The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (Cultural Studies of the United States)

The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (Cultural Studies of the United States)

Miles Orvell

Language: English

Pages: 408

ISBN: 080784246X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


This is a perceptive study of the relationship between technology and culture. Orvell discusses Whitman and his world, then considers material culture, photography, and literature. Among the cultural figures discussed are writers Henry James, John Dos Passos, and James Agee; photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Margaret Bourke-White; and architect-designers Gustav Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright. A witty essay on the significance of junk in the 1930s concludes the book.

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themselves real things.12 But stating the shift in these terms may be a little misleading, because the reaction against the genteel typologies of the older realism in fact begins in the 1890s and is the subject, in part, of chapter 4, "The Romance of the Real." Moreover, it is important to affirm that the nineteenth-century culture of imitation continues into the twentieth century (through the present, in fact) as a main current in popular culture—movies, television, popular fiction, amusement

one may legitimately ask whether the movement described here may also be found in European culture, given the currents of influence running across the Atlantic, and given the common industrialization process. Without opening up a subject that lies outside the scope of this work, let me suggest only that one major difference lies in what each place has meant to the other. That is, America had Europe to look to as the "home" culture, the originator of style, the source of artistic models— not until

matrix for his vision. In particular, I shall argue that the camera provided the foundation for Whitman's way of looking at the world, and that the exhibition hall, in all of its various forms, provided a model for the structure of the long poem Whitman never stopped writing. Whitman's project was nothing less than a "readjustment of the whole theory and nature of Poetry," as he put it in "A Backward Glance," "for democratic America's sake."7 And what that came down to, first of all, was looking

self-hood, which differentiates him from all beings, past, present, or future," as put by Marcus Root.30 The concept of truth expressed here thus seems quite different from the general truth of pictorial photography; rather it appears to be a truth that resides in the particular subject, and the effort of the photographer is to find that truth and reveal it. The greatest portrait photographers—Southworth and Hawes, Brady, Gardner —were thought to do just that, and the photographic journals were

as the sense of a culture divided between the practical life of commerce and the spiritual pursuit of beauty pervaded the intellectual climate in the Introduction 153 first decades of the new century, a number of artists and intellectuals resolved to make whole the split. Perhaps the most influential formulation of the problem—and of its solution—lay in Van Wyck Brooks's 1915 volume, America's Comingof-Age. Using terms from the vernacular, Brooks distinguished between two opposing extremes in

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