literary frauds

literary frauds, manuscripts that are presented to the public as works of famous authors but that are actually forgeries or imitations. Literary frauds are perpetrated for various reasons—occasionally to sell a manuscript or book for large sums, often to win recognition for an original work that would not attract attention by itself, sometimes simply as a joke. Although such hoaxes were evident in classical times and during the Middle Ages, it was in the 18th cent. that literary frauds flourished. A man who pretended to be a native of Taiwan (then known as Formosa) published a Description of Formosa (1704) under an assumed name, George Psalmanazar (his real name is not known). In the 1760s James Macpherson wrote a group of poems that he claimed were translations of the 3d-century Celtic poet Ossian. Thomas Chatterton wrote poems in an imitation of 15th-century English that he claimed were transcriptions from a manuscript of a poet-priest of that period. William Ireland falsely claimed to have found two lost plays of Shakespeare. The most famous 19th cent. literary frauds were spurious first editions of such famous writers as Tennyson, Dickens, Matthew Arnold, Elizabeth Browning, and Kipling. They were long considered genuine and were not definitely proved forgeries until 1934. In 1939 the author of these forgeries was shown to be Thomas Wise, a noted book dealer. An interesting literary fraud of the early 20th cent. was the “Spectra hoax.” In 1916 the American poets Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke published a book of parodies, Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments, satirizing such contemporary literary movements as the vorticists and the imagists. The book won acclaim from critics, and the Spectrists were publicly accepted as a valid literary school. Of more financial than literary interest was the Hughes hoax, when a writer named Clifford Irving received some $750,000 in 1972 from several publishers, including McGraw-Hill and Life magazine, after he deceitfully convinced them that the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes wished Irving to assist him in writing his autobiography. Irving was subsequently convicted of fraud and sent to prison. In 1984 the announcement of the discovery of manuscript diaries of Adolf Hitler created great interest: several prominent historians, including H. R. Trevor-Roper, vouched for their authenticity and were considerably embarrassed when the diaries were soon proved to be fraudulent.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Literature: General