Things can get complex when you are considering the relationship between life and art within the pages of a novel. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby is actually a self-made man who has refined himself from the lowly Jimmy Gatz into the figure whose distinguished family hailed from San Francisco. At one point in his career, Gatz/Gatsby appeared in a photo with the Earl of Doncaster. At Oxford. All this happens within the fictional bounds of the novel. Also fictional is the racist historical screed, “The Rise of the Colored Empires,” which the carelessly malevolent Tom Buchanan recommends to his listeners. But wait. Racist propagandist Madison Grant issued his book The Passing of a Great Race in 1916, and scholars agree that that polemic gave Fitzgerald the idea for Tom’s book-of-the-week.
Now consider that in real life, an African-American named Sylvester Clark Long was translating himself, Gatsby-like, into Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, an Indigenous man with roots in Alberta (hence Long’s appearance in this study of Canadian literary impostors). Fleeing the racism smothering African-Americans in the South, the well-practiced con man settled in Canada’s West, going on to star in a 1930 film, The Silent Enemy. Among the guarantors of Long’s authenticity was no less an expert than eugenicist Madison Grant, whose knowledge of Indigenous Canadians was as sure as Donald Trump’s on Mexicans.
Stretch your imagination beyond actuality and imagine that Fitzgerald substituted his own name for that of his narrator Nick Carraway, supplying him with details from Fitzgerald’s actual upbringing and career. These are the sort of tangles writhing their way within Rosmarin Heidenreich’s engaging study of seven Canadian literary impostors.
If the folk song from Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs is correct—“Yes we’re all dodgin’/ Out away through the world”—and we are all conning our way through life, then the writers appearing here are our Baudelairean “mon semblable, mon frère.” Heidenreich picks her targets with precision (more on this later), but writers such as Frederick Philip Grove (born Felix Paul Greve, 1879-1948) are not aberrant outliers/liars; I prefer to view them as dots along a spectrum. Writers, like all public performers, do not just assume pen names, they can also assume extra-authorial identities.
Take gawky Maisie Roche, one of Canada’s most popular and widely read writers back in the mid twentieth century. She transformed herself into Mazo de la Roche and came up with a romantic Old World/New World ancestry in her memoir, Ringing the Changes, morphing into the be-furred and glamorous creature alighting from her limo who bedazzled the young Timothy Findley. That compelling figure wasn’t an imposter. Money and fame had transmuted her.
Autofictions (of course, French theorists have come up with an alternative: auto/fiction), those mixtures of truthful and fictional self-creations of an author’s experience, earn critical plaudits today. But the postmodern inventions of Karl Ove Knausgaard or Sheila Heti are not quite analogous to the work of the writers selected by Heidenreich. Her subjects are producers of “autobiographical” works found “to be fabrications, or works in which fact and fiction were found to be inextricably interwoven.” What’s more, as she writes, “all but one of the writers who produced them assumed false identities which they lived out…concealing or even obliterating their true pasts.”
Here are some of the contours of this sizeable body of lies. Frederick Philip Grove, after his youthful prominence in German literary circles and imprisonment for fraud, flew to North America. He ended up in Western Canada, where he taught school and wrote novels and autobiographical works (appearing on many an academic syllabus) that kept at bay the truth of his earlier life. The truth was not exposed until Douglas Spettigue’s 1973 account of Grove’s European years. Everybody now knows that Grey Owl, the putatively Ojibwa sage of Canada’s wilderness and poster boy for the whole cultural enterprise of playing Indian, was in fact an Englishman, Archie Belaney, who took his act all the way to Buckingham Palace for an audience with King George VI and the royal family.
Literary Impostors also settles on cowboy Will James, an author who came along in time for me. I saw the movie of his horse epic, Smoky, three times as a kid, and devoured his true-life-you-bet memoir Lone Cowboy—which was about what I planned to be when I grew up. He was born Ernest Dufault in Quebec in 1892, and drank himself to death in Hollywood in 1942, befuddled enough to will his slender estate to one Ernest Dufault, that is to himself. Many believe in resurrection, but not quite as literally as “Will James” seems to have at the end. Finally, sisters Edith (1865-1914) and Winnifred Eaton (1875-1954), born of a Chinese mother and a British father, chose to “pass” through their writing as Asian rather than suffer the indignities of being mixed-race white. Edith became Sui Sin Far, the Chinese writer, and Winnifred flourished as the Japanese Onoto Watanna.
How does a reader make sense of Heidenreich’s Santa Claus parade of shape-shifters, name-changers, and masters of disguise? She is a professor of literature after all, and therefore confines her gaze to the literary and cultural implications of these impersonators. The general reader may find her eyes skipping over the passages involving literary theory’s contributions to the understanding of these figures, but any reader will be fascinated by the careers of the impostors, which resist generalization.
One can note that the New World, as its occupiers and usurpers came to see it, offered prime ground for shedding one’s old skin and starting over. Even though a newcomer culture can age (and petrify, apparently, into immigrant-hating nationalism), the urge (and dream) of self-creation persists, like some dormant cell in our DNA. One can also, as the author does too frequently for my taste, invoke some broad notion of narcissism as a driver of the compulsion to re-present oneself. I would also note, though the author does not, Jesus’s command to be born again and Saint Paul’s seconding the motion with his urge to put on the new man as a means of personal and social transformation. Christianity’s decline as an affair of widespread observance in our culture has only increased the appeal of its self-starter myths. But presenting such an etiology demands quite another sort of study.
Successful impersonators strut their way across the full range of human behaviour. A study placing these bookish frauds among a panorama of con artists could be engrossing. I would welcome a discussions as insightful as Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956) that can also cover phony lives running from such literary impersonators as these to such con men of virtuosity as Frank Abagnale Jr. (subject of Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can) and Count Cagliostro, the grand faker of eighteenth-century France. In the meantime, the crew assembled in Literary Impostors present ample material for speculation.
The con almost always needs a willing mark, a point argued elegantly in Caroline Rosenthal’s article on Grey Owl, which appears in the essay collection Fake Identity? (2014). An impersonator cannot function without an audience that wants to be fooled. Grey Owl played to a crowd in search of romantic images of the Indian as primitivist seer, exemplar of a Canadian wilderness who bolstered colonial Canada’s self-image of cultural purity. In fact, Parks Canada fastened onto Grey Owl as a testimony to our possession of an unspoiled and inspiring space. Sylvester Clark Long, as Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, was shrewd enough to grasp that white racism held Indians in less contempt than it did blacks. This was especially so if the so-called Amerindian could be seen as a noble warrior of bygone days rather than as a persistent delinquent, and present-day holder of mineral rights. As Long Lance he could, in Tonto fashion, exemplify unthreatening racial nobility.
A similar utility, I would argue, emerges from the work of Greve/Grove, the European man of letters immersing himself in the Canadian West and demonstrating our territory’s cultural maturity. He never made much money from his writing, but it did plop Grove right into the heart of the Canadian academic literary canon. The Eaton sisters, likewise, played their social role well. They were avoiding the widespread contempt for Asian Canadians of mixed race that flourished in their time, yet each constructed a persona countering differing aspects of that scorn. Edith became a writer steeped in purist visions of an ancient and untainted Chinese culture. Winnifred’s Japanese disguise imaged a plucky little nation drenched in cherry blossoms and full of twanging kotos. Her Japan displayed ancient charm without the threat of mass immigration to Canada.
the art of impersonation [is] is the fundamental novelistic gift…Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as one is not. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade.
Perhaps impersonation is less stressful than our publicly professed ethic would have us believe. Halloween comes second only to Christmas as the biggest retail season. We all enjoy dress-up; pranking thrills everybody except the victim. My earlier comment that Rosmarin Heidenreich’s study resembles a parade of impostors wasn’t quite accurate. It is rather a carnival that she presents. Carnival: clowns, disguises, noise, and most of all unbridled licence. Be who you want to be! Recruitment posters urge us to be all we can be, but we all know the dirty little secret behind those inspirational words. The real message is, be bigger than you are, be greater than you are, escape reality’s grinding strictures, get back to where you never actually were. Liberation was what these impostors were after. Perhaps, at times, some of them found it.
Dennis Duffy has been reviewing books in various Toronto media outlets for more than fifty years. He also delivers occasional art talks at the Toronto Public Library.