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Real Phonies

Cultures of Authenticity in Post-World War II America

Abigail Cheever

Publication Year: 2010

The epithet “phony” was omnipresent during the postwar period in the United States. It was an easy appellation for individuals who appeared cynically to conform to codes of behavior for social approbation or advancement. Yet Holly Golightly “isn’t a phony because she’s a real phony,” says her agent in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In exploring this remark, Abigail Cheever examines the ways in which social influence was thought to deform individuals in midcentury American culture. How could a person both be and not be herself at the same time? The answer lies in the period’s complicated attitude toward social influence. If being real means that one’s performative self is in line with one’s authentic self, to be a real phony is to lack an authentic self as a point of reference—to lack a self that is independent of the social world. According to Cheever, Holly Golightly “is like a phony in that her beliefs are perfectly in accordance with social norms, but she is real insofar as those beliefs are all she has.”

Real Phonies examines the twinned phenomena of phoniness and authenticity across the second half of the twentieth century—beginning with adolescents in the 1950s, like Holly Golightly and Holden Caulfield, and ending with mid-career professionals in the 1990s, like sports agent Jerry Maguire. Countering the critical assumption that, with the emergence of postmodernity, the ideal of “authentic self” disappeared, Cheever argues that concern with the authenticity of persons proliferated throughout the past half-century despite a significant ambiguity over what that self might look like.

Cheever’s analysis is structured around five key kinds of characters: adolescents, the insane, serial killers, and the figures of the assimilated Jew and the “company man.” In particular, she finds a preoccupation in these works not so much with faked conformity but with the frightening notion of real uniformity—the notion that Holly, and others like her, could each genuinely be the same as everyone else.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

This book began when Walter Benn Michaels challenged me to come up with something interesting to say about The Catcher in the Rye. I have benefited from the generosity of many people since that early attempt to work through some of the ideas under consideration here. Laura Browder, Christy Burns, Daniel S. Cheever Jr., Beth Crawford, Theo Davis, Frances ...

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Introduction: “Individuality in Name Only”

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pp. 1-22

When Holden Caulfield, the adolescent narrator of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), searches for a scathing insult, he inevitably comes up with "phony": this is how the reader knows that Holden thinks the object of his scorn is ethically reprehensible, rather than just "a nasty guy" like his classmate Robert or "a touchy guy" like his cab driver....

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1 Postwar Teenagers and the Attitude of Authenticity

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pp. 23-55

Jim Stark from Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause (1955) is one of mid-century America’s iconic teenagers1. Along with Holden Caulfield and Johnny Strabler from Laslo Benedek’s The Wild One (1953), Jim exemplifies the incoherent anguish that was thought to define the adolescent experience and that some feared was disappearing2. Also, like Holden, that anguish is caused in no small part by the pretenses of the adult world he must negotiate....

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2 From Madness to the Prozac Americans

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pp. 56-104

Is Dr. Miles Bennell crazy? In the opening scene of Don Siegel’s 1955 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he insists that he is not1. Trapped in an emergency room and attended by two police officers, a doctor, and a psychiatrist from the state mental hospital, Dr. Bennell insists on his sanity four times in the first minute of the film: “will you tell these fools I’m not crazy? . . . I’m not insane! . . . Listen. Doctor. Now you must listen to me. You must understand me. I am a doctor too. I am not insane. I am not insane!” (“Continuity” 32)...

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3 “They Didn’t Do It for Thrills”: Serial Killing and the Problem of Motive

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pp. 105-140

When Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Thomas Harris’s infamous serial-killing psychiatrist, consults with FBI agents Will Graham and Clarice Starling, he provides them with widely disparate advice on how to capture serial murderers. To Graham, the agent pursuing the so-called Tooth Fairy in Red Dragon (1981), Lecter suggests the solution lies in identifying with the killer. He claims that this is how Graham recognized him as the murderer of nine people...

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4 Assimilation, Authenticity, and “Natural Jewishness”

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pp. 141-190

Writing in Commentary magazine in 1961, Daniel Bell analyzes the then current “crisis of identity” that defined contemporary Jewish experience. For mid-century Americans in general, he explains, “sensibility and experience rather than revealed utterances, tradition, authority, and even reason, have become the sources of understanding and of identity. One stakes out one’s position and it is confirmed by others who accept the sign” (471)...

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5 “The Man He Almost Is”: Performativity and the Corporate Narrative

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pp. 191-238

At a critical moment in Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), Tom Rath turns down what the novel describes as “a marvelous opportunity” (226). He has been offered a promotion to become the personal assistant for Ralph Hopkins, president of the United Broadcasting Corporation and “one of the few authentic business geniuses in New York” (36)...

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Conclusion: “Collage Is the Art Form of the Twentieth Century”

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pp. 239-248

In Jerry Maguire, “completion” is imagined to be possible: the self or subject that one struggles to create actually comes into being through a (good) marriage, after which (the movie suggests) one’s proper role is to assist one’s children in their own becoming. As discussed at the end of the last chapter, the epilogue of the movie suggests that the corporate and the domestic spheres might finally merge through four-year-old Ray’s burgeoning athletic ability. As Ray’s father/agent, Jerry need no longer see his professional and his personal lives as distinct....


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pp. 249-279

Works Consulted

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pp. 281-296


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pp. 297-312

E-ISBN-13: 9780820336015
E-ISBN-10: 0820336017
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820332833
Print-ISBN-10: 0820332836

Page Count: 324
Illustrations: 23 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2010