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section heading icon     literary forgery and fraud

This page considers literary forgery and fraud.

It covers -

Incidents of literary imposture are discussed here as part of exploration of identity crime.

subsection heading marker     introduction


As Anthony Grafton notes in his perceptive Forgers & Critics: Creativity & Duplicity in Western Scholarship (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 1990), literary forgery has had a long and often distinguished history in most parts of the world
, whether to -

  • substantiate or undermine claims to political legitimacy or cultural superiority
  • demonstrate the esprit and skill of the forger in eras where originality was less valued and a framework for assessing provenance was emerging
  • undermine the pretensions of scholars and other authorities
  • gather renown to the 'discoverer' of the text
  • generate financial and other rewards for the forger, particularly in environments where the forged text catered to market expectations (eg revealed the supposedly scandalous life of Marie Antoinette) or simply offered the shock of the new (eg recurrent versions of the 'Hitler' and 'Mussolini' Diaries)

Three introductions are Fakes & Frauds: Varieties of Deception In Print & Manuscript (New Castle: Oak Knoll Press 1996) by Robin Myers, John Whitehead's This Solemn Mockery: The Art of Literary Forgery (London: Arlington Books 1973) and Practice To Deceive (New Castle: Oak Knoll Press 2000) by Joseph Rosenblum.

subsection heading marker     poetry and construction of national cultures


Unsuccessful Scots poet James Macpherson (1736-1796) first gained public attention with his 1760 Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Galic or Erse Language.

He announced that

Though the poems now published appear as detached pieces in this collection, there is ground to believe that most of them were originally episodes of a greater work ... by a careful inquiry, many more remains of ancient genius, no less valuable than those now given to the world, might be found in the same country where these have been collected. In particular there is reason to hope that one work of considerable length, and which deserves to be styled an heroic poem, might be recovered and translated, if encouragement were given to such an undertaking.

Macpherson duly discovered verse epics Fingal and Temora, attributed to Gaelic bard Ossian.

His translations inspired an Ossian craze that included Goethe and Napoleon Bonaparte among its devotees. He responded to criticisms by Samuel Johnson and others by producing forged Gaelic documents that purported to authenticate his work.

Johnson was also dismissive of George Psalmanazar (c 1680-1763), supposed visitor to or native of Formosa and author of a 'chinese' grammar. He entertained his audience by claiming that Formosans generally lived to 120, partly attributable to imbibing viper's blood in the morning and a diet of raw meat, albeit not from the hearts of 18,000 young boys supposedly burnt every year.

English teacher Charles Bertram (1723-1765) foisted a forged mediaeval manuscript onto pioneering archaeologist and palaeographer William Stukeley (1687-1765) in 1747. Stukeley attributed Bertram's 'Richard of Westminster' text to 14th century monastic chronicler Richard of Cirencester, drawing on it for a landmark historical map in 1756.

Bertram followed up the fraud with publication in Copenhagen – supposed home of the 'Cirencester Manuscript' – of the full text of the concocted work in 1757. The fraud was not conclusively debunked until 1866, after increasing skepticism regarding internal inconsistencies, conflict with other archival documents, questions about scripts and the ‘disappearance’ of the parchment.

A few years later apprentice Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) discovered a cache of 'medieval' poems and historical documents attributed to Sir Thomas Rowley. He attracted further attention after deciding, in the style of James Dean, that death at 18 was a good career move - being immortalised by Keats and other exponents of the Romantic moment.

Chatterton was aped by Welsh 'druid' Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826) in the 1791 Cyfrinach Beirdd Ynys Prydain ('The Secret of the Bards of the Isle of Britain'), by Vaclav Hanka (1791-1861), 'discoverer' in 1819 of the Czech heroic poetry collection Rukopis Královédvorsky and epic The Judgment of Libussa, and by Izmail Sreznevsky, responsible for the 1830s Zaporozhian Antiquity collection.

The Hungarian Szabács viadala and slavic Velesova knyha ('Veles Book') supposedly discovered in 1917 have also been claimed as outright forgeries. Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué's 1839 Breton collection Barzaz Breiz appears to have been merely heavily edited and 'improved' by its compiler.

In the closing years of last century Mark Hofmann, apparently tired to discovering autograph works by Washington, Lincoln and religious figures, 'found' an undiscovered poem by Emily Dickinson. The author of 1976 best-seller The Education of Little Tree, the supposed memoir of a Cherokee orphan, merely discovered a new personality - one far removed from past authorship of the 1963 George Wallace speech 'Segregation Now! Segregation Tomorrow! Segregation Forever!'. Marlo Morgan's Mutant Message Down Under and Carlos Castaneda's works - marketed as autobiographies, fiction or otherwise - have similarly been best-sellers.

For Bertram see Stuart Piggott's William Stukeley: An Eighteenth-Century Antiquary (London: Thames & Hudson 1985). 'Ossian' and Chatterton have attracted more attention, including particular Ian Haywood's The Making of History: A Study of the Literary Forgeries of James Macpherson & Thomas Chatterton in Relation to Eighteenth-Century Ideals of History and Fiction (London: Associated Uni Press 1986), The Sublime Savage: A Study of James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Uni Press 1988) by Fiona Stafford, Ossian Revisited (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Uni Press 1991) edited by Howard Gaskill and Robert Browning's Essay on Chatterton (Westport: Greenwood 1970) edited by Donald Smalley.

There is a more relaxed account in Peter Ackroyd's novel Chatterton (London: Hamish Hamilton 1987). Paul Baines' The House of Forgery in 18th-century Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate 1999) considers contemporary notions of authenticity, creativity and reward. Percy Adams' Travelers And Travel Liars, 1660-1800 (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 1962) considers Psalmanazar and other tellers of tall tales. 

The City of Light: The Hidden Journal of the Man Who Entered China Four Years Before Marco Polo
(New York: Citadel 2000) edited by David Selbourne, is the purported diary of Jacob d'Ancona. Some of Marco Polo's claims have also been questioned.

Hofmann's 'discovery' of a Dickinson poem is described in The Poet and the Murderer: A True Story of Literary Crime and the Art of Forgery (London: 4th Estate 2003) by Simon Worrall. Hofmann's religious forgeries are discussed in a later page of this profile. Warmly Inscribed: The New England Forger & Other Book Tales (New York: St Martins 2001) by Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone considers other US manuscript and book frauds.

subsection heading marker     Shakespeare & Co

In 1794 William Henry Ireland (1777-1835) manufactured a deed bearing the signature of William Shakespeare and went on to 'discover' Shakespeare's love letters to Anne Hathaway (complete with a lock of the playwright's hair), correspondence with Elizabeth I, annotated books from Shakespeare's library, a partial Hamlet manuscript and the manuscript for his Vortigern & Rowena.

That play was duly performed by Edmund Kean, the Kenneth Branagh of the 1790s, before Ireland was brilliantly exposed by scholar Edmond Malone (1741-1812).

In 1852 scholar John Payne Collier (1789-1883) announced discovery of a copy of the Shakespeare Second Folio with extensive manuscript annotations and corrections by the author. He also manufactured other documents, inserting forged ballads, lists and 'autographs' in genuine 16th and 17th century books. Somewhat more tongue in cheek, James Whitcomb Riley floated Leonainie in 1877 as an 'undiscovered' Edgar Allan Poe poem.

Twenty years on bibliographer Thomas Wise (1859-1937), Henry Buxton Forman (1842-1917) and associates began to 'discover' hitherto unknown first editions of works by Browning and other literary notables, just the thing for the acquisitive fin de siecle counterparts of the dotcom millionaires. The industrious Wise stole leaves from the British Museum to 'improve' defective copies of early printed plays, sold 'facsimiles' as originals and blithely manufactured editions that had supposedly been privately commissioned by authors and thus escaped the attention of bibliographers.

In 1949 Nicolas Bataille & Marie-Antoinette Akakia-Viala concocted La chasse spirituelle, supposedly a lost work by Rimbaud. As Bruce Morrissette notes in The Great Rimbaud Forgery: The Affair of La chasse spirituelle, with Unpublished Documents and an Anthology of Rimbaldian Pastiches (St Louis: Washington Uni Press 1956) the hoax got out of control, with their more earnest or credulous peers fervently defending the authenticity of an obvious pastiche.

Dewey Ganzel's Fortune & Men's Eyes: The Career of John Payne Collier (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1982) and John Payne Collier: Scholarship & Forgery in the 19th Century (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2004) by Arthur & Janet Freeman are definitive studies. For Ireland see Bernard Grebanier's The Great Shakespeare Forgery: A New Look at the Career of William Henry Ireland (New York: Norton 1965) and Jeffrey Kahan's Reforging Shakespeare: The Story of a Theatrical Scandal (Bethlehem: LeHigh Uni Press 1998). 

For Wise see 'Thomas James Wise and Harry Buxton Forman' in John Carter & Graham Pollard's An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth-Century Pamphlets (London: Scolar Press 1983) and John Collins' The Two Forgers (Aldershot: Scolar Press 1992), superseding Thomas J. Wise Centenary Studies (Edinburgh: Nelson 1959) edited by William Todd.

Arthur Cravan (in the guise of Dorian Hope) is alleged to have posed as Pierre Loüys and André Gide in selling forged letters and literary manuscripts by Oscar Wilde, including what was claimed to be the original version of Salomé and The Importance of Being Earnest.

US poet and plagiarist Scharmel Iris reinforced his authority by forging endorsements by figures such as TS Eliot, Woodrow Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt and WB Yeats. His strategy is discussed in Forging Fame: The Strange Career of Scharmel Iris (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Uni Press 2007) by Craig Abbott.

In 2008 one US publisher posted an advertisement on Craigslist asking for 14 'volunteer' to fake the signatures of two authors of a forthcoming book, with each successful applicant to be paid US$25 for every 200 books signed (for a total of 50,000 copies). The ad indicated that "You will need o be able to copy the look and style of both authors' signatures".

subsection heading marker    
channelling the undead?

As we have suggested in discussing literary identity theft, the temptation to embroider fact or channel another personality, dead or otherwise, seems to be one that many authors have not resisted.

Recent authorial shape-shifting is evident in controversies over Norma Khouri's 'memoir' Forbidden Love: A Harrowing True Story of Love & Revenge in Jordan (New York: Random 2002), Rahila Khan's Down the Road, Worlds Away (London: Virago Press 1987), Helen Darville/Demidenko's unlovely The Hand That Signed the Paper (1994) and supposed Holocaust memoirs by Bruno Doessekker and Monique De Wael (aka Misha Defonseca).

Anna Broinowski, director of Forbidden Lie$, said of Khouri

She's a brilliant, intensely charismatic woman, and the minute I met her, I thought she was utterly genuine. She could be a narcissistic sociopath or an intensely damaged person who craves attention and doesn't know the difference between truth and lies. Or she could just be a very good actor.

Jerzy Kosinski's oeuvre - such as The Painted Bird and Being There - is now considered to be the result of work by his 'translators' and unacknowledged collaborators.

The authors of the 'Ern Malley' opus - like that of Wittner Bynner & Arthur Davison Ficke's 1916 Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments - are now chiefly known as perpetrators of an unpleasant hoax. That was echoed in revelations that Paul Radley - winner of the 1980 Australian/Vogel Award for Jack Rivers and Me - had gained credit for a novel written by his uncle and that Australian Indigenous prize winner Wanda Koolmatrie was in fact Leon Carmen. 'A Positive Unsettlement: The Story of Sakshi Anmatyerre' by Ben Goldsmith in 9(2) Griffith Law Review (2000) 321-33 discusses another instance of artistic shapeshifting in Australia. Female author Yasmina Khadra, author of The Swallows of Kabul, turned out to be an Algerian army officer by the name of Mohammed Moulessehoul.

Darville's work is discussed in Andrew Reimer's The Demidenko Affair (North Sydney: Allen & Unwin 1996), Robert Manne's The Culture of Forgetting: Helen Demidenko & the Holocaust (Melbourne: Text 1996), Natalie Prior's The Demidenko Diary (Port Melbourne: Mandarin 1996), John Jost's The Demidenko File (Ringwood: Penguin 1996) and Harry Heseltine's The Most Glittering Prize: The Miles Franklin Literary Award (Canberra: Permanent/University College 2001). She makes a cameo appearance in Deborah Lipstadt's History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving (New York: Ecco 2005). An apparent reluctance to resile from recurrent claims that she was the child of Ukrainian migrants is highlighted in 'Curtain Up: The Demidenko/Darville Performance' by Christine McPaul in Southerly (December 1999).

For Doessekker/Wilkomirski and Kosinski see Blake Eskin's persuasive A Life in Pieces: the Making and Unmaking of Binjamin Wilkomirski (New York: Norton 2002), The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth (New York: Schocken 2001) by Stefan Maechler and Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography (New York: Dutton 1996) by James Sloan.

The Malley hoax is discussed in Michael Heyward's The Ern Malley Affair (London: Faber 1983) and
Cassandra Pybus' The Devil & James McCauley (St Lucia: Uni of Qld Press 1999). For Koolmatrie see John Bayley's Daylight Corroboree; a first-hand account of the 'Wanda Koolmatrie' hoax (Norwood: Eidolon Press 2004) and Maggie Nolan's 'In His Own Sweet Time: Carmen's Coming Out' in 21(4) Australian Literary Studies (2004) 134-148.




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