HISTORY JUNE 21, 2010
by Angus Trumble
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $28
The artifacts of daily life anchor and sustain us, but can they also entertain us and make us wise? Can they be the stuff of literature and of critical inquiry? You bet they can. Consider Philip Roth’s encomium to the glove. In a remarkable set piece in American Pastoral, Seymour, “the Swede” Levov, that “household Apollo of the Weequahic Jews,” proudly takes a visitor named Rita on a tour of his factory, Newark Maid Leatherware. Common words of praise, as well as technical glove-making terms such as tranks and fourchettes, tumble from his mouth. “See the seams? The width of the sewing at the edge of the leather—that’s where the quality workmanship is. This margin is probably about a thirty-second of an inch between the stitching and the edge…Look at how straight these seams are. This is why a Newark Maid glove is a good glove, Rita. Because of the straight seams. Because of the fine leather. It’s well tanned. It’s soft. It’s pliable. Smells like the inside of a new car. I love good leather, I love fine gloves...It’s in my blood, and nothing gives me greater pleasure”—he clutched at his own effusiveness the way a sick person clutches at any sign of health, no matter how minute—“than giving you these lovely gloves…’”
I was reminded of this bravura passage, this ode to the glove, when reading Angus Trumble’s engaging and spry new book. Much like Roth’s fictional character, Trumble is also given to great bursts of enthusiasm and equally great swaths of arcana about the human digit. Trolling through art history and advertisements, etiquette manuals and military manuals, he seems to have read—and incorporated—just about every thought Western civilization has ever had about the finger. Pliny the Younger puts in an appearance here, as does the Venerable Bede—the former for recording the expression ‘thumbs down,’ way back when, and the latter for his description of the Roman system of finger counting. Michelangelo, whose Sistine Chapel ceiling gloriously celebrates the finger of God, is duly acknowledged, as is Nita Naldi, whose scandalously long and vibrantly painted fingernails occasioned considerable comment in the United States of the 1920s. Near as I could tell, the only thing missing from this encyclopedic account is Newark Maid Leatherware.
Gloves, of course, figure prominently in Trumble’s narrative, where we are treated to a veritable catalogue of the kinds of hand coverings fancied by fashionable men and women in Elizabethan England and postwar America. Here, for instance, is Vogue, holding forth somewhat breathlessly on the virtues of “slate-grey glacé kidskin gloves by Lilly Daché, pearl grey doeskin by Superb [and] saffron French kidskin by Aris.” If that’s not enough to set one’s head spinning, consider this: Roman statuary, the evolution of sign language, the growing acceptability of nail polish, and dozens of phenomena, both large and small, that make up the gestures and the textures of daily life, from giving someone the finger when we wish them ill, to saying ‘fingers crossed,’ when we wish them well, populate the pages of this book.
An amiable, witty, and surefooted guide to what one might call digital history, Trumble is so absorbed by his subject that it propels him pell-mell into punning. He seems not to have met a finger related pun or an inside joke that he doesn’t like. His text is strewn with references to the “rule of thumb,” “hand in hand,” “pointers,” and “digitally numbered.” A little of this goes a long way.
Trumble is also discursive to the max. One thing puts him in mind of another and before you can say “finger that!,” he’s off and running. A discussion about the artist John Singleton Copley gives way to an extended inquiry into cricket; ruminations on road rage take a detour that lands us in the company of Caligula. It is all great fun and rather eye-opening. Did you ever stop to consider where the game of “eeny, meeny, miney, mo” comes from? Well, thanks to Trumble, who for all his digressiveness wears his erudition lightly and gracefully, we now know the answer. Harking back to ancient times, it was a way for young children to learn to count.
There is much to enjoy in this book. And yet, after all the finger-related observations have been collated and all the requisite puns made, what are we left with? The aim of The Finger, its author explains, is not comprehensiveness “so much as a means by which the finger may point with some precision to curious, often funny and ever more surprising aspects of us.” But surely there is more to the enterprise than just that. Are the insights and the sources that Trumble musters by the dozens intended to jolt us into re-thinking what constitutes history? Would he have us come away from his book with a heightened appreciation for the oddments of human existence? Is The Finger meant to herald a more playful approach to research, the purposeful and joyful mash-up of materials?
It is hard to say. Trumble, his voice more curatorial than authorial, shows but doesn’t tell. He leaves his readers to puzzle things out for themselves, to draw the larger cultural, economic, social, and aesthetic implications of his inquiry on their own steam and on their own time. I would have welcomed more of an assist, or, as Trumble would no doubt have put it, a helping hand.
Jenna Weissman Joselit is the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at George Washington University.