Slippery Characters

Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities

By Laura Browder

328 pp., 6.14 x 9.21, 13 illus.,, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4859-3
    Published: June 2000
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-6060-1
    Published: June 2003

Cultural Studies of the United States

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In the 1920s, black janitor Sylvester Long reinvented himself as Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, and Elizabeth Stern, the native-born daughter of a German Lutheran and a Welsh Baptist, authored the immigrant's narrative I Am a Woman--and a Jew; in the 1990s, Asa Carter, George Wallace's former speechwriter, produced the fake Cherokee autobiography, The Education of Little Tree. While striking, these examples of what Laura Browder calls ethnic impersonator autobiographies are by no means singular. Over the past 150 years, a number of American authors have left behind unwanted identities by writing themselves into new ethnicities.

Significantly, notes Browder, these ersatz autobiographies have tended to appear at flashpoints in American history: in the decades before the Civil War, when immigration laws and laws regarding Native Americans were changing in the 1920s, and during the civil rights era, for example. Examining the creation and reception of such works from the 1830s through the 1990s--against a background ranging from the abolition movement and Wild West shows to more recent controversies surrounding blackface performance and jazz music--Browder uncovers their surprising influence in shaping American notions of identity.

About the Author

Laura Browder is assistant professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Rousing the Nation: Radical Culture in Depression America.
For more information about Laura Browder, visit the Author Page.


"[A] fascinating book. . . . [A] thorough and intelligent study of a uniquely American literary tradition."--Spectator

"Laura Browder was the first to observe how free Americans have felt to create startlingly new ethnic identities for themselves by the simple (or complex) act of writing an autobiography. It's a great idea, and Slippery Characters is a splendid book."--James Olney, editor of Southern Review

"Browder's focus on ethnic impersonations is fresh and revealing. Questioning the essentialist premise of much earlier scholarship, she observes the many instances of autobiographies that trade on the perceived value of ethnic identity. In a series of fascinating readings, Browder unravels the frequent staging of personality in a fluid society."--Miles Orvell, Temple University