THE REAL THING by Miles Orvell


Imitation and Authenticity in America
Email this review


A smoothly written, imaginatively researched study of the growth of "authenticity" as a literary, artistic, and popular-cultural goal from the "Brown Decade" to the outbreak of WW II. Orvell (English and American Studies/Temple Univ.) brings a subtle sense of analogy and a sharp eye for significant detail to his densely packed but eminently readable study. Orvell finds in Walt Whitman the origins of this search for "the real thing" and does a splendid job of tracing the Whitmanesque themes and obsessions through the following decades. Along the way, he investigates the development of photography from Brady through Stieglitz and on to Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. "Form following function" is also discussed as it applies to the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Norman Bel Geddes, and Raymond Loewy. E.E. Cummings and William Carlos Williams are cited as exponents of the incorporation of "the street"--Gilbert Seldes' "lowbrow culture"--into American letters. Orvell delves as well into the lesser-known crannies of the American scene in his search for significant cultural artifacts. Take, for example, his closely reasoned and revealing analysis of Frank Norris' Vandover and the Brute, a generally overlooked monument of American naturalism in the manner of Emile Zola. Orvell perceptively links the hero's decline into lycanthropy with the growing realization that the "false heroics and trite sentimentalities" of the popular arts of the 19th century were destructive in their artificiality. He also deals significantly with the 1939 World's Fair, pointing out that the immensely popular exhibition was riddled with Utopian promises that were largely unachievable: an ideal consumer society, a nonexploitive power structure, freedom of designers who would be uncontrolled by corporate patrons. Orvell concludes with a wittily handled essay on "junk"--another example of his original and thought-provoking approach to his subject. A work that will reward readers with fresh and stimulating insights into the recent past and, even more importantly, into today's "disposable" American society.

Pub Date: April 29th, 1989
Publisher: Univ. of North Carolina
Review Posted Online: