- Impostors. Literary Hoaxes and Cultural Authenticity by Christopher L. Miller
Impostors' extensive, fifty-page bibliography amply documents the fact that both the practice of, and the scholarship on literary hoaxes have a long history across periods and national traditions. In this new study, Christopher L. Miller majestically contributes to that history by investigating a specific kind of hoax, which involves usurping the identities, experiences, and voices of a different cultural group. Examining cases ranging from the American slave narrative to contemporary stories from the French banlieue, and weaving together issues of authorship, (mis)representation, readership, and editorial complicity, Miller calls attention to a particular trend of literary imposture which he terms: the "intercultural hoax." The first pages of the introduction provide the following working definition:
"It is one thing to be a writer of fiction, and quite another to be a fictive writer passing as real…An intercultural hoax takes fictivity one crucial step beyond implied contracts, placing a fake foreign or ethnic name, or a name of a different gender or class, on the title page, thus attempting to pass the work itself (and not just the fiction it contains) as the product of a genuine, real foreign or ethnic writer" (8).
Miller's work is in dialogue here with several studies which have examined instances and patterns of literary "passings" in the American context, the most evident being Laura Browder's Slippery Characters: Ethnic impersonators and American Identities (The University of North Carolina Press, 2000). Like Miller, Browder discussed at length the case of the fake Cherokee autobiography The Education of Little Tree, making it emblematic of early cross-cultural subterfuge. Unlike Miller however, Browder applied the designation "ethnic impersonators" to a specific genre—the autobiography—and to a national tradition.
The originality of Christopher Miller's essay lies in the fact that it revisits an American literary tradition saturated with ethnic hoaxes, only to step out of it to move to the understudied domain of French and Francophone studies. After the expected introduction, a comprehensive Part One—"The Land of the Free and the Home of the Hoax"—delineates the scale of (famous) American intercultural impostures, and exposes recurring patterns in their trajectories, from a "before" to an "after" of the hoax, and in some cases a "during" of the hoax. ("Can you tell?" 16)
The most compelling claims in the first section is, I think, not so much the issue of the motivation behind a given hoax (although Miller brings it [End Page 135] up throughout his study), but rather the question of its ethical implications. Having established a hierarchical relation between a literate, privileged, and "majority" author usurping the identity of an underrepresented and (allegedly) illiterate minority, Miller invites us to consider seriously the impact of impostures beyond a simple "violation of trust" (5). As he explains, "ethnic impostors usually claim to have done no harm, but once exposed, the act can be seen differently by those whose identity has been usurped or appropriated" (26). A hoax, Miller concludes, is "not a victimless crime" (41).
The durability of hoaxes is another intriguing lesson learned from Impostors: Why is it that hoaxes endure even after they have been exposed, and even beyond the author's death? A number of the questions raised in the first part, transposed to the French context, inform the remainder of the book: "Can reading alone detect a hoax?" (18). Why do literary impostures work? Who is harmed or silenced in the process, and who ultimately benefits from the operation?
Those familiar with French and Francophone literature will enjoy the conceptual light that Miller sheds on its history of impostures in Part Two. Diderot's subterfuge with La Religieuse, Mérimée's orientalist experiment, Boris Vian's passing for an African-American author, Romain Gary's elaborate fashioning of Emile Ajar, and the enigma of Camara Laye's authenticity all feature in the case studies Miller successively discusses, before he achieves the tour de force in Part III of devoting more than fifty remarkable pages to a single and after...