People Would Fake Being Everything: American Impostors with Clifton Hood

In the wide-open American economy, some people fake it ‘til they make it. Historically, American impostors realized the promise of social mobility. Identifying freely with different ethnic, racial, class, gender, or professional groups allowed some Americans to challenge social norms, and to reinvent themselves in an environment of rapid and disorienting change.

In this episode of Stories from the Stacks, historian Clifton Hood, professor at Hobart & William Smith Colleges, discusses the macro-history of the American impostor as a social phenomenon. Hood situates his project in the context of his life’s work, suggesting that it may be a way of accessing subaltern perspectives on social hierarchies by locating and interrogating their attempted transgressions of its strictures. Using Hagley Library collections, including Empire Steel & Iron, Reading Company, Pennsylvania Railroad, Penn Virginia Corporation, and Brandywine Oral Histories, Hood discovered that business and government elites tried a variety of methods to identify and eliminate impostors. These methods included systematic surveillance and documentation of subject groups. Hood highlights identification papers and reports from industrial spies as particularly fascinating documents.

To support his use of Hagley Library collections, Dr. Hood received a Henry Belin du Pont research grant from the Center for the History of Business, Technology, & Society. More information on funding opportunities for research at Hagley can be found here. For more Stories from the Stacks, click here, or subscribe on your favorite podcatcher.

Interview by Amrys Williams. Produced by Gregory Hargreaves.

Image: Mr. Clash wearing a mask at Bushkill, 1915-1925, 2017239_07_228, Series V., ‘Personal and biographical,’ Box 7, Folder 228, Frank E. Schoonover negatives (Accession 2017.239), Audiovisual Collections & Digital Initiatives Department, Hagley Museum & Library, Wilmington, DE 19807.