Edith Wharton's 1913 novel The Custom of the Country reveals a national concern with defining and preserving authenticity in social and cultural life. A study of the novel through the lens of scholarship concerning the modernist obsession with "the real thing," including such seminal texts as Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and Lionel Trilling's Sincerity and Authenticity, opens up a broad discussion of authenticity and imitation as defined by Wharton's characters. This paper challenges the traditional interpretations of the much-abused term. First, I outline a brief history of the study of authenticity in art and literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, showing how realist writers like Wharton were influenced by the ideal of cultural and literary reality. Then I discuss the obsession with "the real thing" by all the characters in The Custom of the Country, both low- and high-born, and how the term influences the development of the plot. Finally, I reveal the vexed nature of the term "authenticity" in the novel, showing how the nouveau riche wrest aura from the old aristocratic class, and how they appropriate the power necessary to define "the real thing" on their own terms.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Atkinson, Brittany Brie, "The Realm of the Real: Imitation and Authenticity in Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country" (2011). Theses and Dissertations. 2659.
Edith Wharton, authenticity, Custom of the Country, the real thing, imitation