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 fluidity in 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.
Mary McAleer Balkun is associate professor and Chair of English at Seton Hall University.
“This is the theme of this entertainingly original and cogent book: ‘Art—the thing itself produced for consumption—is merely an analogue for the authentic self, that elusive figment of the modern imagination.’ Balkun reveals this effort to present a counterfeit identity as a collective American affliction: the American seeks to mimic the images created by commercial propaganda, ‘demonstrating that where authenticity and consumerism intersect, the self becomes but another commodity to be promoted, sold, and eventually consumed’ and discarded. Recommended." —CHOICE
“A powerful and provocative book that will appeal to a wide readership, from literary critics to historians of American culture, from university professors to high school teachers . . . The American Counterfeit is a happy combination of traditional literary criticism and cutting-edge cultural studies, opening new views on familiar texts as well as on the society that produced them.” —Christoph Irmscher, author of The Poetics of Natural History