The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940

The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940

The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940

The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940


In this classic study of the relationship between technology and culture, Miles Orvell demonstrates that the roots of contemporary popular culture reach back to the Victorian era, when mechanical replications of familiar objects reigned supreme and realism dominated artistic representation. Reacting against this genteel culture of imitation, a number of artists and intellectuals at the turn of the century were inspired by the machine to create more authentic works of art that were themselves "real things." The resulting tension between a culture of imitation and a culture of authenticity, argues Orvell, has become a defining category in our culture.

The twenty-fifth anniversary edition includes a new preface by the author, looking back on the late twentieth century and assessing tensions between imitation and authenticity in the context of our digital age. Considering material culture, photography, and literature, the book touches on influential figures such as writers Walt Whitman, Henry James, John Dos Passos, and James Agee; photographers Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evans, and Margaret Bourke-White; and architect-designers Gustav Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright.


Twenty-five years after the publication of The Real Thing, any consideration of what a “real” thing is must now take place within a changed environment, thanks in large part to the invention of the World Wide Web, launched about a year after the book’s publication. Surely the virtual culture of the twenty-first century, based on the digital universe we have come to inhabit, has changed the way we think about reality in many ways. But things do not change all of a sudden or completely, and any period, including our own, is layered with past materials and conceptual frames that continue to influence the future. the tension between imitation and authenticity that was central to the narrative in The Real Thing, remains, I would argue, a dominant framework for understanding American culture, however transfigured our culture has become by “virtual reality.”

The terms I use in the subtitle—“imitation” and “authenticity”— have in fact only gained in currency in the years since the book’s original publication, with some 1,500 titles that contain one of the words or both appearing in the Library of Congress catalogue, encompassing titles in philosophy, religion, literature, education, and psychology. (In the twenty-five years preceding its publication only 250 titles used those words.) the exponential growth of these terms in intellectual discourse suggests their increasing relevance as compass points in a culture in which copies of everything have proliferated and in which that elusive quality of authenticity—the genuine, the sincere, the real—has taken on a correspondingly significant new meaning.

The chief contribution of The Real Thing was to identify the opposition between these two cultural models—imitation and authenticity—as one that marks the shift from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century and remains an essential and defining element in American culture. My elucidation of that opposition was rooted in an effort to relate artistic form to the broader cultural matrix of technology that was the artist’s foundation for thinking about and understanding the world. Looking at The Real Thing now, from a dis-

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