He was balancing himself on the dashboard of his car with that resourcefulness of movement that is so peculiarly American – that comes, I suppose, with the absence of lifting work or rigid sitting in youth and, even more, with the formless grace of our nervous, sporadic games.
The Great Gatsby is a candidate for the spurious crown of “the great American novel,” so it’s interesting to consider this passage, the only sentence in the novel that seriously applies the term “American” to mannerisms that amount to a description of national character. (There’s one other sentence, more famous, but less serious, in the next chapter: “Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry.“) Of course, the entire novel is about America and Americanness, but in this sentence the term is explicit.
Fitzgerald doesn’t pick an idea, an opinion or political view. He doesn’t pick an ethnicity, race, color or class. Instead, he focuses on an inchoate mark of physicality – resourcefulness of movement – as the mark of an American. This may seem odd, but if you’re American and have ever traveled in a foreign land where you should appear ethnically similar to the natives, you may have noticed what he’s talking about here. Though you may wear the clothes of their country and make every attempt to appear at home, you are routinely marked by the locals as an American, just at a mere glance and before you even open your mouth. How did they know?
Maybe “resourcefulness of movement” is the best way to describe it. In this country, most of us grow up far from the farm, aspirations run away from manual labor, our schooling lacks what other countries consider discipline, we glorify play and try to weave it into both school and work. These are deep sociological differences from many other nations, too complex to explain briefly, and too restlessly ingrained to avoid vibrating through your body and into the very air around you.