Arts & Culture

How To Fake Your Way To The Ivy League

For many people, publishing even one book can be a lifelong dream. David Samuels, a prolific contributor to The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and many other magazines, managed to publish two books just in the last month. The Runner is … Read More

By / May 12, 2008

For many people, publishing even one book can be a lifelong dream. David Samuels, a prolific contributor to The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and many other magazines, managed to publish two books just in the last month. The Runner is the story of James Hogue, one of the great con men in recent American history. Only Love Can Break Your Heart is a collection of the kind of literary adventures, ranging from Woodstock '99 to a $2000-a-plate Bush-Cheney fund-raiser, that have led the National Magazine Award committee to name Samuels as a finalist.

Shmuel Rosner recently interviewed Samuels about his projects, and tried to see if there were any common threads uniting them.

To: David Samuels From: Shmuel Rosner

Dear David,

I spent the last couple of days reading the two books that you simultaneously published, and can now officially claim to be suffering from Samuels-fatigue. But it was enjoyable and sometimes challenging, and it made me think about the strange ways journalism can present one with surprising moral dilemmas.

This is especially true for The Runner, your wonderfully crafted story of a con man who was smart enough and able enough to get into Princeton University using a fake name and identity. It is a well-known story that you managed to bring to life again. And it is intriguing and troubling in the way such stories often are: the reader — at least this reader (and the writer, no doubt) — finds himself identifying with, admiring, the con man, hoping for his vindication, finding fault with the people exposing him, arresting him, expelling him, erasing him from their biography.

The Runner is the story of James Hogue, also known to his high school mates as Jay Mitchell Huntsman, also known to his Princeton mates as Alexi Indris Santana. He is an impostor, a thief, a liar. And yet you make us like him for exposing what you seem to think is the hypocrisy and the pettiness of the academic establishment. Yes, he was lying his way into Princeton, but once there he was a straight-A student. Yes, he stole, but his were not major-league crimes. Yes, he lied about his past and present conditions, but his stories were so much more interesting than the usual "I was born rich, went to private school, got into Ivy League university, ended up on Wall Street" stories.

You seem to be fascinated with him for some mysterious personal reasons, and to identify with his cause for ideological reasons. Princeton, you bother to mention, did not even considered keeping him as a student after he was exposed for who he really is — or officially is, because we will never actually know who he really is. (The way he was exposed also makes for a great story, but here is where I will urge people to get off their butts and go purchase the book if they want to know more). And you bombard the reader with statistics proving that the business of Ivy League attendance is marred by inconsistencies and favoritism and superficiality.

You seem to be writing this story burdened with guilt: You graduated from such universities, coming from not-quite-the-right-background. But even more so, yours is a writer's guilt. "The question of how writers come to appropriate the lives of the people they write about," you confess, "is a tricky one." And then you go on to say this:

While it is facile to equate journalism with lying, it is also true that both actions share in common an unpleasantly instrumental approach to people and to language that diminishes the common store of trust. The subject has no power to alter a reporter's approach to his or her subject, or to take back a single word that they said.

All these are known qualities of your profession — and mine — but not the only ones to be considered in this context. Manipulation is part of writer-subject relations, but it also taints writer-reader relations. And reading your book can provide for a perfect example for that, as it is sheer manipulation with which you take the reader on this ride of con man admiration. Finishing the book, I was scratching my head: Was I just convinced that lying is good, that stealing is not-so-bad, and that universities are evil (I have my own complicated relations with the academic world that I never attended — but let's leave that aside for now)?

I was trying to think about this story differently: To identify with the bicycle craftsman whose product was stolen. To understand the anger and the puzzlement of an institution going out of its way to accommodate someone they believed was a "barefoot runner from Nevada," a college-age, self-taught orphan, only to discover that it was hosting a college-educated convicted felon. Could they really cut him some slack the way you seem to expect them to do? Could they admire him, worship his genius and originality the way I did as I was reading this story?

I don't think it is reasonable to expect them to do such things. And even more, I don't really think it would have mattered. The sad truth, learned and relearned from experience, is that people like Hogue very rarely change their habits. If Princeton were to keep him as a student, I suspect he would have ended the same way he did anyway: in prison. Don't you agree? And if you do, where's the lesson?

I'm sure you'll have plenty of answers to these questions of mine. Let me add just one more. Concluding this first letter, I'm going back to this quote about journalism, while also thinking about the other book you've just published, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, a collection of your magazine stories. "The false humility that so many writers show in the face of the lived experience of their subjects", you write in The Runner, "is belied by the act of writing, which always involves a head-on collision between someone else's actual lives and the writer's inner life".

Here is how I read your two books: In order to avoid this "head-on collision" you don't even try to portray the "actual lives" of other people. All you do, both in your articles and in The Runner, is tellyour own story. With The Runner the result is fascinating, and troubling. It might reveal the questionable moral convictions of your inner man.

Best, Rosner

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