The American Counterfeit: Authenticity and Identity in American Literature and Culture

The American Counterfeit: Authenticity and Identity in American Literature and Culture

The American Counterfeit: Authenticity and Identity in American Literature and Culture

The American Counterfeit: Authenticity and Identity in American Literature and Culture

Synopsis

Fakery, authenticity, and identity in American literature and culture at the turn of the 20th century

Focusing on texts written between 1880 and 1930, Mary McAleer Balkun explores the concept of the counterfeit, both in terms of material goods and invented identities, and the ways that the acquisition of objects came to define individuals in American culture and literature. Counterfeiting is, in one sense, about the creation of something that appears authentic- an invented self, a museum display, a forged work of art. But the counterfeit can also be a means by which the authentic is measured, thereby creating our conception of the true or real. When counterfeiting is applied to individual identities, it fosters fluidityin social boundaries and the games of social climbing and passing that have come to be representative of American culture: the Horatio Alger story, the con man or huckster, the social climber, the ethnically ambiguous.

Balkun provides new readings of traditional texts such as "The Great Gatsby," "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," and "The House of Mirth," as well as readings of less-studied texts, such as Walt Whitman's "Specimen Days" and Nella Larsen's "Passing." In each of these texts, Balkun locates the presence of manufactured identities and counterfeit figures, demonstrating that where authenticity and consumerism intersect, the self becomes but another commodity to be promoted, sold, and eventually consumed.

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Excerpt

“[A]rtificial,” like “artefact,” and “artful,” a characteristic of the
spurious, does indeed contain the word “art.”

—Susan M. Pearce, On Collecting

Published in 1890, Henry James's “The Real Thing” is in many ways a fable for the turn of the twentieth century. It is a tale that addresses issues of class status, consumer culture, the commoditization of people, the re-creation of the self and, as the title suggests, the genuine as opposed to the fake. Major and Mrs. Monarch, “a gentleman” and “a lady” who find themselves in financial difficulty, appear in the studio of the narrator/artist and offer themselves as models for his work. The artist's stock-in-trade is book illustrations, and at first he is intrigued by the idea of having actual members of the social elite posing for illustrations depict ing t his very type. However, it soon becomes apparent t hat t he Monarchs are completely unsuited to the work, not because t hey are poseurs but precisely because they are “the real thing” (52). Their good birth and breeding are genuine, but this also makes them absolutely incapable of being anything other than what they are. Ironically, it is actual models, such as Miss Churm and Oronte, “a freckled cockney” and “a scrap of a lazzarone,” respectively (48, 56), elastic and able to assume various guises, who enable the artist to produce authentic work, at least for the purposes of art. As the narrator observes, the “lesson” here is that “in the deceptive atmosphere of art even the highest respectability may fail of being plastic” (63; my emphasis). But questions about the real extend beyond the boundaries of art in this text; the work of art—the . . .

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