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Biography 24.3 (2001) 665-668

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Laura Browder. Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2000. 312 pp. ISBN 0-8078-2546-8, $49.95 cloth; ISBN 0-8078-4859-X, $18.95 paper.

Laura Browder begins Slippery Characters with a recent and controversial example of what she calls "ethnic impersonator autobiographies." In October 1991, The Education of Little Tree, Forrest Carter's autobiography of his Cherokee boyhood, reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list and was exposed as a terribly ironic fake. Forrest Carter, it turns out, was a pseudonym for Asa Carter; the author was not a Native American, but in fact a former white supremacist member of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, and one-time speech writer for Governor George Wallace.

As Browder argues, this troubling example of impersonation is by no means a recent phenomenon. Carter's story, rather, is "only one of dozens" of such texts that surface throughout the history of American autobiography and its "dominant strain" of "self-fashioning." These are texts which Browder concisely defines as "fictions purporting to be autobiographies, authored by writers whose ethnicity is not what they represent it to be" (2). The point of these fictions, Browder asserts, is no mere ploy or crude deception; they indicate, rather, what she takes to be a more significant exercise in ethnic and racial revision: "Over the past 160 years, while rewriting themselves into new ethnicities, the individual authors of ethnic impersonator autobiographies have escaped the trap of unwanted identities" (2). Thus Browder defines the intent of this exercise in ethnic and racial impersonation. In Carter's case, as [End Page 665] she will go on to argue in a later chapter, it is an escape "into an Indian identity to avoid being trapped in a black/white binary" (271). Moreover, Browder reads the irony of these fictions in ethnic autobiography to be double-edged, and thus worthy of more careful critical attention. Foremost, there is the irony that impersonators such as Carter, seeking a way out of the impositions of racial and ethnic traps and stereotypes, most often tend to reassert and re-impose their own ethnic, essentialist traps. "Paradoxically," as Browder puts it, "by playing into cultural stereotypes of their newly chosen ethnicities, they have mired their readers further in essentialist thinking" (2).

Through eight chapters, Browder's book proposes a "close reading" of that paradox at work in a broad selection of texts. The first two chapters establish the "groundwork" for impersonator autobiographies by looking into sources for the play of ethnic performance and its attending paradox of stereotypical thinking. In the first, Browder argues that slave narratives are among the earliest of "American ethnic autobiographies," and amply present the problem of ethnic performance and "the slipperiness of identity" (25). In the next chapter, Browder reads further illustrations of the potential and paradox of autobiographical imposture in various forms and displays of "staged ethnicities" popular from the 1830s to the end of the century--from blackface minstrelsy, to Barnum's American Museum, to Indian impersonation at the Wild West shows. Building upon these groundings, the bulk of Browder's book goes on to read this paradox of ethnic performance--the staging of authenticity--in examples that range from the late nineteenth century to the 1980s, and from fiction to autobiography to film: from Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona (Chapter 3), to the numerous immigrant autobiographies of the early 1900s such as Samuel Ornitz's Haunch, Paunch, and Jowl (Chapter 5), to the 1986 film that repeats the cultural logic of blackface and revisits a longstanding white fantasy of passing, Soul Man (Chapter 7).

The range of texts Browder considers is perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book. To be sure, it supports her assertion that the problematic of ethnic autobiographical imposture is, as it were, no passing fancy, neither today nor at earlier points in the legacy of American identity and the various forms of its representation. Whether familiar with or new to the literature of that legacy, readers will...


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