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.
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 Princeton. 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 learns that he's not who he thought he was — that he's the black slave rather than the white master. Once discovered, he is sold back into slavery. Twain's message, it seems, is that racial imposture simply can't ultimately be tolerated in America.
My favorite impostor narrative is actually one of America's first gothic novels. Charles Brockden Brown's Arthur Mervyn contradicts the icon of the self-made American created by Ben Franklin in his famous autobiography. Like Franklin, Mervyn arrives in Philadelphia penniless. Unlike Franklin, 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 is simply no way to tell the real person from the impostor.
David Anthony is is an associate professor of early American literature in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He is also the author of the novel Something for Nothing.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Amelia Salutz.