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The American Counterfeit

Authenticity and Identity in American Literature and Culture

Written by Mary McAleer Balkun

Publication Year: 2006

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.



Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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p. ix

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pp. xi-xii

My first debt of gratitude goes to Frederick R. Karl. It was in his American literature doctoral seminar at New York University in 1989 where I first heard about the trope of “counterfeiting” (an image that appears in his study American Fictions, 1940–1980). I will remember him always for his generosity and encouragement. I also want to thank the members ...

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

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pp. 1-17

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.1 Major and Mrs. Monarch, “a gentleman” and “a lady” ...

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2. Whitman’s Natural History: Specimen Days and the Culture of Authenticity

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pp. 18-40

In a brief section of Specimen Days and Collect (1892) titled “Patent- Office Hospital,” Walt Whitman feels compelled to describe the “fascinating sight” of a temporary hospital for the wounded set up in the patent office in Washington, D.C., during the tumultuous days of the Civil War. The passage would be remarkable for Whitman’s vivid description ...

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3. “I couldn’t see no profit in it”: Discourses of Commoditization and Authenticity in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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pp. 41-71

In the brief but fascinating “hair-ball” scene from chapter 4 of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain,1 Huck tries to determine what the future has in store for him by appealing to a higher authority: a magic hair ball in the possession of Jim, a slave belonging to Miss Watson. These two positions of ownership—Jim’s of the hair ball ...

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4. Connoisseurs and Counterfeits: Edith Wharton’s "The House of Mirth"

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pp. 72-96

The crucial opening scene of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) immediately introduces the central characters in the drama about to unfold—Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden—and does so in a setting synonymous with power, commodities, wealth, and mobility of various types in the nineteenth century: Grand Central Station. Like Huck and ...

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5. Dressing to Kill: Desire, Race, and Authenticity in Nella Larsen’s Passing

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pp. 97-124

The letter Irene Redfield holds in her hands in the opening passage from Nella Larsen’s novel Passing (1929) has been sent to her by Clare Kendry, a childhood friend who has emerged for the second time in two years from the shadows of the white world into which she “passed” twelve years earlier. The letter is mysterious, difficult to read, uncertain ...

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6. A World of Wonders: Collecting and the Authentic Self in The Great Gatsby

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pp. 125-152

On the afternoon he meets Daisy Buchanan again for the first time in five years, Jay Gatsby takes her to see his magnificent house. He has planned this meeting so she can see the building at close proximity, hoping to impress her immediately with its size and grandeur, and a tour is the natural culmination of his quest to win Daisy and convince ...


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pp. 153-165

Works Cited

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pp. 167-176


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pp. 177-181

E-ISBN-13: 9780817382575
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817314972

Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 424521930
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The American Counterfeit

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Identity (Psychology) in literature.
  • Passing (Identity) in literature.
  • Self in literature.
  • Counterfeits and counterfeiting in literature.
  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Impostors and imposture in literature.
  • Authenticity (Philosophy) in literature.
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