Gatsby and the Ex-Colored Man Considered Together

James Weldon Johnson and F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’m slowly working on a book on African American music and literature from the 1890s to about 1930, from the Ragtime era through the Harlem Renaissance. James Weldon Johnson is the central figure, having been a major Ragtime songwriter and historian of Ragtime, as well as a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance as a novelist, poet, essayist, Civil Rights activist, and social historian. Paul Laurence Dunbar appears to be the second most important figure in the story I want to tell, even though he died in 1906, because his work is so tremendous and his influence in American culture runs so deep and broad and has been so long-lasting; he might end up dominating the first section of the book. (When Aretha Franklin died in August 2018, the actress Cicely Tyson paid tribute to her by reading a Dunbar poem; another tribute to Franklin quoted another Dunbar poem; rockabilly bands were playing a song based on yet another Dunbar poem into this century and for all I know still might be.)

I finished a draft of the first chapter this week (of a projected . . . 16?; I have pieces of several other chapters in various stages of draftiness), and I threw out an unsupported claim (remember, my audience, at that point, consisted of my eyes only) that The Great Gatsby has been a plausible candidate for the Great American Novel. After saying that, I decided to see whether it might be true, and like any curious 14-year-old, I searched on the web. Which led me to several articles as well as a whole book, So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, by NPR commentator and English professor Maureen Corrigan, who argues what I suspected that people were arguing: that Gatsby is the Great American Novel.

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