A New Race of Man — How Trotsky’s Dream of a Soviet Superman Helped Perfect the American Dream

When F. Scott Fitzgerald sat down to work on his third novel, The Great Gatsby there was probably no greater influence on its composition than the author’s rediscovery of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a poet once memorably described by Harold Bloom as the Leon Trotsky of his day. D. Appleton and Company had just that year published an English translation of André Maurois’s fictionalized biography of Shelley, Ariel, a book that reimagined Shelley as a Revolutionary Socialist storming the Winter Palace of 19th century convention. Scott wrote immediately to his editor, Max Perkins asking if he’d yet had chance to read it: “Shelley was God to me once,” he enthused. The publication coincided with news that an invaluable collection of the poet’s letters, poems and prose had just been acquired by New York’s Carl H. Pforzheimer, a broker and philanthropist with a life-long interest in manuscripts and rare books. In a statement that could just have easily applied to Gatsby, the Literary International Digest wrote that Shelley had suffered from “a rather foolish and rather noble inability to adjust his ideals to facts”, noting that Maurois’s book had done a commendable job in exposing the poet’s “idealistic anarchism.” Maurois’s 1919 novel, Neither Angel, Nor Beast had tapped into similar concerns, addressing the political chaos that had descended upon the world as a result of Bolshevism through the prism of the French Revolution. The message in both was fairly straightforward: these dreams, whilst noble, were not only foolish, they were also destructive — both to the dreamer themselves and to the people around them. Towards the end of 1924, Fitzgerald made the pilgrimage to Rome, where Shelley is buried, and it was here that he made his final revisions to Gatsby. Shelley’s dream of ‘human perfectibility’, itself inherited from William Godwin and the Age of Enlightenment, was to be brought bang up to date and given a swanky, Modernist edge — not so much ‘Prometheus Unbound’ as Prometheus Rebooted — the story of a man reborn to remind us that there was beauty to be found in the breaking of laws and that the essence of liberty was love. Here was another man who was going about ‘His Father’s Business’ with a vast and dangerous dream: part-demon, part-angel.

Like Shelley, Scott had been desperate to wriggle free of the religious and biological burdens of his past but there were things still holding him back: his respect for his boyhood mentor Shane Leslie, his grief over the loss of Father Fay and the carefree 27 year-old’s on-off romance with his own lumbering Irish-American heritage. Scott was stuck between rejecting these things outright and finding something within them both that might sit comfortably with his idea of what it was to be a respectable Modern American and a good, if liberal, Catholic. In fleshing out Jay Gatsby, Scott would set about creating a ‘New Race’ of man — someone who would fulfil both the prophecy of the old American Dream — the pioneering, ruthless half-breed making a gold mine out of a dust-heap — and someone who might also act as symbol of its new dream.

The idea of a ‘New Race of Man’ had certainly captured Scott’s imagination. His interview with Harry Salpeter of the New York World in April 1927 practically spells it out: “F. Scott Fitzgerald is a hot Nietzschean”. In his report, Salpeter goes on to explain how the author’s “blue eyes, fair hair and clean-cut profile” masked his general “cosmic despair” about the American condition. The reporter had found Scott in a fairly pessimistic mood that day. The Famous Players-Lasky movie adaptation of Gatsby had just arrived in cinemas and had torn the scab off some sore, old wounds. There were a number of things he wanted to get off his chest about America, and the words tumbled from his mouth in a fury of thoughts and testy sound bites. When they met in the tea-garden of the Plaza Hotel, Scott explained his fears. America was doomed and civilisation was in decline — not because of the threat posed to the country by its melting pot of dystopic races but because the world had “nothing more to produce”. Americans were no longer prepared to dream anymore, not on “the scale with which great races make great dreams”. Just five years earlier, Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker had sat in this same Plaza tea-garden chatting about Jay Gatsby’s first meeting with Daisy Fay and her loveless, Eugenic marriage to bully-boy Tom Buchanan. The genius of men like Beethoven and Goethe were a thing of the past, heckled Scott. The rise of Mussolini was the last slap in the face of liberalism. The idea that America was the world’s greatest race “simply because it had the most money was ridiculous”, he added. Scott predicted that in the next fifteen years, Americans would begin to see some serious challenges from around the world as rival powers fought back. Sometime soon there would be a moment of national testing. Another war in Europe or the Pacific, perhaps. The author may have been responding to the impact of the Naval Conference in Geneva that year. As officials at the US War Department began to weigh up the threat of an attack by British and Japanese forces, strategists had come up with War Plan Red — a classified document providing a detailed account of a hypothetical war scenario with the British Empire.

At the Fifth World Congress of the Communist International in July 1924, the former minister for the Soviet Union’s Naval and Military Affairs, Leon Trotsky had predicted much the same thing: Europe was on the slide and America was constantly rising. The “United States of Europe” was unlikely to respond well to being to be “shoved into the background” as “vassals of America” and would put up fierce resistance. The contradictions, Trotsky explained, were just too great, the appetites for power too monstrous. Military conflicts seemed inevitable. The era of ‘pacifist’ Americanism that appeared to be opening up in the mid-1920s was only preparing the way for “new wars of unprecedented scope and unimaginable monstrosity.” [1] Scott also had his doubts about how well Americans would respond to this challenge. As they chatted over cocktails, Scott expressed his dissapointment at how the typical American could not say that he was American in the same way that a Frenchman could say he was French or a German could say he was German. As an individual the good American was “the best in the world” but as a race he was a “mass product” without common sense, guts or dignity. Perhaps a period of national testing, “a life and death struggle” was the only way of reforging the idea that America once had of itself as one nation. Just two weeks earlier, America had seen the arrival of Alexander Kerensky. On its tenth anniversary, the man who had promised so much for liberal Russia during the first phase of the Revolution had come to live in the States. The General Strikes of 1926, perceived to have been influenced by Soviet Russia, had provided the first clear evidence that America and Britain were facing a crisis. But it wasn’t only domestic threats that worried America. Soviet intrigues in China were promising to unsettle things in the Pacific whilst a series of power challenges from Stalin’s rival Trotsky and his followers looked set to split the U.S.S.R. By his own admission, the Americans were “keen for light and leading on Russian matters”. Kerensky’s timely arrival in New York and his permanent teaching role at the Hoover Institution in California might be read as an indication of just how seriously they were taking the threat.

The author had another surprise for Salpeter. Scott no longer felt proud to be American. The author then denied he had ever claimed to be an American, citing the absurdity and sadness of its participation in the war, pausing poignantly on the case of Otto Braun. Braun had been the highly talented son of Social Democratic activist, passionate Nietzschean and German feminist, Lily Braun who had died as a result of a push made on the Western Front by the Statue of Liberty Division of the US Army (the 77th) in 1918. [2] Scott considered the boy’s senseless premature death, a loss not just to Germany but to the whole of Western civilisation. The best of America, he contended, (the Modernists) had all now drifted to Paris. This was where you would now find the best Americans. In American it was impossible for the American to have any “real credo”.  It was clearly the drink that was talking. Scott had found himself ad-libbing a junk shop manifesto that bagged-up and recyled half-baked fascist ideals (he namedrops Erich Ludendorff who took part in the Beer Hall Putsch) with the Marxist revolutionism of his closest friends, Edmund Wilson and John Dos Passos.

Just as on so many other occasions in his life, Scott had arrived in an untidy, bothersome place where he was neither one thing or the other: he wasn’t rich, he wasn’t poor, he wasn’t American, he wasn’t Irish, he wasn’t rubbish but he wasn’t that great. It was now abundantly clear that he wasn’t a Communist or a Fascist either. If Jazz is a ragbag of influences, improvised styles and disruptive fusions, then F. Scott Fitzgerald was Jazz personified. In terms of his own personal convictions, the author was sitting on the harshest, most critical and most unlistenable of fences. The only thing he could say with any certainty was that despite all the assumptions that it made about itself, America was a nation of “great failures”.  Any notion it had of unity was a delusion. Scott had found himself describing America in terms not unlike those he had used to describe Gatsby’s palatial Long Island mansion: it was a “huge incoherent failure”.  It may have all looked very attractive by the romantic glow of the moonlight, but in the daylight it all looked rather absurd. His hopes for America turned instead to “the birth of a new hero” who would be of age when  the time of America’s testing comes. The hero, he predicted could be born of an American woman, but thought it much more likely that he would “come out of the immigrant class”, perhaps in the guise of an “East Side newsboy”. [3]

The idea of a kid from the Lower East Side of New York crawling out of the gutter and reaching for the stars had already been addressed both in the finished version of Gatsby and Scott’s original handwritten manuscript copy. In the finished novel, Nick speculates that he wouldn’t be at all surprised if Gatsby had been born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan (New York’s immigrant centre). In the earlier drafts of the novel the narrator goes a little bit further than this when he adds that Gatsby possessed some supernatural quality, or some “heightened sensitivity to life … that one might expect in some race yet unborn”.  [4] The idea partly recalls an allusion made by Shelley in his epic poem, The Revolt of Islam: “The Fiend did revel In victory, reigning o’er a world of woe, For the new race of man went to and fro, Famished and homeless, loathed and loathing, wild”. Shelley, not for the first time in his poems, sees Lucifer as the righteous but much misunderstood liberator of mankind. Like Gatsby, it is the story of the hope and idealism of two lovers triumphing over a hostile and oppressive world. The two lovers are like no one else, and neither is Gatsby. They are all like “some race yet unborn”.

Whereas Gatsby had been written in the world weary aftermath of war, Shelley had written his poem during the disenchanted twilight of the French Revolution when the “sanguine eagerness for good” had been very quickly extinguished by the madness and cruelty of the executions and witch-hunts that followed. As Shelley explained in his Preface to the poem, it was love that should be celebrated as the “sole law” that governed the moral world — love, liberty, faith, hope and justice. The poem, like Gatsby, was to follow the “growth and progress of an individual mind aspiring after excellence” as he makes pure “the most daring and uncommon impulses of the imagination” — and all in the name of love, that most anarchic and revolutionary of things. Even America — that Land of Liberty that the heroine escapes to — gets a mention. In Shelley’s poem it is a home that has been purpose-built for freedom — a “heaven” where “genius is made strong”. It was a land that was fit for heroes.

If the story of The Great Gatsby tells us anything, it’s Scott had been dreaming of a man whose social and biological limitations could be raised to dazzling new heights by his own gorgeous, creative vision — his own genius. Scott’s innate spirituality and Catholic empathy was seeking a sound philosophical basis on which to pursue not only fame and fortune but fulfilment as a cutting-edge artist: he could either cling on to the comforting false certainties of his Catholic faith or run head long into the future.

A New Race of Man. Soviet Style

The revolutionary, Leon Trotsky would sculpt his own prophetic vision for a new race of man, inspired in part by his meetings with American Nativist and Eugenicist, Edward A. Ross in Russia in 1918. In Ross’s idealised version of good old American values, the spirit of the true American was to be found in the blond, blue-eyed farmers and the cowboys of the Midwest — the “pioneer debauchee” who expressed the gutsy, “savage violence” of the American Frontier. For Ross, it was tough and hardy adventurers like Wild Bill Cody that provided the living tissue of the American Dream. In his 1914 book, The Old World in the New World, Ross would write wistfully of a rapidly fading romance. For the best part of two hundred years it had been the “never-say-die Scotch-Irish fighters and pioneers” that had been the “picturesque and glowing figures in the imagination of American youth”. The growth of the cities and the arrival of cheap foreign labour was changing all that. The only dreams people had now were to be rich and idle. The bourgeoisie had replaced the Buffalo as its most prolific, roaming species. In a letter written to his editor, Max Perkins just several weeks after Gatsby was published, Scott had expressed his contempt for such ideas: the fantasies being weaved by scientists like Ross and writers like Tom Boyd were nothing short of delusional:

“The American peasant as ‘real’ material scarcely exists. He is less than 10% of the population, isn’t bound to the soil at all as the English and Russian peasants were — and if he has any sensitivity whatsoever (except a most sentimental conception of himself, which our writers persistently shut their eyes to) he is in the towns before he is twenty … using him as typical American material is simply a stubborn seeking for the static in a world that for almost a hundred years has simply not been static.”

In an article he produced for the magazine, Liberty in March 1934, Leon Trotsky claimed that from an historical point of view it was entirely right and fitting that America’s New Deal program, which drew enthusiastic support from Ross, was leading the way in curbing the very worst excesses of world capitalism.  The new breed of hero springing from ‘some race yet unborn” that Scott had conceived of in Gatsby was finding a whole new birth environment. Trotsky argued that contrary to expectations, a Communist America, far from being an “intolerable bureaucratic” (and unauthentic) tyranny” like the Soviet Union, would become the ideal route to “greater personal liberty and shared abundance”. Reflecting in his memoirs on the three months he had spent in New York immediately prior to the Revolution, Trotsky would write that he had left the country with the “feeling of a man who has had only a peep into the foundry in which the fate of man is to be forged.” Trotsky’s fondness for America was simple: it was a “city of prose and fantasy”. More than any other city in the world it was the “fullest expression” of the modern age. Having already forged its independence through bloody revolution and been united by civil war, it was the most natural of evolutions. While Hitler and the Nazis were dreaming of restoring the long dead race of Europe’s Dark Forest to its original Aryan purity, the New Deal programs of reform under President Franklin D. Roosevelt would show that it was able to make decisive and far-reaching changes to the economic machinery and the welfare state. It wouldn’t go nearly far enough, he griped, but at least it was going in the right direction. [5]

The fabric of Trotsky’s own Soviet Dream had been crumbling under Stalin. The misery for most that had flourished under the rule of the Romonovs was now the misery for all. Unlike the “culturally backward” people of Stalin’s Soviet, Americans would refuse to be told what to eat or what to wear. They wouldn’t be forced to exist on famine rations and read stereotyped propaganda in State-owned newspapers. Trotsky was scathing in his criticism of the Soviet: the whole thing had become like the mythical “bed of Procrustes”. Stalin was forcing his people to lie on his wrought-iron bed and make them fit on it by cutting off whatever parts of their bodies were left dangling over its sides. Not everyone would have agreed — F. Scott Fitzgerald and H. L. Mencken among them. Writing in his third volume of Prejudices in 1922, Mencken wrote that the average American was being force-fed the American Dream, dryly observing that the typical American was like a ‘vegetable’, someone “smugly basking beneath the stars and stripes” being spoon-fed a daily diet of enriching nutrients. Mencken viewed it as the ideological equivalent of gavaging: a tube was rammed down to the stomach and poor old Joe would be forced to consume whatever he didn’t need or didn’t want. Scott had taken this core message and adapted it for his 1923 play, The Vegetable: “Any man who doesn’t want to get on in the world, to make a million dollars, and maybe even park his toothbrush in the White House, hasn’t got as much to him as a good dog has — he’s nothing more or less than a vegetable.”

Trotsky’s tricksy, belligerent piece had been designed, as much as anything, to dismiss the New Deal programs as inadequate and leave full scale Revolution as the only credible option. The revolutionary-in-exile was well aware that the radical new labour and financial reforms, conceived by President Roosevelt as an antidote to the problems created by the Great Depression, weren’t solutions to the crisis of capitalism, but rather a desperate attempt to manage it. America was on the rack and as the comforts of its existence became more and more at risk, the country would make its slow, steady advance toward Socialism. It was only a matter of time before the great American public would be forced into a ‘showdown’. Or so he hoped. [6]

Although Trotsky was far from convinced that we were seeing the start of Socialism in America, whatever we were seeing with the New Deal program was preferable to Fascism. When the Revolution had been successful and the American Soviet was finally in possession of Industry, America, he wrote, would start applying “genuine scientific methods to the problem of eugenics”. Trotsky predicted that within a century or so, “a new breed of men would emerge from the melting pot of its races” — the “first worthy of the name of man”.  [7] Just ten years earlier, Trotsky had been waxing just as lyrically about the creation of the New Man — or ‘Communist Man’ — that would emerge from a new revolutionary class who had mastered all forms of struggle. The New Man would lead not only a moral and social revolt but an aesthetic revolt. Like Goethe’s Faust he would place himself at the centre of the universe. The New Communist Man would “make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness and extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, thereby raising himself to a higher plane”. He would be fully emancipated, fully free. Trotsky’s thoughts inevitably then turned to Eugenics. The new breed of man would be of a higher biologic social type: a Superman — “immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler”. Even the most average among them would be the equivalents of an Aristotle, a Goethe or a Marx. [8] In the new socialist super world, it was probably quite inevitable that it should be ruled by a new Socialist Superman.

On the occasion of Nietzsche’s death in 1900, Trotsky had contributed a piece for the Vostochnoye Obozriene. The piece, On the Philosophy of the Superman explained how Nietzsche’s famous Superman theory was particularly well suited to the fairy tales of capitalism. The philosopher’s Gospel of Individualism expressed a masters and slaves morality “full of hatred” for a democracy “infatuated” with an egalitarianism that turned man into a “herd animal”. Nietzsche’s Supermen would inspire the activity of the entire social organism. They would romp like the mind of God in a universe of their own co-operative making. First, however, Trotsky’s ‘New Race’ of man would have to learn to master his greedy instincts. The conditions in America, Trotsky was saying, were more favourable to its development. Dreams would be allowed to take shape and a New Race of men would be allowed to grow. The New Man’s gangly, protruding limbs would flop defiantly on Procrustes’ bed and nothing would be removed. The value of liberty would be experienced by all and shared by all. In America, there was room on the bed for everyone.

It isn’t exactly clear what books or findings had informed Trotsky’s visionary world view at this time, but it is possible he had drawn a smidgen of inspiration from his encounter with American Eugenicist, Edward A. Ross in Russia in the spring of 1918. However, the science of Eugenics wasn’t new to the Bolsheviks. The ‘Cosmism’ of Nikolai Fyodorov, a mystical off-shoot of the Russian Orthodox Church and precursor to the Eugenic and Transhumanist movements, had already been embraced with some considerable passion by former Theosophist, Anatoly Lunacharsky. Lunacharsky was joined in his enthusiasm by the novelist Maxim Gorky and Education and Foreign Minister, Leonid Krassin. [9] The three ‘Russian Nietzscheans’ as they became known, took the basic grind of Nietzsche’s Superman idea and set about reapplying it to the Soviet collective. One man who would take these ideas to a whole new level was pioneer Soviet Rocket Scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. As a student of Fyodorov’ and Cosmism, Tsiolkovsky would develop a brand new program of human perfectibility that would combine elements of space exploration, atomic science and Eugenics. Feeling that we had barely touched the surface of man’s full human potential Tsiolkovsky started pushing the idea that go beyond the boundaries of his earthly existence into order to achieve a higher level of consciousness and experience. His 1928 book, The Unknown Intelligence prophesised a New Race of Man, one that would be perfected through a process of artificial selection and careful Eugenic breeding. The only condition for moving forward, was that this new improved Rocket Man would only be able to flourish in an environment in which man had learned to control his own nature and show more empathy. Before Rocket Man could be born, society would have to change. It would no longer be a case of the providing the greatest happiness for the smallest number of people but alleviating the greatest amount of suffering for the largest number of people. When that had been achieved, man was free to go on and colonize space. It was a sentiment that was being supported in Britain and America too. In a series of groundbreaking pamphlets published by Kegan Paul in London and E.P. Dutton in New York, Shelley biographer, André Maurois joined eccentric men of science like J.B.S. Haldane in asking the question: Quo vadimus? (where do we go?) Published under the banner of To-day and To-morrow, Haldane’s Daedalus; or, Science and the Future posited the notion of in vitro fertilisation, or “ectogenesis” as he called it. Through in vitro fertilisation (making babies in the laboratory) man would be able to control and perfect his evolution — but in order to avoid the inevitable grief that would come with progress, man would first have to make major advances in ethics. Suddenly, the story of Prometheus — the herald of the Titans who stole fire from the God for the benefit of all mankind — was becoming well and truly unbound in the columns of the nation’s newspapers. Take a look in the August 30 1924 edition of Scott’s favourite read The Saturday Review and you’ll see twin advertisements for Haldane’s enormously controversial Daedalus, and André Maurois’, Ariel. As Haldane had remarked in his paper, Shelley and Keats were the last great figures of literature whose knowledge of science was as deep and intense as their poetic imaginations. The world needed balancing up. True and lasting progress would need to be accompanied by social and emotional benefits for all. In the end, Tsiolkovsky’s work was a little like taking the best bits of the Bible, maturing them in an old Nietzschean cask for ten years and then serving it with a splash of Star Trek. As racism and notions of race had no place in the Communist Super State, the aim of men like Lunacharsky and Tsiolkovsky was not to produce an elite aristocratic race (as it was in Britain and America, by and large) or even a country of ‘Super-individuals’. Each of these men visualised something else entirely: a Socialist Humanity that was fit for the future at both a physical, creative and social level.

To cosmic Christians like Nikolai Fyodorov, the humanity of the future would enjoy a God-like status. This scientific socialism, as he envisaged it, would become actively involved in ‘God-Building’. The new God they had in mind would be of the people, by the people and for the people. Russia was seeing the birth of the ‘Homo Sovieticus’. Writing of Gorky’s novel, Confession in 1909, Lunacharsky does his best to translate the author’s vision: “the God of whom the old man speaks is humanity … this is the only divinity accessible to man; its God is not yet born, but being built.” The God-builder was of course the Proletariat, the ordinary people — not slaves like so many in the West to the past, but the International ‘Master Race’ of the future. [10] If it all sounds a little like the crackpot notions of an Aryan ‘Master Race’ being pushed by Hitler and Nazi Germany in the 1930s, then there’s a very good reason for it: they all spilled from much the same melting pot of sources. Whether you were talking about Germany’s quasi-esoteric Thule Society or the cosmic creationism of Mathilde Ludendorff and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, you looking at likeminded extrapolations of the fictions of Jules Verne, Samuel Butler and H. G. Wells. Novels like The Earth to the Moon, Around the Moon, The Time Machine and Vril: The Power of the Coming Race had had a powerful impact on each of them. Like Mathilde Ludendorff’s Society of the Knowledge of God, Tsiolkovsky’s belief that the god-particle was in everything, even atoms, had its roots in the same Pantheistic concepts revived by Keats and the Romantic poets. God was quite literally in the detail. It was among the peaks of Mont Blanc, the icy cool depths of Lake Windermere and among the subatomic particles and dark matter of the universe. Nature was part of an amalgamous whole and God was everywhere you looked and in everything you experienced. In terms of influence, Von Braun stood on the shoulders of Oberth and Oberth stood on the shoulders of Tsiolkovsky and Tsiolkovsky stood on the shoulders of Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats. Scott had even referenced one of Butler’s novels himself (Erewhon) in The Beautiful and the Damned. Suffice to say that Scott got the satirical dimensions of Butler’s Eugenic fantasies — the Nazis didn’t.

Upheaval in Russia

When Edward A. Ross met Trotsky in January 1918, he had already been in Russia for some six months or more. The famous Eugenicist who had coined the term ‘race suicide’ had been asked to judge the mood of the Russian people and anticipate the shape and direction that the country’s new democracy might take. The previous year had seen two Revolutions in Russia: the first in February 1917 and the second in October. The Tsar of Russia had been removed and the Bolsheviks had taken power. But within weeks of Ross’s arrival, things started deteriorating rapidly. As Ross made clear in his report, the mood of the people, which had been buoyant at first, was changing. In the first phase of the revolution, the men and women of Russia were said to be literally ‘bubbling’ over with liberty. The 300 year-reign of the Romanovs was over and the absolute horrors of absolute monarchy was giving way to an entirely new phenomenon: Russian democracy. Acting as an independent observer with the American Institute of Social Service, Ross had been tasked with trying to make sense of the social conditions, the need for relief and the future possibilities of Jewish repatriation. After the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917, a provisional liberal ‘duma’ had taken control of government, but as the weary wheels of war rattled on, the chaos kicked-in. Things took a turn for the worse with the embarrassingly catastrophic Kornilov Affair, when a relatively small contingent of Romanov loyalists tried to overthrow the Provisional Government and its leader, Alexander Kerensky. Trotsky had only just landed in Russia himself. In January 1917 he had been kicking about the streets of Second Avenue and Vyse Avenue in the Bronx guaging the level of anti-war feeling among the scores of Jewish radicals and Socialist pacifists making up the bulk of Lower East Side, New York. He had arrived back in Russia some several weeks after the February Revoltion, his heroic return having been delayed by his detentionby the British in Canada. After the disastrous coup attempts led by Kornilov in July that year, Ross bore witness to the Bolshevik uprising and the eventual overthrow of Kerensky’s Provisional Government.

During his time in Russia, Ross produced several reports, one of which, The United States of Russia had been prepared at the request of the New York Life Insurance Company. A second report was cobbled together by Ross for the American Institute of Social Services. This latter report mentions a series of valuable talks that Ross held with Bolshevik ‘God-builder’, Anatoly Lunacharsky prior to his appointment as Russia’s Education and ‘Enlightenment’ Minister. Ross would have drawn encouragement from the Commissar’s belief that the real wealth of a country consisted “not of pleasurable goods, but in the number of its physically, mentally and morally healthy men and women”. [11]

Ross arrived back in America, completely seduced what he had seen in the new republic. In his 1921 account of the Second Revolution, Ross makes explicit reference to Lunacharsky — commissar for Eugenics, as it were — as one of the main architects of the October Rebellion. Stirred by the scenes he had witnessed in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Ross was now intent on challenging the pitiless stream of propaganda being served about Russia in the West. One thing that Ross was desperately keen to correct was the notion that the Bolshevik Revolution was the work of a handful of extremists supported by German money. In Ross’s estimation it was all untrue. Even if Lenin hadn’t made it back through Germany on the train, Ross believed that the events taking place in Russia would have taken much the same course, and for the next few years he set out to prove that. The “robbed and oppressed masses” had surged forward toward their goal, their unfulfilled desires flowing like “molten-lava” that no dam could block or turn aside. In Ross’s words, the Revolution had been as “elemental” as an “earthquake” or a “tidal wave”. In return, the fledgling Soviet Republic would likewise speak favourably of Ross. In 1921, the Soviet Bureau in New York published a glowing review of his book, The Russian Bolshevik Revolution. Next to it was a review of Vadim A. Bystryansky’s State-published, Communism, Marriage and the Family in which he discusses the “socialist system of Plato” and his advocacy of a “state-regulated system of Eugenics”. In the book, Bystryansky also explored the proto-Communist, ‘Brethren of the Free Spirit’ who appeared among the Taborites of Bohemia during the 13th century, and who had been something of an inspiration to Nietzsche, and perhaps even to Shelley through the works of William Gilpin. [12]

In November 1921, some two years into his role as Minister for Enlightenment, Lunaarcksky would give the green-light on the opening of Russia’s own Eugenics Society and the Bureau of Eugenics at the Academy of Science in Saint Petersburg. A short time later, the Society became a fully recognized member of the International Eugenics Union, founded and presided over by the Polish Eugenicist, Leon Wernic. In the 1960s, Leon’s Stetson-wearing son, Wieslaw Wernic would become popular for his series of novels on the American Wild West. They may have been thousands of air-miles between them, but as far as ‘perfecting the species’ was concerned, Ross and the Soviets were not so very different.

Dropouts and Dynamiters

As far back as 1901, Ross had done much to promote the research being done by scientists in Eastern Europe which provided evidence that social conditions played a much greater factor in race betterment than heredity. [13] With adjustments in diet and social conditions, the immigrants who arrived in America underfed and under-nourished were very soon a capable match for the typical White American:

“The superiorities that, at a given time, one people may display over other peoples, are not necessarily racial. Physical inferiorities that disappear as the peoples are equalized in diet and dwelling ; mental inferiorities that disappear when the peoples are levelled up in respect to culture and means of education, are due not to race but to condition, not to blood but to surroundings.”
— The Causes of Race Superiority, Edward A. Ross.

After making this very persuasive argument, Ross delivered the bombshell: these improvements in social conditions, in diet, and education, meant the immigrant was gradually out-working, out-producing and worst of all, out-breeding the native born American:

“For a case like this I can find no words so apt as ”race suicide.” There is no bloodshed, no violence, no assault of the race that waxes upon the race that wanes. The higher race quietly and unmurmuringly eliminates itself rather than endure individually the bitter competition it has failed to ward off from itself by collective action.”
— The Causes of Race Superiority, Edward A. Ross.

Ross’s theories about environment and his notion of ‘race suicide’ would later be reprinted in California’s Labor Union daily, Organized Labor. The newspaper’s editor was the Norwegian-American, Olaf Anders Tveitmoe. Although critical of the Lenin’s Bolshevik regime at the time of the Revolution, just a few years earlier, Tveitmoe had been among a small group of radicals meeting at the home of convicted ‘dynamiter’ David Caplan. According to press and police reports of the time, Caplan and several of his associates were being accused of plotting to bomb the Los Angeles Times Building as part of a symbolic assault on American capitalism. Like Jay Gatsby, a young Tveitmoe had enrolled at a college preparatory program at St. Olaf’s College in southern Minnesota. Like Gatsby he left the course early, probably no less “dismayed at its ferocious indifference to the drums of his destiny.” In contrast to Ross, Tveitmoe’s interest in Eugenics had taken a much more eccentric route. In the late 1890s he had been a member of the experimental Socialist commune Bellamy Beamings in Oregon. Inspired, like so many others transhumanists, by the utopian novels of Edward Bellamy, the group espoused the same Eugenic ideals as Russian Cosmists Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Nikolai Fyodorov and took arms against the greed of the Gilden Age. The message that both Ross and Tveitmoe were pushing was simple enough: cheap labour was destroying the plucky can-do attitude of the homegrown Americans and driving down living standards. The country was committing ‘race suicide’. After making a statement to this effect in November 1900, Ross was forced to resign his position at Stanford University. Tveitmoe leapt immediately to Ross’s defence: “There is a jangle of rusty shackles in Stanford’s quad, and an odor of the mediaeval torture chamber in the place where the dons sit in solemn conclave.” [14]

Energized by his experiences in Russia, Ross would spend the next ten years demanding that America formally recognise the legitimacy of Lenin’s Soviet as the official and only government of Russia. It was a risky move. Ross — the man who had actually coined the term ‘race suicide’ — was now very much at risk from committing professional suicide. By the early 1920s, the anti-Bolshevik press of American had him in their cross-hairs and Ross was duly accused of being a Bolshevik spy. His crime? He said he had met with Trotsky in Russia and could say without any equivocation that he was not a German agent. Ross was repudiating a narrative that the allies had tried desperately hard to preserve about Lenin and Germany. [15] Ross would continue his defence of Trotsky when he sat on the Dewey Commission, a support group set-up to clear him of all the charges against him in Stalin’s Moscow show trials of 1936. Joining Ross in the group was Californian Labor leader, James P. Cannon, and two good friends of Scott: Edmund Wilson and John Dos Passos. Trotsky was living in exile in Norway and Mexico at the time. Whilst there’s no clear evidence that Ross’s enthusiasm for Eugenics had rubbed off on either Lunalarsky or Trotsky, it is certainly interesting to think of both of them celebrating the birth of the Soviet Man back at the Kremlin in 1918.

Eugenia’s New Deal

One of Ross’s fiercest critics during the mid-1930s was Elizabeth Drilling, the outspoken anti-Communist whose Little Red Book of undesirable Americans included New Deal supporters, Edward A Ross (board member of the Committee on Cultural Relations with Latin America) and Mary Harriman Rumsey, who had once wickedly been named Eugenia for the interest she had shown in the early Eugenics movement. It had been a substantial cash-input from Harriman’s father, E. H. Harriman, that had allowed Eugenicist Charles Davenport to develop the 80-acre plot of land that would become the base station of Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbour on Long Island in 1904. Thirty years later Mary Harriman Rumsey would be appointed Chair of the National Recovery Administration by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As a result of this appointment Harriman became an integral feature of the President’s New Deal program — generally perceived by Drilling and her supporters on the far-right as Communist in nature. Whilst it is true that Ross and Harriman had been united in their early support of Eugenics and the New Deal initiative, socially they inhabited very different spheres. Ross, at the University of Wisconsin consorted with the bookish intellectuals and hardcore statisticians. Harriman, on the other hand, was a prominent member of the hunting and polo set of the Long Island’s Gilded Age families.

As the daughter of the late railroad magnate, E. H. Harriman, Mary had inherited a considerable fortune. As a result, she and her mother became the go-to sponsors of many philanthropic and scientific concerns around New York. Several notable Fitzgerald scholars, Horst Kruse among them, record that Scott had attended the parties that Mary had thrown with her polo-playing husband, Charles Rumsey, a keen horseman and talented sculptor. Kruse notes that there are several entries in Scott’s ledger during the 1923 period that relate to the pair. The first entry is in May 1923 when he briefly describes meeting Mrs Harriman-Rumsey and professional polo-player Tommy Hitchcock Jr, just as his play The Vegetable was entering production. Her husband Charles had died in September the previous year, the month before Scott’s arrival on Long Island. More Harriman parties followed in November that same year. By this time, Gatsby was really taking shape. The location for the parties was Harriman’s house on Wheatley Road near Brookville, half way between the Eugenics Record office in Cold Spring Harbour and Scott’s house in Great Neck. Living across from Mary Harriman-Rumsey at Big Tree Farm was the son of James J. Hill — the fabulously successful railway millionaire mentioned in both Gatsby and Absolution and intimate family friend of Scott’s mother’s family back in Saint Paul. Rumsey scores several repeated mentions in Scott’s ledger between 1927 and 1934, the year that Harriman died in a horse-riding accident in Virginia.

Mary Harriman-Rumsey’s interest in Eugenics wasn’t casual by any means, having enrolled at the Carnegie Institution’s Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbour, before going on to assist Dr Charles Davenport in setting up the Eugenics Record Office at the same location. Just weeks before Russia’s Enlightenment Minister, Anatoly Lunacharsky gave the green light on founding the Russian Eugenics Society, Mary Harriman Rumsey had sat on the committee who organised the Second International Congress of Eugenics in New York in September 1921. Although the Soviet’s leading Eugenicists Nikolai Koltsov and Nikolai Vavilov had established good working relations with the Records Office at Cold Spring Harbour, the Russians (like the Germans)  narrowly missed out on being invited to the Congress which had gone ahead without them. Documents reveal that Vavilov, at that time attending a attending a parallel congress on phytopathology in San Francisco, had made a personal appeal to Davenport shortly before the Congress got underway. Davenport duly collected all the various materials available at the Congress and passed them to Vavilov shortly after its conclusion. [16] A series of further requests were put to Davenport from colleagues of Vavilov operating with the Soviet Trade Delegation to Norway. Davenport responded immediately to  these requests with a shipment of books and periodicals. A report in the Foreign News section of Eugenical News dated November-December 1921 describes the promising dialogue that had been established between the Russian and American Eugenicists. It also recorded the visit paid by Nikolai Vavilov to Davenport at the Long Island Records Office. [17] A news item from the April issue of Eugenical News mentions a donation of $2,500 made by Mary Harriman Rumsey toward an exhibition of any findings made at that year’s congress.

Assessing the various connections between Scott Fitzgerald and Mary Harriman Rumsey, Kruse speculates that it may have been the parties that Scott and Zelda attended at her home that may have inspired the tone of the racist rants embarked by Tom Buchanan — also regarded by some to be a dead-ringer for Mary’s polo chum, Thomas Hancock Jnr. [18] Whilst there is no denying that Scott attended these parties, it has already been determined that Scott’s interest in Eugenics predates them by several years. As we’ve already noted (and as Kruse himself has noted) Scott’s interest in eugenics, satirical or otherwise, dates back to his time at Princeton and his lyrical compositions for the 1914 Triangle Club production, Fie Fie! Fi Fi! (Love or Eugenics). Additionally, there is no evidence to suggest that Harriman Rumsey’s interest in Eugenics was in anyway motivated by White Supremacy. As we’ve seen already, Eugenics in during the early part of the 20th Century was split between those who embraced as it a social justice and hygiene issue, those who attributed it to heredity, those who attributed it to environment and those who saw it as a little bit of all three. The crude ideological brand of Eugenics being popularised by the likes of Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard couldn’t have been more different to the more nerdish and biological brand of Eugenics being investigated by men like Davenport and Ross. Yes, there were crossovers, and yes both may been regarded as racially prejudiced by modern standards, but the vicious rhetoric that Scott places in the mouth of Tom Buchanan bears very little resemblance to the kind of scholarly sentiments expressed by Harriman and her friends.

Clues about any racist views she might have possessed may be found in Harriman’s appointment to the New Deal campaign, which actively fought to improve condition and civil rights for African American workers. At the time that she was working in Washington on the New Deal and National Recovery projects, Harriman was sharing a house with her colleague, Frances Perkins. During the period in which the pair cohabiting, Perkins was being praised for her efforts to ensure that African Americans were being accepted as participants in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a relief project rolled out as part of the broader New Deal program. [19] The house they shared was the property of Mrs Florence Jaffray Harriman, the quite extraordinary and quite influential Socialite wife of Mary’s cousin, J. Borden Harriman. The pair’s close attachment to President Roosevelt and the First Lady made them the go-to allies in practically every major crisis the White House encountered. It’s also worth pointing out that Eleanor Roosevelt used her own considerable influence in the cause of achieving civil rights for Black Americans. Although opinions are divided as to whether their New Deal efforts had a negative impact on black labour (faced with paying them equal pay, many companies simply hired fewer blacks) there’s little doubting the sincerity of their campaign to balance things up.

Harriman’s input into Eugenics appears to have been aroused by her commitment to social justice, rather than any fears she may have had about the ‘rising tide of the colored empires’. For several years she had been an active figure in the Junior League and Settlement Movement, an experimental reformist group that attempted to bridge the gap between extreme poverty and extreme wealth. To the ‘white hats’ like Harriman, Eugenics was just one of several routes to improving the lives of everyone, rich and poor alike. To the ‘black hats’ of the movement, it was a route to exclusion and hostility. The Settlement Movement was almost exclusively staffed by the white hats who took the no less patronising approach of noblesse oblige to ‘culturing’ the poor. In America, the movement was led by Social Worker and activist Jane Addams, whilst in Britain it was men like Arnold Toynbee and Samuel Barnett, whose efforts in the East End of London, including Whitechapel, were revealed to Scott during his and Zelda visit to London in the summer of 1921. The man showing them around the slums that week was Scott’s Newman mentor and Father Fay’s friend, Shane Leslie. Harriman’s close friend, George Russell, an Irish poet and Theosophist who went by the unusually truncated moniker, Æ, was in factual fact also a good friend of Leslie and the pair regularly exchanged letters on the progress of Irish Home Rule. Given the various family links between the Harrimans, the Vanderbilts and the Jeromes, it is highly conceivable, that Mary’s house on Long Island was among those shown to the young Scott during Leslie’s time in America during the 1912-1919 period. Horst Kruse notes that in later years Scott would say that Harriman’s house on Wheatley Road was among his list of favourite places. [20]

[1] ‘Europe and America’, Leon Trotsky (a translation of a speech published in Izvestia, August 1924), Fourth International March 1943 Vol. 4 Iss. 4, pp. 120-126

[2] ‘Fitzgerald, Spenglarian’, interview with Harry Salpeter (New York World) April 2 1927), Conversations with F. Scott Fitzgerald, University Press of Mississippi, 2004, p.86-88. Lily died in 1916 as a result of the stress she experienced whilst her son was at war.

[3] ‘Fitzgerald, Spenglarian’, interview with Harry Salpeter (New York World) April 2 1927), Conversations with F. Scott Fitzgerald, University Press of Mississippi, 2004, p.86-88

[4] The Great Gatsby – Autograph Manuscript, Fitzgerald, Princeton University, Manuscripts Division, Firestone Library, F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers (C0187), Box 4, p. 5

[5] My Life, Leon Trotsky, Thornton Butterworth Ltd, London, 1930, pp.232-239; ‘If America Should Go Communist’, Leon Trotsky, Liberty, March 23, 1935.

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] Literature and Revolution (1924), Leon Trotsky, Russell & Russell, New York, 1957.

[9] Lunacharsky served as the Soviet Commissar for Education and the Arts. In the early 1900s he had been a devotee of the founder of the Theosophical Society, H.P. Blavatsky,

[10] Nikolai Zabolotsky: Play for Mortal Stakes, Darra Goldstein, Cambridge University Press, 1993; The Commissariat of the Enlightenment, Shelia Fitzpatrick, Cambridge University Press, 1970, pp. 4-6

[11] ‘Report of Professor Edward A. Ross to the American Institute of Social Service on his mission to Russia-March 30, 1918’, Studies in Social Progress, June 1918, Vol. X, Number 9, pp. 134-135

[12] Soviet Russia, July 1921 Vol. V, No.5; Soviet Russia, November, 1921 Vol. V, No.5

[13] ‘The Causes of Race Superiority’, Edward A. Ross, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, July 1901, Vol. 18, p.67. For more on Ross you might want to read Julius Weinberg’s E. A. Ross: The Progressive as Nativist and The Old World in the New World (Ross, 1914)

[14] The Great Gatsby, St Olaf’s College, p.96; ‘Prof. Ross Forced to Resign’, Labor World, December 15, 1900, p. 4; Barons of Labor, Michael Kazin, University of Illinois Press, 1989, p.164

[15] ‘The Russian Bolshevik Revolution’, Edward Alsworth Ross, New York Herald, May 29, 1921, p. 10; Bolsheveki have a Good Chance to Win says expert’, Tacoma Times, January 29, 1918, p.1

[16] Vavilov to Davenport, September 21, 1921, Manuscript Division of the American Philosophical Society (hereafter APS), Mss. B. D27; ‘Foreign Notes,’ Eugenical News, 1921, vol.6, Nos 11-12, pp. 72-73.

[17] ‘Foreign Notes,’ Eugenical News, 1921, vol.6, Nos 11-12, pp. 72-73.

[18] F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mary Harriman Rumsey: An Untold Story Horst H. Kruse, The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2015), pp. 146-162

[19] Franklin D. Roosevelt had appointed Harriman to Chair of the Consumer’s Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration

[20] F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mary Harriman Rumsey: An Untold Story Horst H. Kruse, The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2015), pp. 146-162