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  • Gatsby’s Tattoo:Gesture, Tic, and Description
  • Alex Benson (bio)

Journalist Frank Thone opened an article in the 5 September 1936 issue of the popular weekly Science News Letter with a question: “Do you talk with your hands?”1 The piece summarizes an ongoing study of New York City immigrants’ gestural habits that was conducted by Argentinean anthropologist David Efron under the supervision of Franz Boas, the hypothesis of which is the primacy of environmental (that is, historical and social) over genetic factors in shaping gestural behavior.2 The answer to Thone’s question is yes, you do talk with your hands, and more than you think. But the “you” here is not, as you might guess, the generic second person, and the upshot of this opening move is not the generalized claim that one talks with one’s hands. It is rather that the specific reader Thone more than once invokes, the “typical average American,” is guilty of the same kinds of gesticulation that he or she tends to associate with “foreigners.” Yet “we have become so used to our gestures that they ‘don’t count,’” which leads Thone to a more fundamental point, if one that remains largely implicit, about the relationship between gesture and discourse. The former does not only serve as an instrument of the latter (as Efron’s study shows by comparing the style and function of Jewish and Italian body language); these communicative practices are also structurally analogous. Gestures, Thone writes, “fit into the pattern of our lives as thoroughly as English speech fits in, or the habit of saying ‘yeah’ or ‘uh-huh’ instead of ‘yes.’”3 Like vernacular speech, gestural habits take shape independently of reflection. Nearly echoing Dick Diver’s claim in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934) that “no American men,” other than Diver himself, have “any repose,” Thone writes that Americans “talk with their hands a good deal more than they realize.”4

And with their feet, if one puts stock in Fitzgerald’s representation of gestural comportment. Consider a moment in his story “Dice, Brassknuckles & Guitar,” with which I’d like to begin in order to set up the [End Page 725] questions this essay will pursue—questions about the functions of physical behavior in Fitzgerald’s fiction and about how these functions might allow us to reflect on the methodological problem, long central to the interface of literary studies and ethnography, of description. Published in 1923, as the author began to conceive of The Great Gatsby (1925), “Dice, Brassknuckles & Guitar” shares that novel’s interests in social disparity and in the limits of self-fashioning. The protagonist, Jim Powell, is a self-styled “Jazz Master” who drives up from Georgia to try his luck in the North for the summer by opening a school that trains well-to-do New Jersey adolescents in the arts of modern socializing: shooting dice, playing guitar, fending off handsy dates, speaking in dialect. In the comic story of Jim’s school and its quick demise, Fitzgerald reflects on the class functions both of racial masquerade and of segregation—of, that is, the construction of ethnic categories as, on one hand, performative and, on the other, as stable objects of disciplinary control. But I’d like to draw particular attention to a small-scale gestural interaction between Jim and the young woman of his affections, Amanthis Powell:

Jim began to tap his foot rhythmically on the porch and in a moment Amanthis discovered that she was unconsciously doing the same thing.

“Stop!” she commanded, “Don’t make me do that.”

He looked down at his foot.

“Excuse me,” he said humbly. “I don’t know—it’s just something I do.”5

Like Thone’s “typical average American,” Jim’s body is more active than he realizes; like saying “‘uh-huh’ instead of ‘yes,’” tapping his foot is just something he does, part of the pattern of his life. Still, this behavior resists the kinds of functional categorization in which Efron’s ethnographic study of gesture is invested. Perhaps Jim, the Jazz Master, is tapping out a beat. If so, then this behavior would properly be understood as an...


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