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

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

by Mary McAleer Balkun

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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


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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“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

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University of Alabama Press
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Amer Lit Realism & Naturalism
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The American Counterfeit

Authenticity and Identity in American Literature and Culture

By Mary McAleer Balkun

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2006 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5742-9


The Real, the Self, and Commodity Culture, 1880–1930

"[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 depicting this very type. However, it soon becomes apparent that the Monarchs are completely unsuited to the work, not because they 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 thing produced for consumption — is merely an analogue for the authentic self, that elusive figment of the modern imagination.

The Monarchs function under the assumption that the real thing must be somehow superior to the imitation, a judgment fundamental to any discussion of authenticity. Part of their certainty is class based; they cannot believe that their "type" could be represented by anything other than an actual member of the elite. Anything else would subvert their perceived exceptionalism. Class status as a feature of authenticity is addressed even more directly by the narrator's friend Jack Hawley, who describes the Monarchs as "a compendium of everything he most objected to in the social system of his country. Such people as that, all convention and patent-leather, with ejaculations that stopped conversation, had no business in a studio. A studio was a place to learn to see, and how could you see through a pair of feather-beds?" (61). In other words, the authentic — and by extension the inauthentic — is associated with the visual (which is also privileged in this period, as evidenced in the increasing popularity of media such as photography); it can be seen and identified by specific markings, traits, and characteristics.

Even the setting of the story — the art studio, inhabited by an artist who does commercial work to support himself — provides a fitting backdrop for an analysis of the authentic and inauthentic. The artist's studio in late-nineteenth-century America was infamous for being "opulently adorned" and filled with objects and "artifacts" that were intended to suggest "exotic wanderings" (Burns 209). Sarah Burns compares a studio such as William Merritt Chase's, which was renowned for the number of objects it contained and its "atmosphere," to "the contemporary department store, where merchants learned to concoct an atmosphere of rich, evocative displays to tempt the consumer" (210). While the artist in James's story does not seem to be working in such an ornately decorated environment, the association would have already existed in the reader's mind, as would the parallels between the work of art and the commodity that Burns explores and that the commercial artist himself embodied. In addition, with the new potential for the reproduction of artworks, originality, or "authenticity," became an issue of central importance in this period. The artist in James's story does not create copies himself, but the threat of the facsimile always hovers in the background. In a consumer culture, a copy can itself become a valued commodity, one that can have a direct impact on the value of the original. Not only can the copy call the provenance of the original into question but it can also redirect capital away from the original when people are able to purchase a facsimile. This view of the art object as "product," as a consumable good with a relative value in the market, as well as the place of authenticity in determining the value of the work of art, is borne out by the artist in James's story, who understands that his illustrations are his "pot boilers," distinct from the portraits with which he hopes to win fame. The portraits are his "real art" while the illustrations are shams, albeit well-paying ones, and he is careful to maintain that distinction. His treatment of his illustration work as a profession is evident in his acknowledged "detestation of the amateur" (46), a distinction that also becomes important at the end of the nineteenth century and is evidenced in the obsession with professional licenses, institutional degrees, and family trees. Credentials can be used to validate one's worth, either professionally or socially.

Yet it is not just the work of art that is subject to commoditization. A related concern was that people would themselves become machines. This is certainly borne out in the statement made by Josiah Wedgewood in a letter to a friend about the inconsistencies of production, in which he wrote that he "was 'preparing to make such Machines of the Men as cannot Err'" (Forty 33). In attempting to re-create themselves as artist models (an interesting term in this context, and one that also suggests the world of things), the Monarchs are consistently associated with objects and, simultaneously, their "genuine" status is called into question. Mrs. Monarch is described as "singularly like a bad illustration" (42), and we learn that as a young woman she was known as "the Beautiful Statue" (44). Similarly, Major Monarch is figured as a mannequin (the narrator decides that a new club would do well to pay the major to stand in a window). The two are described as perfect for advertising (43), a field that becomes closely associated with fraud and the inauthentic in the twentieth century. Continuing the association of persons with objects, the Monarchs are expected to become implements of a sort: having spent a lifetime supplying entertainment and "form" for their friends and acquaintances in return for hospitality (45), they must now become "useful." It is Major Monarch's hope that the narrator might "make something" of them (41), as if they were raw material to be molded into a suitable form (the relationship between content and form being another criterion for authenticity), while Mrs. Monarch's declaration, "Oh, we never get tired!" (44), takes the allusion to its most extreme, equating the couple with machinery.

One by-product of the machine age, and the concurrent multiplication of factories and the cities that grew up around them, was the increasing inability to identify those with whom one lived and worked, a concern that had an ever-increasing hold on the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century psyche. Young and old flocked to the new industrial centers in ever-greater numbers in order to find work and to escape from what was perceived as the limited opportunities for advancement in rural areas. This was in addition to the vast waves of immigration that left their mark on the composition of urban areas: 10 million immigrants arrived between the Civil War and 1890, and an additional 15 million arrived between 1890 and 1914 (Johnson, History of the American People 513–14). One result was the realization that one was surrounded by strangers, perhaps for the first time. No longer surrounded by those who shared a common place and history nor supported by a network of neighbors who could assist them in determining the character of the arriviste, residents of the city were vulnerable to whatever story a stranger chose to tell them.

In one of the pivotal statements in the tale, the narrator/artist says of the Monarchs that "somehow with all their perfections I didn't easily believe in them" (45). The speaker's inability to believe in the Monarchs goes beyond doubting their function as models; it also reverses the focus of the usual questions about personal authenticity, turning it on those who typically ask such questions. It is not clear to the narrator initially just who the Monarchs are, besides being "a gentleman" and "a lady." While the quotation marks that appear around these words in the story are intended to indicate spoken words, they also help to set the phrases apart in a potentially ironic way, raising the first doubt about the couple's authenticity. From their initial appearance the Monarchs become objects of the "speculative" gaze, to use the word in two of its forms: they are objects for the art market as well as a source of doubt. The narrator tries unsuccessfully to "take them in," wondering who they are, what they want, whether they are husband and wife, and whether they are celebrities (39). His confusion is not unwarranted.

The Monarchs claim that they must "do something," but "their appurtenances [are] all of the freshest" (41). They have created a life built on denial, and any of the "facts" we learn about them — besides their recent financial setback — comes from the narrator's imagination as he tries to piece together a story for them. While they presumably represent the real thing, they have no experience of reality and the real world, having led sheltered and essentially unreal lives up to this point. Their surname, with its lofty reference to royalty, captures the incongruity of their position. Even as they ask for work, they are concerned that others might learn the truth, so they ask to be used "for the figure" (42), not the face. Such caution is unnecessary with Mrs. Monarch at least, who "[lends] herself especially to positions in which the face [is] somewhat averted or blurred; she abound[s] in ladylike back views and profils perdus" (53). Her ability to efface herself, while always giving the impression of remaining what she is, a lady, suggests that there are versions of reality that undermine any attempt to identify the real thing.

This situation is further complicated by Mrs. Monarch's antithesis, Miss Churm, who is a model with a "curious and inexplicable talent for imitation" (53). Although Miss Churm does not have the authenticity of class status, she is the "real thing" by virtue of the mimetic skill that allows her to "represent everything, from a fine lady to a shepherdess" (48). Ironically, her ability to adopt personae, even if only temporarily, is a sign of the authenticity — as a model at least — that the Monarchs lack. Yet James makes clear that the situation is even more complex. As Clifton Fadiman observes in "A Note on 'The Real Thing,'" Miss Churm (and Oronte, a newcomer who eventually displaces Major Monarch) has not only vitality but also an "understanding, crude as it may be, of the sinuous, protean, evasive nature of human character" (217). The stability that one might typically value as a quality of authenticity becomes a detriment when the real thing cannot become anything other than what it is. Thus, there are several related paradoxes in the story: first, the ostensibly real thing may not be "authentic" and the fake may have an authenticity of its own; next, what appears genuine on the surface may be a careful construction; and finally, what appears to be performance or obfuscation may in fact reveal something genuine. The narrator's distinction between the "ideal thing" and the real one (64), the former being preferable, captures a subtlety that the Monarchs are unable to appreciate.

The central issue in the James story is the validity of the real or authentic as an organizing category. Since the real has so much to do with context — what is authentic in one situation may be a sham in another — "realness" becomes a matter of perception rather than a definitive attribute. In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin suggests as much when he associates the "authenticity" of a work of art with its place in time and space: only the original object, not the copy, has "its unique existence at the place where it happens to be" (220). He continues, "The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced" (221). James's story contains an example of this dynamic at work when the artist describes Mrs. Monarch as "always a lady, certainly, and into the bargain ... always the same lady. She was the real thing, but always the same thing" (52). What should have been an authenticity born of consistency results instead in a completely inauthentic likeness; the artist always ends up depicting Mrs. Monarch as if she were seven feet tall. There is a semantic issue at the heart of both the story and the discourse of authenticity; "real" and "authentic" are not necessarily synonymous terms, although they are often used interchangeably. The word "authentic" always begs the question "to and for whom?" in ways the word "real" does not seem to.

James's tale is usually read as an indication of his preference for the work of art and the aesthetic over the real, with the narrator as a representation of the author himself. However, instead of providing answers, "The Real Thing" posits a series of related questions: What is the real thing? In relation to what is it real? What is the relationship between the real and the self? What is the relationship between the self and commodity culture? What happens when the self is treated as a thing to be "produced," as an object for consumption? James then proceeds to explore these matters (and he does so in longer works as well, such as The Golden Bowl), indicating his interest in an issue that was gaining increasing attention when the story was written: the matter of authenticity, whether in the work of art or the individual, and the connections between authenticity and material culture.

I have posed these same questions of five other texts produced between 1880 and 1930 (the previous year, 1929, having marked the beginning of a new era in American commodity culture): Specimen Days and Collect by Walt Whitman, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, Passing by Nella Larsen, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In each case I am interested in seeing how the text addresses these issues, how it reflects a specific type of engagement with material culture and the quest for the authentic, and how this might enrich an understanding of the way contemporary culture informed each. The paradoxes that inevitably arise from any attempt to use authenticity as an organizing category are a recurring feature in these texts.

A number of studies have examined the national obsession with authenticity and its opposite, the fake or "counterfeit," in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Miles Orvell's The Real Thing, which documents the aesthetic shift from a focus on imitation in the nineteenth century to a desire for the authentic or real in the twentieth, and Fables of Abundance by Jackson Lears, which outlines several fields in the search for authenticity: the search for "authentic expression" in the arts (346); "[t]he quest for personal authenticity" that became a touchstone in advertising (347), and the growing tendency to blame advertising for the rise of inauthenticity (349). He identifies James (along with Edith Wharton) as a writer whose work "represent[s] a key intervention in Anglo-American thought about things: a break from the endless opposition of authenticity and artifice, and toward a subtler understanding of how material goods connect people with the world and each other" (387).


Excerpted from The American Counterfeit by Mary McAleer Balkun. Copyright © 2006 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Mary McAleer Balkun is Associate Professor and Chair of English at Seton Hall University.                                        

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