Site icon ELA Brave and True by Marilyn Yung

What’s Up with Wolfsheim?

3 articles to explore Gatsby’s OG

Even though I’ve taught The Great Gatsby only twice, I have done quite a lot of writing about Fitzgerald’s many-layered masterpiece. If you pull down to The Great Gatsby on my Blog menu at the top of this page, you’ll find upwards of fourteen posts related to what is considered by many to be the “Great American Novel.”

However, you won’t find a post there — until today, that is — about Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s sinister gangster-friend who was rumored to have “fixed the 1919 World Series” and made Jay into a businessman simply because Wolfsheim knew he “could use him good.”

Amitabh Bachchan plays Meyer Wolfsheim in Baz Luhrman’s 2013 The Great Gatsby.

Although Wolfsheim only appears twice in the novel, the gangster is an important key to Gatsby’s identity. We meet Wolfsheim in Chapter 4 when Nick and Gatsby visit a “well-fanned Forty-second Street cellar.” (In Baz Luhrman’s 2013 film, the establishment is a barbershop with a hidden door that leads to a speak-easy.)

A painfully stereotypical portrayal

Over the following four pages in Chapter 4, Fitzgerald paints a portrait of Wolfsheim with brushstrokes that highlight a very common Jewish stereotype. He alludes to Wolfsheim’s nose and/or nostrils no fewer than six times in Chapter 4 and once in Chapter 9, the book’s final chapter.

Fitzgerald’s preoccupation with Wolfsheim’s nose always startles and embarrasses me as I read the text and discuss it with students. Sure, we can wrap our minds around other elements that illuminate Wolfsheim’s gangster character: the human molar cuff buttons; the thick accent revealed in “Oggsford” (Oxford) and “gonnegtion” (connection); the word “wolf” in his carnivorous name. However, Fitzgerald’s preoccupation with Wolfsheim’s nose seems out of line.

Maybe this bothers me more than it does my students simply because they don’t recognize the stereotype. Even though they have no doubt studied anti-Semitism in their history classes and know that it gained popularity in the years before and during the World Wars, students may not understand how certain physical attributes were most often caricaturized.

And that’s why I find it difficult to acknowledge, let alone explain, Fitzgerald’s focus on Wolfsheim’s nose. I feel that by acknowledging the “Jewish nose” stereotype that I may be — in some imprecise way — giving it credence. And that is exactly what I don’t want to do.

Am I perpetuating the stereotype by revealing it?

So, my students and I stop during or after our reading of the Wolfsheim scenes and talk about them. I stumble through a quick explanation of the anti-Jewish propaganda that was prevalent in the early 1900s, and how the messaging usually included large hook-shaped noses, small eyes (yes, Fitzgerald worked that one in, too), dark hair, and others.

We question why Fitzgerald would have written in this manner. And because we’re in school and bells ring every fifty minutes, we usually arrive at some sort of resolution where we agree that the book’s story is one hundred years old. Sensibilities have changed. And sure enough, the bell rings, and that’s that.

As a teacher, this rush to move on means I don’t have the luxury of delving deeper during the school year to root out a text’s complications… for students or for myself.

And I feel guilty about that.

I feel guilty that I don’t have as much knowledge about Fitzgerald, Wolfsheim, and the 1920s as I should to provide a path for my students through this particular aspect of the novel.

But then summer comes, and I suddenly do have that luxury to ponder questions such as:

So, because it’s summer, and because I enjoy thinking about The Great Gatsby no matter the season, I’ve decided to share three articles to shed some light on the mysterious Meyer Wolfsheim and his function in the novel.

I’ve provided a few notes about each article below, including:

I don’t offer opinion on the views of the various authors I’ve provided. I’m merely including them here as resources if you, like me, need more information about Meyer Wolfsheim and Fitzgerald’s portrayal of this complex character.

So, if you’re familiar with the “Wolfsheim struggle bus” and the questions my students and I have had about the gangster’s portrayal, then these articles may find a place in your Gatsby lessons.

Check out these three articles:

1. “Fitzgerald and the Jews” by Arthur Krystal

Screenshot of “Fitzgerald and the Jews” by Arthur Krystal, published in The New Yorker.

This article first appeared in The New Yorker magazine on July 20, 2015. You can read it here.

Krystal’s Argument: This is a mouthful, but bear with me. I’ve boldfaced what I think is the key part of this statement. “The caricatures of Jews propagated by the Dreyfus Affair around the turn of the century and by the German press in the nineteen-thirties were driven by pure hatred; Fitzgerald was simply reiterating a familiar physiognomic code. He was provincial but not malicious, and made similar attributions about various nationalities, including the Irish.”

Main take-aways from this article:

What this article may add to your class’ analysis of Wolfsheim:

2. “Ethnicity in The Great Gatsby” by Peter Gregg Slater

Twentieth Century Literature published this piece in 1973 by Peter Gregg Slater, a historian of American intellectual and cultural history.

Access this article on JSTOR, where you can read online without a paid subscription. Here’s a link to the article on JSTOR.

Slater’s Argument: “The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that in Fitzgerald’s masterpiece of the 1920’s, The Great Gatsby, a heightened awareness of ethnic differences does constitute a significant element in the book.” The author adds that by reading the book through a “consciousness of ethnicity” lens, readers will better relate the novel to the 1920s.

Main take-aways from this article:

What this article may add to your class’ analysis of Wolfsheim:

3. “How the Great Gatsby Could Afford Those Great Parties” by Ezra Klein

Screenshot of “How the Great Gatsby could afford those great parties,” written by Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

In this Washington Post article (click here) writer Ezra Klein responds to an article published five days earlier by New York magazine‘s Kevin Roose titled Was the Great Gatsby Broke?”

Klein’s Argument: Meyer Wolfsheim needed Jay Gatsby. In his article, Roose quite methodically analyzes Gatsby’s income and expenses to determine if the financial side of Gatsby’s bootlegging business adds up. Roose writes, “Far from being rich beyond all measure, he (Gatsby) may have been putting himself at risk by outspending his means.” In “How the Great Gatsby Could Afford Those Great Parties,” Klein writes, “But Roose’s analysis leaves something — or, more to the point, someone — out: Meyer Wolfsheim, the gangster bankrolling Gatsby.”

Main take-aways from this article:

What this article may add to your class’ analysis of Wolfsheim:

As you can see, there is SO MUCH to know and ponder about Meyer Wolfsheim. Despite appearing in the novel only twice, Wolfsheim’s influence seems increasingly important. Heck, I’ve read The Great Gatsby numerous times now and Fitzgerald’s OG is just now starting to become clarified in my mind.

It’s my hope that this post will help you dig deeper into The Great Gatsby, especially as it relates to Meyer Wolfsheim who — due to Fitzgerald’s admittedly stereotypical portrayal — has always given me pause.

How do you handle Wolfsheim? Reply with a comment below or message me using my Contact page. I would love to hear from you.

Side note, but an important one: I will be leaving the public high school classroom next year, and will be teaching literature and writing as an adjunct instructor at a private local (yay! no more one-hour commute!) university. I plan to continue posting about the teaching of literature and writing. I love teaching and love making it memorable!

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Works Cited Slater, Peter Gregg. “Ethnicity in The Great Gatsby.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 19, no. 1, 1973, pp. 53–62. JSTOR, Accessed 17 Jun. 2022.

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Featured Photo Credit: Photo by Kev Bation on Unsplash

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