To Forgive and Gloze Over

In “What We Read”, Richter introduces us to the term “glozed over” through Barbara Herrnstein Smith:

… features that would, in a noncanonical work, be found alienating – for example, technically crude, philosophically naive, or narrowly topical – will be glozed over or backgrounded.

 

As Richter continues to elaborate, this means that when a work is found to be of literary significance despite a strand of racism, sexism, or other prejudice woven throughout, those who are in place to judge the work can also find the room to forgive the author’s transgressions due to the ultimately redeeming qualities of the whole. (125) Doing so protects the work from entering a “trajectory of extinction.” (Quote attributed to Smith via Richter, 125)

Tom Buchanan is a Very Important (White) Person.

What drives the academic, critic, or any individual reading canonical works, to forgive or gloze over such uncomfortable passages? In The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan stands out as a bigot in more ways than one. When we are first introduced to Daisy’s husband, he goes on a tirade inspired by a book he had recently read (located on p. 12 of the class edition):

The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be- will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved…

 

You don’t say!

The book Tom’s so passionate about is real: The Rising Tide of Color Against White-World Supremacy was published by Lothrop Stoddard in 1920. Most of us are familiar with the fear-based “science” of the time that sought to prove the superiority of whites. If we understand, then, the context the book is placed in, are racist remarks such as Tom’s easier to explain away? Is it just as easy for any of the minorities targeted in the book, as it is for whites, to appreciate the more obvious themes and concede the overall “literary value” of the book?

When do we stop making excuses for works that would be, if published in our time, considered grossly inappropriate and culturally insensitive?

5 thoughts on “To Forgive and Gloze Over

  1. No worries! I’m still testing the blog waters and have a nasty tendency to assume. 🙂

  2. In that case, Reilly, I suppose that I misunderstood your argument. Sorry! 🙂 The subject is certainly worthy of discussion. In my opinion (as well), making a study of context is one of the most important routes to accurately analyzing a text.

  3. Rachel, thanks for your thoughtful response. I am definitely not arguing that The Great Gatsby should be stripped of its “literary greatness” status, and I would agree that it is partially because we can have discussions like this that it’s such excellent material to analyze and study. I wanted to use this topic to explore the importance of considering context when we apply theory to our studies, and since we’ve all either read or will be reading Gatsby, I used it as my example here.

    Meagan, thanks for making some good points! I do think it is important to note, though, that while we can probably attribute Tom’s racist remarks to character building, Fitzgerald and many of his contemporaries (Hemingway, for example) were also accused/guilty of writing anti-Semitic works. So like you point out, we have to be conscious of the difference between when thoughts or beliefs belong only to the character or group in a work, and when it reflects the author’s.

    Thanks again for making my point that context is prrrreetty important!

  4. Excellent point. I think that, rather than criticizing Fitzgerald for including Tom’s blatant intolerance for the threat of a multiracial America, we should view it as a tool in analyzing Tom’s character. Tom’s multitude of unfavorable traits (including arrogance and racism) serve to emphasize his antagonistic role and illuminate his motivations and background. The racism in the novel can also remind us that the roaring twenties was a period of immense social tension and cultural clash, which would help us analyze setting.

    Although I am Caucasian, I AM a woman, and I do not feel offended by books that utilize gender-insensitive comments. If a male character were to make an offensive comment about females, I would assume that the specific character was racist, not the author, and I would therefore dismiss the offense.

    If an entire novel were insensitive, however, that’s where I would draw the line. For example, the book that Tom was reading about white-world supremacy would mostly likely be considered indecent. Hopefully all of us would agree that the message of Tom’s book would profoundly conflict with modern American morals, and therefore it would be considered inexcusable.

  5. Of course racist remarks in a novel are easier to dismiss (if one chooses to) when the book was written in a time in which racism was rampant and, generally speaking, the norm. Nevertheless, I find that “excusing” blatant racism (while it is certainly tempting, due to the uncomfortable situation in which one would put oneself in claiming to really enjoy reading a potentially racist book) is hardly the point. Defending a book simply because it is considered a canonical text would mirror the literary views of the New Criticism (which we covered in class), a form that is largely disregarded today. The Great Gatsby is an appropriate book to study when looking at it from the perspective of Cultural Studies, in which the ideology of racism is not ignored, but studied so that it is understood. Because of this, it is certainly relevant to be considered a book worthy of study. Rather than trying to ignore and forgive F. Scott Fitzgerald’s potential racism, would it not be more beneficial to try to understand his opinion on the subject in the first place? Is it not important to understand the ideologies of any time in history? If works published in our time do come to be “considered inappropriate and culturally insensitive,” I certainly hope that the literary critics of the future will use the material to try to comprehend our pigheadedness instead of throwing it away and deeming it worthless.

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