wife, Mary, the legendary Romantic argues that it is the poets of the world, not the scientists and politicians, who are the true legislators and custodians of morality and civil society. For Shelley, poetry was “connate with the origin of man.” The poet’s insights and his pleasures were not only more intense, and more excessive, they were also able to make “the partial apprehension of the invisible world.” The stories of love, friendship, patriotism and sacrifice produced on such inspired epic scales by poets like Homer and Shakespeare, continued to stimulate and preserve the dreams and ideals of men. All these things led to the “moral improvement of man.” Ethical science, Shelley promulgated, had only ever been capable of arranging the elements that poetry had already discovered (if not created). Without poets like these there would be no evolution. If stories like these were no longer told, the world would begin to run backward. The “devotion to an object,” whether it is Nick Carraway’s loyalty to Gatsby or Gatsby’s incorruptible love for Daisy, is what “lifted the veil from the hidden beauty of the world.” And because people still sought to imitate the inspiring actions of poetic heroes like Achilles, Hector and Ulysses, their own actions would continue to educate and civilise the world for centuries to come. Greatness could be carried forward. The stories produced by men like Shakespeare were the double helix of civilisation and all the wisdom and moral laws of the world were encoded therein:

“the sentiments of the auditors must have been refined and enlarged by a sympathy with such great and lovely impersonations, until from admiring they imitated, and from imitation they identified themselves with the objects of their admiration.”

— Shelley, A Defence of Poetry

One man who certainly has perfected the art of imitation is Jay Gatsby. Whether we are talking about the books in his gothic library, his ‘factual imitation’ house or his incongruous mock-English mannerisms we are presented with a man of “great and lovely impersonations.” His methods may be crude and his gaudy pink-suit might be a little lacking in sutlety, but in Shelley’s estimation, Gatsby’s vaguely absurd disguise communicates something greater. “A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds,” writes Shelley in reference to Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats. There are several references to Keats’ poem in the novel, the most conspicuous among them is when Daisy remarks that there is a nightingale singing on the lawn in her garden in Chapter One. Tom ignores her and continues talking, its profundity and romance completely lost on the brute. If Shelley’s essay attempts to prove one thing, it is that poetry acts in a “divine manner,” it “awakens and enlarges the mind” through a spectroscopic process of similitude and “rendering.” The counterfeit worlds that poets like Homer and Shakespeare produce for their readers are more psychically or spiritually real than the unethical world around them. Scott presents Gatsby in the same way that Shelley presents the poet. He has that same “generous impulse to act what we imagine.” The world he creates is real because he thinks it is real. It is better than it is because he imagines it to be better than it is:

“All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient. The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

— Shelley, A Defence of Poetry

The “epic or dramatic personage” being celebrated by Shelley in his essay (and by Scott Fitzgerald in Gatsby) wears the vestiges of ancient greatness like a “modern uniform.” Jay Gatsby, the man who has “a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life,” a “romantic readiness” and “gift for hope” has come to do battle with an ugly, immoral world. He is transforming base metals into gold. [34]

“His heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night. A universe of Ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain … Each night he added to the pattern of his fancies until drowsiness closed down upon some vivid scene with an oblivious embrace. For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.”

— The Great Gatsby, p.95

On several levels at least, The Great Gatsby, appears to have been Scott’s attempt to recalibrate the rubric of Shelley’s essay to the challenges posed by the selfish excesses of 20th century modernity and eugenics. Poetry, like Long Island’s most eligible bachelor, ‘re-coloured’ the random world of matter in its own “Elysian light”. It took the pre-living substance of life and tethered it a fairy’s wing. Observing life wasn’t nearly enough. One had to engage with it empathically. Scott, like Shelley, had recognised that it was only when the “pains and pleasures of his species” had become his own that man could truly become an instrument of moral good. Sacrifices of ego would have to be made, just like Gatsby makes the sacrifice of saving Daisy at the end of the novel. If one was to attain a higher level of consciousness, the usual instincts of survival had to be defeated. As Nick observes when Jay and Daisy eventually reunite, the remote, intense life that two lovers enjoy elevates them to a completely separate plane that boasts its own systems of logic. They are in that high “secret place above the trees” gulping down the “incomparable milk of wonder”. Gatsby brings to Long Island a sense of chivalry and romance that many Americans had believed to have been buried in the madness of war and lost completely in the pessimism of the years that followed.

Nick continues to watch the couple, and as he does so, Gatsby’s resident troubadour, Klipspringer strikes up a song on the piano: “One thing’s sure and nothing’s surer — the rich get richer and the poor get … children.” The song, ‘Ain’t We Got Fun’, captured the zesty, selfish excesses of the period and the catchy dissonance of race suicide. It had also been an irreverent misquote of a phrase used by Shelley in A Defence of Poetry. [35]  The writers of the tune were repeating an observation common among eugenicists (and the US Bureau of Census) at that time, that wealthier couples were remaining childless whilst the immigrants and blue-collar workers of America were thriving. Race suicide had found its anthem. Shelley had meant the whole thing very different. Shelley had observed that even in periods of intense social decay, the promoters of ‘Utility’ — a philosophy that endorsed practically any action that maximised the happiness and wellbeing of the majority — were keener to preserve the happiness of the rich than they were to alleviate the suffering of the poor: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer” is what Shelley had written. To ram his point home, Shelley had quoted the so-called ‘Matthew effect’: “To him that hath,  more be given, but from him that hath not, the little he hath will be taken away.” Eugenics, like Utilitarianism, was creating an even bigger gap between the haves and the have-nots. A century after Shelley had written his essay, little appeared to have changed: “the vessel of the state is driven between the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism”, wrote the poet. [36] You either had cruel oppressive power, or you had chaos. The only people capable of plotting a route right through it were lovers like Gatsby and Daisy, who for a few precious hours at least are totally oblivious to the cynicism of the song and the abject cruelty of the times that they live in.

Interesting, but too long a mouthful

As he undertook a complete revision of Gatsby in the late spring of 1924, Scott had written to his editor, Max Perkins, telling him of the immense creative power that was starting to build within him. Shelley had been “God” to him once, he gushed. He had just finished reading André Maurois’s biography of Shelley, Ariel and was full of renewed love for the man. In his handwritten manuscript for Gatsby, Scott had crossed out an entire passage referencing a popular Shelley legend: “His eyes remained, like Shelley’s heart among the ashes, dimmed a little by many paintless years under the sun and rain.”  [37] The legend of Shelley’s ashes — the story of a partial triumph over death — was based on a story told by Byron that had appeared in Maurois’s biography. According to Byron, Shelley’s heart had survived the flames that had engulfed his body during his improvised cremation in Rome after his tragic death by drowning in July 1822. Byron, unable to pass up a great story when he saw one, might have seen it as fitting metaphorical testament to the poet’s exemption from the usual protocols of mortality and man’s participation in the “eternal” and the “infinite” that Shelley had put forward in his essay.

There can be little doubt at all that Scott was thinking of Eugenics when he sat down to write Gatsby. It is there in the imitating physical presence of white supremacist bully-boy, Tom Buchanan and the dedicated schedule of self-improvement embarked upon by Gatsby in his youth. At the time that Scott was writing the novel, the world of Eugenics was split between those who thought human progress was down to good breeding alone and those who thought it was down to a combination of lifestyle and environment — of opportunity matched by genius, love and ambition. Scott was well aware of these two very separate schools of thoughts in Eugenics. In 2003, historian Ann Margaret Daniel made a tantalising discovery. It was a copy of Samuel J. Holmes’ The Trend of the Race, signed and inscribed by Scott for his father-in-law, Judge Anthony Sayre. His inscription reads simply: “This is too long a mouthful but it’s most interesting to me.” The jovial message was a reference to the full spectacular title of Holme’s book: The Trend of the Race: A Study of Present Tendencies in the Biological Development of Mankind. Samuel J. Holmes was among several lesser-known scientists who were placing far greater value on the influence of environment (nurture) upon heredity (nature) in Eugenics. [38] In the very first chapter of the book, Holmes opens discussion by referring to the theories of James Mark Baldwin, the son of a prominent abolitionist and a former professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. Baldwin, years ahead of his time, had challenged the world’s leading eugenicists to consider whether social conditions and practices played as profound a role in shaping our genes as biological inheritance. Baldwin later relocated to France, where he served on the board of the American Library in Paris and edited its regular newsletter, Ex Libris. The American Literary review, like Scott, would go on to play a critical role in advancing the careers of Ernest Hemingway and other emerging American modernists and Harlem Renaissance writers. [39]

Scott’s purchase of the book has been taken by some as evidence of the author’s passionate support for Race Eugenics, but it is a view we might want to approach with caution. Firstly, Scott had purchased Holme’s book specifically for his father-in-law, Judge Sayre. In the earliest of his and Zelda’s courtship, Scott’s lack of wealth and status had been the source of a good deal of tension within the family, and like any caring husband anxious to please his in-laws, the author would occasionally do his utmost to prove he had been a worthy and suitable match. Perhaps Mr Sayre had expressed an interest in Eugenics and Scott had simply bought it with the intention of pleasing the Judge. Secondly, even the Catholic Paulist Fathers, who had played a significant role in founding and inspiring Scott’s Newman School for Boys, wrote favourably of the book, noting that the author had made a point of distinguishing between ‘physical’ and ‘social’ heredity, the idea that man’s biology was in no small part influenced by the world around him — his education and opportunities.

The tone and tack of Holme’s book was very different to those that had gone before it. Unlike The Passing of the Great Race and The Rising Tide of Colour it couldn’t really be described as political. The book had intended to take Eugenics in a more empathic or ‘caring’ direction, Holmes noting that as civilization became more and more advanced, the “evil effects of the various forms of social selection” were becoming ever more intense. The reviewer of the Catholic World thought it an “excellent summary” of the major issues in the broader field of racial development. [40] Taken from this perspective, Scott’s gift to his father-in-law could quite conceivably have been an attempt to broaden or change the Judge’s views on the ‘nature versus nature’ question that continued to dominate Eugenic discussion. Don’t get the impression that the book was any less racially prejudiced than those by Stoddard and Grant — it wasn’t, especially where Mexicans were concerned — but if Scott’s intent had been to persuade his father-in-law that greatness could be achieved and was not just something you had at birth, then the book may have been part of Scott’s long-term agenda in persuading Judge Sayre that his regularly insolvent son-in-law might one day become a worthy match for his daughter.

Human Perfectibility

In Gatsby, Scott can been grappling with several modern dilemmas: the crippling absolutism of his own Catholic upbringing, the absolutism of Eugenics and the absolutist paradox of Nietzschean modernity: the belief that something could be both real and unreal, both believable and unbelievable at the same time. In a world which could only be experienced through appearances, Nietzsche finds it only logical to conclude that it was appearances themselves that were true. Gatsby is real not just because Nick believes in him, but because Gatsby believes in himself. As the author writes, Gatsby did indeed spring from his own Platonic image of himself. He set out with an idea of the man he could be and makes every effort to become that man. [41] As a Catholic workaround it must have seemed like an attractive idea for Scott; it wasn’t necessarily the biology that God gave you that was important, it was how the spirit that God placed in you could transcend that biology. Nick might be looking at Gatsby’s absurdly implausible house “like Kant at his church steeple”, but it is the philosophy of Nietzsche that he eventually yields to: Gatsby is possible because Nick believes that Gatsby is possible. “Anything could happen now”, Nick surmises, as they slid across Queensboro Bridge in Gatsby’s magical Rolls Royce phantom: “even Gatsby could happen … without any particular wonder”. It’s not just the times that are a’ changin’ but the whole fantastic fabric of reality itself. [42] Fitzgerald, like his English tutor, Alfred Noyes before him, had detected a crack in the steeple. There was a conflict being played out at a symbolic level between science and religion. [43]

The philosophy that makes Gatsby real in Nick’s eyes is not that of Kant but that of Nietzsche. The dream is real because Nick’s belief in Gatsby makes it real. It was just as Shelley had envisaged things: “All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient. The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Whilst we might never know for certain if Scott had deliberately conceived Gatsby this way, it is certainly fair to say that the novel epitomizes the accidental paradox of modernity. The book is edging, rather like Nietzsche, into a poetics of existence. In order to be liberated from the earthly world of absolutes — whether it’s the laws laid-down by the Catholic Church or those of one’s own genetics — one was being encouraged to take giant, imaginative leaps forward. For awkward and slightly bewildered modernists like Scott, this was perhaps, the only real way of escaping the “constant flickering flame of time”. It was Nietzsche not Kant who believed that life as we now lived it would have to be left behind. Old customs, old beliefs would have to be replaced, old genes replaced by new genes. Everybody else, whether it was Kant or the Catholic Church believed that the opposite was true: that the fulfilment of human potential was rooted firmly in the past. Gatsby’s failure to escape the dreams of his past, after venturing so very far in his fantastic social adventure, is what damns him in the end. What started off as a satisfying and uplifting dream has become an infinetely recurring nightmare. Tom and Daisy decide to marry for Eugenics, Gatsby for love. And it’s no small irony that by the end of the novel its Tom and Daisy who are the ones left standing. The ending is a bleak one, but not an unrealistic one. It was a conundrum hat Scott couldn’t possibly hope to resolve but it is one that the writer approaches rather lyrically and rather beautifully in the novel.

Scott seems vaguely persuaded that the only way of moving time forward was by disrupting the orthodox mechanisms of ‘eternal recurrence’. Towards the end of Book Four in his 1882 book, The Gay Science, Nietzsche had asked his readers to suppose that a demon were to have visited them one night and had given them the option to live their life again and again and again. There would be nothing new in it. Every pain and every joy that you had ever experienced in life, great or small, would simply be replayed on an infinite loop in exactly the same sequence as before. Would they take him up on the offer or would they reject him outright? It is patently clear from a statement that Gatsby makes to Nick at the end of one of his parties that this is how Gatsby would have responded: Gatsby would have chosen the non-future, the demon’s option of turning over the ‘eternal hourglass of existence’ time and time again, and living his life as it had already been lived before, of repeating every sorrow and every joy ad infinitum: repeating the past, but not with genius. [44]

The philosophy of William Godwin, the father of Mary Shelley and the father-in-law of Percy Bysshe Shelley, would have probably suited Scott a whole lot better than that of Paulist preacher, Isaac Hecker and Bishop Ireland, as respectful as the author was in his efforts to try and unite the two. For Godwin, ‘human perfectibility’ was truly anarchist in nature, in as much as it saw government and related social practices such as property monopoly, marriage and monarchy as restraining the progress of mankind. The logic that men like Godwin applied to the problem was simple: it was God that had given man science and it would be that same science that would enable man to shape his own future. [45] A similar belief is shared by the boy in Scott’s tale, Absolution, — the story that was to have served as the original prologue to Gatsby. In this story, the boy concludes that God was actually willing him to lie.

The legendary scientist, Humphry Davy shared Godwin’s view of science. Speaking at a series of lectures in 1802, Davy had told his audience that science had “bestowed upon him powers which may almost be called creative”. These powers had allowed him to modify and change the people and surroundings around him. The one thing that really distinguishes Gatsby from the Tom Buchanan and his science-based notions of Eugenics, is his daunting imagination, that “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” which though ultimately destructive, allows him to transcend the usual limitations of his genes and earn him a lasting place in Nick’s affections. There might have been a disappointing but practical lesson for Scott to learn here: it was unlikely that any writer could be both an artistic success and a commercial one. The genius, like the madman, was necessarily an outcast, existing on the very fringes of plausibility. The parties that Gatsby attend are always his own, and the gifts he brings and the generosity he shows dissolve upon delivery. The monster here, if there is one, is the bootlegger’s own untamed imagination.

Deciphering the exact reason why the Catholic Church opposed Eugenics is a little beyond the scope of what we are doing here, but it’s interesting to note that one of the first Roman Christians to openly challenge the Catholic Church and attempt to restore pagan rule was aptly named, Eugenius. Sadly, the poor old chap died as he sought to depose the Emperor Theodosius I  in 394 AD — the first Roman Emperor to recognise the Catholic Christian orthodoxy as the Roman Empire’s state religion. In another unusual twist, Eugenius is believed to have died on September 6, the date of the murder of President McKinley and the approximate date of Gatsby’s murder in the book. If Gatsby had ever climbed that ladder to the stars that he saw in his last few hours with Daisy before the war, he might very well have learned that upon closer inspection, the pattern he saw among them had already spelled out his fate.

Some of the views on religion and politics being expressed in this article are an attempt to articulate the various themes and narratives being explored in the novels and essays cited. They do not necessarily reflect my own views. The above article is taken from Becoming Gatsby: How the High Priest of the Jazz Age Wrote the Gospel of the American Dream (Alan Sargeant)

[1] ‘Laughlin, Graduate Work at Princeton’, January 1, 1916, Eugenical News, Vol. 1, No. 1, p.2; ‘Acquired or Inherited? A Eugenical Comedy in Four Acts,’ Pansy B. Laughlin, Florence H. Danielson and Harry H. Laughlin, 1913, American Philosophical Society, Davenport, B:D27, Ser 2, CSH-ERO. Laughlin would be an influential figure at during the Reed-Johnson Restriction of Immigration Hearings when Scott was writing Gatsby (1923-1924). Laughlin completed his doctorate at Princeton the very same year that Fitzgerald left (1917).

[2] The Eugenic Marriage: Volume I, W. Grant Hague, The Review of Reviews Company, 1914, pp. 1-10

[3] Mocking Eugenics, Ewa B. Luczak, Routledge, 2022, p. 77

[4] This proto conspiracy journal was occupied a similar position to anti-Islamic websites The Gates of Vienna and Jihad Watch in the 2000s. By the end of its run in 1919, The Menace had a national circulation of 1.5 million.

[5] History of St. Paul and Vicinity: a Chronicle of Progress, Henry A. Castle,  Lewis Pub. Co, 1912, p.594, pp.691-692

[6] Jan-August 1914, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Ledger: A Facsimile, ed. M.J. Brucolli, MCR, 1972

[7] Dear O’Hara, July 18, 1933, The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bantam Books, 1971, p.508

[8] ‘First Appearance of the Term Personage’, This Side of Paradise, p.96

[9] Jan-August 1914, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Ledger: A Facsimile, ed. M.J. Brucolli, MCR, 1972

[10] ‘Professor Conklin on Eugenics and Heredity’, Daily Princetonian, February 25, 1914, p.1; ‘Says More Importance Must be Paid Eugenics’, Daily Princetonian, February 26, 1914, p.1.  As Sigourney Fay “drops into town” that month, its possible that Fay had been keen to attend the lectures — the subject being of particular concern to the Catholic Church.

[11] ‘The Shadow of Caliban’, Frank Miele, Skeptic Magazine (Altadena, CA) Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring 2001

[12] The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chapter Six, p. 96. The words describe the young James Gatz’s transformation into Jay Gatsby.

[13] ‘Dr Hall’s New and Complete Book of Sexual Knowledge’, Daily Princetonian, March 29, 1913, p.13; ‘Dr Hall’s Sexual Knowledge (and Eugenics)’, Daily Princetonian, April 6, 1914, p. 4

[14] Sexual Knowledge: In Plain and Simple Language, Winfield Scott Hall, The International Bible house (Philadelphia), 1913,pp. 287-298

[15] The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chapter Six, pp. 96-97.

[16] The Vatican and the Americanist Crisis: Denis J. O’Connell, American Agent in Rome (1885-1903), Gerald Fogarty, Gregorian Biblical Bookshop, 1974, pp.261-263

[17] Le Père Hecker: Fondateur des ‘Paulistes’ Américains, 1819-1888, Walter Elliott, Preface by Abbe Félix Klein, translated by Countess de Raviliax, Victor Lecoffre, 1898, Paris, pp. X-XLV

[18] ‘Bishop Carroll Says a Word on Eugenics’, Sunday Visitor, January 11, 1914, p.1

[19] The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chapter Six, p.7

[20] Eugenics: Fundamental Principles, Joh Webster Melody, The Catholic University Bulletin, Catholic University of America, Volume 20 1914, pp. 224-238. Melody served as Professor of Moral Theology at the Catholic University of Washington.

[21] The Catholic Church and Race Culture, Thomas J. Gerrard, The Dublin Review  July 1911, Vol.149, No.298, p. 52. Saleeby’s father, Elijah George Saleeby was born in Syria. In 1877 he married Frances Maria Williams (born to a Quaker family from York). Elijah had previously been in charge of the Protestant Schools in Syria with his brother Solomon. The school, based in a remote village called Brummana, was known as The Darlington Station because it was backed by Quaker (Society of Friends) money from Darlington. Although born to a Greek Orthodox, Elijah converted to Protestantism.

[22] Eugenics and the Superman: A Racial Science and a Racial Religion, Maximilian A. Mügge, 1910 (publisher not known)

[23] The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chapter Six, p.106. “Out of the comer of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees – he could climb to it, if he climbed alone.”

[24] The Catholic Church and Race Culture, Thomas J. Gerrard, The Dublin Review  July 1911, Vol.149, No.298, p. 53, pp. 65-66

[25] Californian, Harold Bolce and his actress wife hit the headlines in 1913 with the world’s first Eugenic child, a girl called Eugenette.

[26] ‘Highways of Progress’, James J. Hill, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1912, p.38

[27] ‘Why Marriage Is Declining’, Sunday Pictorial, February 8, 1920, p.5

[28] The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, p.92. The jaunty song that Scott quotes was a play on a phrase made famous by the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley in his essay, A Defence of Poetry. Scott was reading Shelley at the time he was writing The Great Gatsby.

[29] ‘Catholics Grow in Numbers’, Saint Paul Catholic Bulletin, August 17, 1912, p.2.

[30] The Muhlbach Hotel that provides the setting for Tom and Daisy’s wedding was actually the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, founded by Bavarian brothers, Otto and Louis Seelbach. Both names certainly has a very distinctive Prussian or ‘Nordic’ vibe. Prussian historical novelist, Louisa Muhlbach was briefly in the news columns of America during the war when her account of the White Lady of Bayreuth Old Castle featured in terror tales of the trenches.

[31] The Battle of Sedan was fought as part of the Franco-Prussian war in September 1870. The defeat of the French Catholic army by the Lutheran Prussian Army would play a critical part in the Capture of Rome and see the end of the Papal State.

[32] The Antichrist, F.W. Nietzsche, translated from the German with an introduction by H.L. Mencken, Alfred A. Knopf (1918), Borzoi Pocket Books, 1923, p.42; The Laws of Manu and Nietzsche’s “Attainable Perfection, Bradley Kaye, The Agonist, July 2022, Volume: 16, No:1, pp. 1 – 31. Nietzsche used the image of the Sirocco several times in his work, always derisively.  Dr Bradley Kaye of Niagara University has explained to me that Nietzsche’s Sirocco metaphor is also “an allusion to political geography and Romantic Nationalist tendencies at that time”.

[33] The publisher’s half-brother, the film producer, Edwin Knopf became a good friend of Scott. The publisher would subsequently seek English rights to Scott’s 1934 book, Tender is the Night. Scott had in fact called Mencken ‘the Baltimore Anti-Christ’ in his review of his book Prejudices for The Bookman journal in March 1921.

[34] The Great Gatsby, p. 20. “then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life … it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.”

[35] Ain’t We Got Fun (song by Whiting-Egan, 1921), The Great Gatsby, p.92. It’s the tune that Klipspringer plays as Gatsby shows Daisy around his house.

[36] A Defence of Poetry (1821), Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Mrs Shelley, The Bobs-Merrill Company, 1904

[37] The Great Gatsby – Autograph Manuscript, Fitzgerald, Princeton University, Manuscripts Division, Firestone Library, F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers (C0187), Box 4, p.74

[38] ‘Fitzgerald’s Princeton Through the Prince’, Ann Margaret Daniel, F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Twenty-First Century, University of Alabama Press, 2003, p. 17. Holmes developed this idea in his 1929 work, The Interplay Between Heredity and Environment.

[39] ‘Essentially an American Institution Planted on Foreign Soil’: The American Library in Paris, the Paris Herald, the Paris Tribune and Ex Libris, Nissa Cannon, Cultural History,  Volume 10, Issue 2. Baldwin and the Library  also played a supporting role in the careers of Sylvia Beach and Margaret Anderson.

[40] The Trend of Race (New Books) Catholic World, Volume 115, April – September 1922,  pp. 407-408

[41] The Great Gatsby p.95

[42] The Great Gatsby p.67

[43] Two Worlds for Memory, Alfred Noyes, J.P Lippincott Company, 1953, pp. 270-271. Noyes relates a story told to him by an astronomer at the observatory in Greenwich, who had one day trained his telescope on the steeple of a nearby church and had found a substantial crack in it. The Vicar of the church refused to accept his assessment. Like Shane Leslie, Noyes would convert to Catholicism.

[44] The Gay Science, Book 4, 341, Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. W. Kaufman, Vintage Books, 1974, p. 273 . This is Nietzsche’s theory of ‘eternal recurrence’ that Zachary Simpson drew on for his 2022 book, The Paradoxes of Modernity (Springer International).

[45] Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on Morals and Happiness, William Godwin (1793), J. Watson of London, 1842.