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The chief argument in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities is that a nation is an “imagined community”, which is communally constructed by the people who perceive themselves to be a part of it. In my paper I shall attempt to contextualise Anderson’s theories in relation to the ideas of nationhood in the United States of America. Colonialism and the Puritan search for the ‘New World’, along with slavery and race relations, and the modern day position of the USA in world politics have all contributed to the idea of American nationhood being extremely fraught with complexities. This continuous struggle to define “Americanness” has been a principal constituent of the American novel. The representative text that I have chosen for this paper is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

In the essay ‘Cultural Roots’, Anderson put forward a new understanding of time which made the “imagining” of nations possible. He puts forth the idea of “homogeneous, empty time” i which means that several events happening simultaneously in separate places can connect the people involved in those events by a collective consciousness of a shared temporal dimension in which they co-exist. This idea of a “meanwhile”, which according to Anderson is the major premise upon which nationalism and the novel thrive, can be clearly seen in Fitzgerald’s novel. The novel portrays on a single plane the dizzying narcissistic wealth of the 1920s, the aftermath of World War I and the foreboding of an impending economic crisis. The simultaneity thus depicted ties together the past and present of the United States of America with its future, with a remarkably prophetic observation regarding the Great Depression of 1929.

Jay Gatsby’s rise to wealth from humble origins typifies America. Gatsby, like the nation is more a metaphor than a real entity. This can be seen in the protagonist Nick Carraway’s

words as he says “The truth was that Jay Gatsby

himselfii . Gatsby’s untimely death too is deeply symbolic. It gives him a kind immortality

which completes his apotheosis into the carrier of American nationhood. Gatsby’s metaphoric immortality reflects what Anderson says about nation-states-that they are objectively recent but subjectively ancient.


from his Platonic conception of

This subjective antiquity of the nation is seen also in Fitzgerald’s conception of the ‘Jazz Age’ which is seen in The Great Gatsby. The term coined by the author refers to an age marked by unprecedented economic growth, luxury and revelry in America. The ‘Jazz Age’ can be seen to be an ironic analogue of historic periods such as the Iron Age or the Stone Age. This act of imagining an epoch and placing the nation within it is essentially an attempt at chronicling the nation and the historical present. The cultural energy of jazz in the modern day epoch thus reflects the condensation of collective imagining necessary for theorising the nation. It is also significant in this regard to note that Fitzgerald names the epoch without ever mentioning the African-American presence and culture whose innovation jazz was.

In his essay Anderson observes that “the very possibility of imagining the nation only arose

historically when, and where, three fundamental cultural conceptions

grip on men’s minds.” iii America was indeed founded in the wake of colonialism and the crumbling of dynastic regimes in Europe, but what is interesting is that the founding principles of modern day America were in fact based on an intensely religious principle-the

lost their axiomatic

Puritan preoccupation with the ‘New World’. In The Great Gatsby however one finds the transformation of the religious precepts of Puritanism into a secular force which aids the imagining of the nation. The novel with its eulogising of the self-made American, secularises the Puritan ideas of labour and strife, and presents these as necessary aids to the continuous making and unmaking of America through collective imagination.

Jonathan Culler in his essay ‘Anderson and the Novel’ delineates the three major premises upon which the connection between the novel and the nation as an “imagined community” can be established. These are, “the formal structure of the narrative point of view, the national content of the fictitious, and finally the construction of the reader” iv . The omniscience of the narrator Nick Carraway is significant in this regard. Though Gatsby is the protagonist of the novel, it is through the omniscient presence of Nick who brings together the diverse strands of the narrative and whose opinion is external and superior to the other characters that the novel evokes a sense of a “bounded community” v .

The novel according to Anderson is in many ways is a perfect analogue for the nation because it brings together multifarious narratives and styles just as a nation is an amalgamated whole of heterogeneous particulars. The form of The Great Gatsby is in fact inseparable from its literary nationalism. The novel employs numerous literary styles such as realism, rhetoric and Biblical allegory to form a sense of community within it and also to form a sense of community with its targeted readership. The America that Nick and perhaps even Fitzgerald unselfconsciously “imagine” is overwhelmingly White, Anglo-Saxon in nature. The factual inaccuracy of this conception only reiterates the subjective and imagined nature of nations that Anderson highlights.

The issues of racism and race relations form an inevitable part of American history and literature. In The Great Gatsby, the non-white populations of New York are made conspicuous by their absence. As mentioned earlier, Fitzgerald’s depiction of America is often blatantly racist and factually flawed. In his essay titled ‘Patriotism and Racism’,

Anderson challenges the age old belief that nationalism is essentially based on an irrational antipathy towards the racial or social ‘Other’. He writes “nationalism thinks in terms of

historical destinies while racism dreams of eternal contaminations

holds true for Fitzgerald’s novel where the characters envision an all-White history for America. Notwithstanding, the racist paranoia voiced by characters such as Tom Buchanan, and frequent references to the subject of eugenics, these characters do not imagine the non- Whites as historic or social enemies but as eternal adversaries. Though the stupendous irony of this is not wholly unintended by the author, it is important to emphasise that the collective idea of America that Fitzgerald articulates is quite unapologetically racist.

outside history” vi . This

Anderson’s theories about the nation and the novel also throw light on the concept of the ‘Great American Novel’, an idea to which The Great Gatsby almost wholly subscribes. The concept, much like the “imagined” nation stands for a work which in terms of its form and theme perfectly represents the American zeitgeist or “the spirit of the times”. In historical terms, it can be equated with an American response to the national epic. In The Great Gatsby, one observes a palpable effort on the part of the author to canonise the contemporary novel

through the clause of nationalism. American nationalism as per Fitzgerald is precipitated by desire. While Nick strives to represent the elusive Gatsby, Fitzgerald attempts to portray the elusive America. Therefore just as Anderson observes, the nationalist yearning for form is analogous to the novel’s form seeking.

Thus one can conclude by observing that Fitzgerald’s novel studied in conjunction with Anderson’s theory of the nation helps one understand the nuanced ideas of American nationalism and identity in a comprehensive manner.

i Anderson, Benedict, Cultural Roots, Imagined Communities, pp. 24

ii Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Great Gatsby, pp. 79

iii ibid, pp. 36

iv Culler, Jonathan, Anderson and the Novel, pp. 22

v ibid

vi Anderson, Benedict, Patriotism and Racism, Imagined Communities, pp. 149