Scratch just a little below the surface of American writing, and you'll find a substratum of stories that revolve around an impostor, a figure at once sinister and fascinating. This charlatan moves fluidly between personae, and in doing so, proves that identity is — especially in America — up for grabs. The impostor thus is everything we insist we are not. But he's also, I think, everything we wish we could be as the inheritors of our open, yet easily manipulated, American culture.
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Time now for a literary exploration of hidden identity. It's part of our series Three Books, where writers recommend three books on one theme. Today, David Anthony on the imposters among us.
DAVID ANTHONY: Scratch just a little below the surface of American writing and you'll find a substratum of stories that revolve around imposter, a figure at once sinister and fascinating. This charlatan moves fluidly between personas, and in doing so, proves that identity is, especially in America, up for grabs.
The imposter is thus everything we insist we are not. But he's also, I think, everything we wish we could be as the inheritors of our open, yet easily manipulated, American culture.
Numerous recent books star this uniquely American character, but the most uncomfortably riveting is David Samuels' "The Runner." And the most disturbing thing about it is that it's true. In the late 1980s, a man calling himself Alexi Santana was admitted to Princeton. Describing himself as a self-educated cowboy from Nevada, Santana was the most interesting new student at the school. He was also a consummate liar, something revealed when it was discovered that he was actually 30-year-old ex-con James Hogue.
I wanted to start all over again, without the burdens of my past, he told the police. Whether or not he was aware of it, Hogue was echoing a long line of impostors in American letters. He was also voicing something most Americans feel at one time or another, whether we act on it or not. "The Runner" is the most recent reminder of the way class can be performed in America, but Mark Twain's "Pudd'nhead Wilson" offers an early example of America's obsession with stories about racial imposture.
The narrative begins with the decision of a light-skinned slave mother named Roxy to switch her baby with her master's white baby. What follows is a comedy of racial manners. But Twain's story grows dark when Roxy's switched son is discovered in his assumed identity and sold back into slavery. Twain's message, it seems, is that racial imposture simply can't be tolerated in America. My favorite impostor narrative is actually one of America's first gothic novels.
Charles Brockden Brown's "Arthur Mervyn" arrives in Philadelphia penniless, but he's quickly taken in by a scheming con man posing as a rich merchant. Soon, he's helping to bury a murdered body and hide counterfeit money, which is to say that our protagonist may not be as guileless as he claims. In fact, his version of events clashes with that of other narrators, leaving both readers and characters with an interpretive dilemma. If Mervyn has deceived me, says one narrator, there is an end to my confidence in human nature.
By story's end, we lose that confidence as well, and realize that in Brown's America, there's simply no way to tell the real person from the impostor. These tales are popular and enduring precisely because they present the world as impostors see it: as a sort of theater, one where it's easy to wear masks and play a role. They thus ask us to think about ourselves and to confront the possibility that even at our most honest and law-abiding, each of us in America is a bit of an impostor as well.
BLOCK: That is Three Book picks from David Anthony. The title of his book is "Something for Nothing." You can find more reading recommendations at nprbooks.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.