Born Again: Self-Invention and Imposture in America
ALUMNI STUDIES COURSE - SPRING 2006
Led by Dr. Clayton Marsh '85, University Counsel
America has long celebrated itself as a land of rebirth where one can erase the past and begin life anew. Consider the unshakeable faith that sustains the self-invented Jay Gatsby: "Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!" Indeed, the opportunities for self-invention are particularly abundant in a frontier nation of strangers where a winning smile, a new pair of shoes, and a well-tailored suit go a long way toward establishing one's character and credit in the eye of the beholder. This course will examine how the American yearning for self-invention is, at once, heroic and foolish, liberating and destructive, fraudulent and authenticating -- a yearning that is ripe for exploitation by those who peddle the promise of rebirth.
We will begin with Benjamin Franklin, whose most intriguing invention was himself and whose autobiography became a model for generations of self-made Americans. We will then focus on the dynamics of self-invention as portrayed in American literature. Our approach to these works will be interdisciplinary, taking us into a variety of cultural and historical issues such as the rise of a consumer market where the monikers of social status and pedigree are for sale -- where it is often difficult to distinguish the "knock off" from the "genuine article." After all, in America's aristocracy of dollars, fortunes may be won and lost overnight such that the gentleman in the Hamptons with his Belgian loafers is perhaps not so far removed from the guy at the mall in his "Members Only" jacket. We will also consider issues of race and gender as they relate, for example, to cosmetic surgery and other medical "enhancement" technologies.
Princeton's most sensational encounter with self-invention will conclude our six-week study. As you may recall, in 1988 the University admitted an eighteen-year old, self-educated wanderer named Alexi Santana who lived under the stars in Purgatory Canyon. During the spring of his sophomore year, just days after accepting a bid from Ivy Club, Santana was revealed to be James Hogue, a 30-year old felon who was actually doing time in a Utah state prison when his letter of acceptance arrived. At the end of the course, we will have an opportunity to meet on campus for a screening of Con Man, a documentary that chronicles Hogue's exploits at Princeton, and an evening of conversation with the filmmaker (Jesse Moss) and invited guests who came to know the mysterious resident of Holder Hall.
This home study course will consist of six weeks of readings and online discussions starting on Monday, April 17, 2006 and running through Sunday, May 28, 2006. To wrap up the course, participants are invited to the screening and discussion of Con Man on Thursday, June 1, 2006, the first day of Reunions 2006.
Registration and Pricing - Register for this six week course to join the online discussion group and receive access to the reading materials.
Syllabus - The syllabus includes an outline of the assigned readings.
Course Materials - Materials for this course include articles and books.
Questions? Please contact Kaitlin Lutz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 609-258-0014.