The British had a lot on their minds in the 1760s. At the beginning of the decade they were half-way through the first real world war, and by the end America and India were heating up. Things were no more settled at home. George II died in October 1760, and the change in regime meant changes in policy: the countless cabinet reshufflings make the '60s the bane of students of British history. And if the government is hard to pin down, what about the opposition? Wilkes and Junius are only the most famous hell-raisers in a crowded and acrimonious decade.
But with all these crises competing for Britons' attention, they somehow managed to find the time to think, and think extensively, about the question of fraud. In fact, I'll call fraud one of the central obsessions of the 1760s. Of course, every age has its forgeries, our own included. Monday's New York Times ran a story on the director of a medical lab who faked hundreds of results, and last week's New Yorker includes a piece on an artist who specializes in realistic drawings of banknotes.1 The History Channel just ran a week of documentaries on hoaxes like Conrad Kujau's Hitler diaries and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Television is also the source of my favorite recent fraud: David Letterman has been promoting a pop group called Fresh Step, five teenage heartthrobs who perform their hits "Ya Gotta Be Fresh" and "Talk to the Hand." Although the audience is filled with screaming fourteen-year-old girls, the group is the creation of Letterman's writers; they're a parody band named after a brand of kitty litter, and the screaming girls were hired by the producers to go along with the gag.
But such shams don't occupy nearly the same place in our consciousness as they did in the 1760s, when it seems hardly a month went by without some very public case of deception. Sometimes it was simple commercial forgery. In September 1762, John and Joseph Kelso were convicted of forging a bank draught worth £1,000, and John Wilson followed them to the gallows four years later for the same crime.2 (Nearly every report from the Old Bailey in the '60s includes news of at least one forger or counterfeiter.3) Other forgeries were antiquarian and scholarly. Excavations began at Pompeii in 1748, and by the '60s ersatz treasures were a cottage industry. At the same time, Hume accused his historiographical adversary, William Tytler, of "a double Trick" of "Forgery" in his 1759 book on the Elizabethan casket letters, itself a study of a great historical fake.4 Hume was soon busy investigating the authorship of the Ikon Basilike and discussing the means of distinguishing true miracles from fakes with Hugh Blair and George Campbell.5 Speaking of miracles, the Cock Lane ghost came to light in January '62 a twelve-year-old girl who channeled the spirit of a woman murdered by her husband. The editors of the Gentleman's Magazine didn't buy it, declared it "nonsense," and predicted that "the impostor will probably soon be discovered."6 And it was indeed followed the next month by an article headed "An Account of the Detection of the Imposture in COCK-LANE."7 But that didn't stop further chicanery: the next month's issue includes a letter on a similar ghostly imposture in Kent.8 In the same issue, the Historical Chronicle reports on "an impostor . . . detected at Newington, begging in the habit of a seaman," who had whipped up a bogus withered hand to generate sympathy.9 And for all the new deceptions, the old ones were still around and drawing attention. One of the great charlatans of the early century re-entered public consciousness for the first time in over fifty years: in 1764, George Psalmanazar's Confessions told the story of his remarkable Formosan imposture at the turn of the century.
But among all these hoaxes, three in particular stand out, perpetrated by three of Britain's most noteworthy, or notorious, authors. Their careers intersect in a number of ways, and their crimes were remarkably similar: all three forged a literary past, passing their own work off as something from long ago, hoping not so much for personal gain as to rewrite their pasts. All three also took the same approach, creating works not of known writers (as when Ireland produced Shakespeare forgeries), but attributing their works to newly imagined authors.
So much for the similarities. Posterity, in adjudicating their cases, has handed down three very different verdicts. One offender was convicted of forgery in the first degree with aggravating circumstances, and condemned to perfidy for centuries. Another was found guilty but with mitigating circumstances, and sentenced only to time served. The third was acquitted of all charges.
The first of these was James Macpherson, whose Ossianic poems began appearing in 1760. The Fragments of Ancient Poetry seem to anticipate the accusations that perhaps inevitably followed: the first sentence of the Preface reads, "The public may depend on the following fragments as genuine remains of ancient Scottish poetry."10 Only an intellectual climate charged with questions of authenticity could produce such a curious opening.11 And his concerns were warranted, for it didn't take long for such questions to arise. Indeed, in July only a month after the first extracts appeared in The Gentleman's Magazine a correspondent wrote to Mr. Urban, "The two Pieces . . . translated from the Erse, pleased me, . . . though I believe them to be modern Compositions."12 And in September, Macpherson's partisans felt the need to assure readers: "As the original Erse is intended to be printed, with some future edition of them, it will irrefragably prove their authenticity, which might otherwise be reasonably doubted."13
Of course their authenticity was not proven, irrefragably or otherwise; and as more "ancient Scottish poetry" appeared, the questions kept coming. In the very issue of The Gentleman's Magazine that first reported on the Cock Lane ghost, the first extracts from Fingal appeared, bearing the notice, "It might reasonably be expected, that to put the authenticity of these poems out of question, they should have been printed in the original language with a translation."14 But even his supporters grew suspicious when that "reasonable" expectation was not met, and though the battle continued into the next century, Johnson's adjudication is now widely accepted as definitive: "I look upon M'Pherson's Fingal to be as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with."15
Fair cop or bum rap? While the Kelso brothers' forgery trial can't be reopened and we can only trust the verdict of the jury, we can re-examine the Macpherson case, and see whether Johnson's judgment is really fair. But a fair verdict will be hard to achieve, partly for want of expert witnesses, and partly for want of evidence. Few commentators on the Ossianic poems know so much as a word of Gaelic (and I count myself among the ignorant), so gauging what's real and what's fraudulent is a hit-and-miss affair. And the one Gaelicist who studied the poems in depth, Derrick Thompson, was necessarily hobbled by a lack of genuine oral poetry with which to compare it.
Thanks to such gaps in the record, Macpherson has his modern defenders; Howard Gaskill and Fiona Stafford, for instance, argue that much of Fingal was based on genuine Highland poetry, and his treatment of those bona fide oral sources is no more liberal than, say, Percy's. Maybe. But such objections from counsel don't much help their client. All of Temora and nearly all the Fragments were cut from whole cloth without reference to any "real" poetry, and (except for one curious and perhaps unguarded moment in 1773 when he referred to himself as the "author" of the poems) Macpherson repeatedly insisted on the absolute veracity of everything he published. To say that a counterfeiter occasionally passed a legitimate banknote along with the forged ones is unlikely to reduce his sentence.
Young Thomas Chatterton began following in Macpherson's footsteps when he was only fifteen years old; so powerful was the influence of the Scottish forger that Chatterton wrote his own Ossianic poems. He's best known, though, for his work in those menses mirabilis at the end of 1768, when he summoned Rowley, Canynge, and their imaginary fifteenth-century Brightstowe into being. On the surface, his crimes are very similar to Macpherson's: he created an old poet and furnished him with an oeuvre; even his motivation was comparable regional boosterism rather than nationalism, but they're close enough for jazz. In fact, whereas Macpherson at least leavened his forgeries with the occasional genuine piece, Chatterton's works are phony through and through. So in a rational court of literary jurisprudence, we'd expect his verdict to be at least as harsh as Macpherson's. But no one ever said posterity's judgments are rational. The initial ire raised by Chatterton's poems (as in the investigations by Thomas Warton, Edmond Malone, and Horace Walpole) soon melted into sympathy, and not long after their appearance, the works of Rowley were considered not duplicitous but charming.
The last member of the troika is the most surprising: few think of him as a forger at all, though many remember him for his contact with the other two. But Horace Walpole's own Castle of Otranto shares, at least superficially, all the characteristics of the more obvious forgeries: publication under a pseudonym ("Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto"); a fictitious account of the manuscript's discovery ("found in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England"); and a distant origin ("printed . . . in the year 1529. . . . It must have been [written] between 1095 . . . and 1243").
Of course such protestations were commonplace in the early novel: Robinson Crusoe was published as "a just History of Fact" without "any Appearance of Fiction in it,"16 and Behn's title page proclaims Oroonoko "A True History." But in the case of Otranto, at least some readers actually believed the protestations of factuality. There are likely readers naïve enough to believe any story, however preposterous; Swift famously reports on the dimwitted bishop who "hardly believed a word" of Gulliver's Travels.17 But while we can comfortably brush him off as (a) stupid, (b) insane, or (c) an invention of Swift's, not every patsy is so easily dismissed. John Langhorne, for instance no towering critical intellect, but certainly competent was taken in by Otranto. His harsh review of the second edition shows that his credulity was genuine:
When this book was published as a translation from an old Italian romance, . . . we could readily excuse its preposterous phenomena. . . . But when, as in this edition, the Castle of Otranto is declared to be a modern performance, that indulgence we afforded to the foibles of a supposed antiquity, we can by no means extend to the singularity of a false taste in a cultivated period of learning.18Even William Mason confesses to Walpole, "When a friend . . . returned it me with some doubts of its originality, I laughed him to scorn. . . . It proves me your dupe."19 And Chatterton certainly thought of Rowley as Onuphrio Muralto redivivus; Walpole's dismissal of his Rowleian poems prompted a venomous verse epistle in reply: "Thou mayst call me Cheat / Say, didst thou ne'er indulge in such Deceit?/ Who wrote Otranto?"20
So that's our rogue's gallery. It's worth noting that their literary reputations have depended on the verdicts in their respective cases. All three were influential shortly after their publication, but their fortunes went separate ways after the immediate controversy surrounding their authenticity died down. The Ossianic poems remained popular into the next century Napoleon carried a copy with him on his campaigns but in England at least, they were defended only by those who thought them genuine. Despite the prediction of the reviewer of Fingal in the Edinburgh Magazine that readers "will find it worthy of their attention, whether they consider it as an antient composition . . . or as a new work, written by the supposed editor,"21 worth and authenticity were inseparably bound. After the more or less definitive report of 1805, Ossian faded from view, and only experts now read Fingal and Temora.
Chatterton's poetry, however, was beloved even after the Rowleian pretense had been definitively squelched, and "O! synge untoe mie roundelaie" is still a standard anthology piece. Even Johnson, as stalwart an enemy of deception as we'll find in the eighteenth (or any other) century, was impressed by Chatterton's moxie: "This is the most extraordinary young man that has encountered my knowledge. It is wonderful," he said, "how the whelp has written such things."22 And Walpole, the only one to get off scot-free, is now a standard part of many eighteenth-century survey courses, and his Castle of Otranto is available in countless cheap paperback editions. I'd like, then, to ask a naïve question: what did Macpherson do that Walpole didn't, or vice versa, to make one a legendary malefactor and the other an eccentric antiquarian?
Perhaps the answer is generic. Look at the three genres the fakers faked: Macpherson produced epic poems, the most dignified, even sanctified, of secular genres. Chatterton is best known for his lyric and narrative poetry, which held a respectable but not lofty position in the eighteenth-century generic hierarchy. Walpole produced prose fiction, which would not achieve respectability as "literature" for many years to come. And that question of genre was part of some discussions of Macpherson. Johnson and Boswell were bothered precisely by his epic pretensions: "He has found names, and stories, and phrases," said Johnson, "and with them has blended his own compositions, and so made what he gives to the world as the translation of an ancient poem." Boswell replied, "It was wrong to publish it as a poem in six books."23 In other words, fragments even seriously doctored fragments would have been no great sin, but "a poem in six books" (among a people who knew neither "books" nor "six") was a serious transgression. Epics were accorded a kind of organic unity wanting in smaller pieces: "Mr. M'Queen," notes Boswell, "alledged that Homer was made up of detached fragments. Dr. Johnson denied this; observing, that it had been one work originally, and that you could not put a book of the Iliad out of its place."24 But the generic answer isn't the only one, and in any case Macpherson produced short poems and Chatterton produced long ones. We run into great difficulty in distinguishing these three cases based only on intrinsic evidence, since the works produced by Macpherson, Chatterton, and Walpole seem to share all the necessary and sufficient traits of forgeries.
I've used a judicial metaphor to discuss the "crimes" of these three men and the "verdicts" passed by posterity, and perhaps extending that metaphor a little further will suggest a way out. The law allows discussions of motive to enter into trials, in both the verdict and penalty phases. Maybe Macpherson, Chatterton, and Walpole had different motivations, which explain why we react to them so differently? Unfortunately, discussions of literary motive are always troublesome. Wimsatt and Beardsley reduced us to a skepticism bordering on pyrrhonism regarding authorial intention; their conclusion that "critical inquiries are not settled by consulting the oracle"25 places intention in the realm of the mystical and brands such speculation as critical charlatanry. And even though New Critical bromides are no longer recited with the reverence they were once accorded, authorial intention has found few defenders since Barthes proclaimed the death of the author.
The law also permits testimony about character, and this seems more likely to have influenced the verdicts. Walpole's letters have made him a universal pal: we like good old personable Horry. Macpherson's crimes, on the other hand, are doubtless aggravated by his churlishness toward more likeable contemporaries. His "foolish and impudent letter" to Johnson, now lost, with its apparent threats of bodily harm, is remembered more vividly than any of his writings that survive; it famously prompted Johnson to defy "the menaces of a Ruffian."26 Macpherson's catalogue of enemies is large and distinguished, but even friends grew weary of his blustering and posturing. Hume, who began by declaring Macpherson "a modest, sensible young man," soon complained to Blair about "so strange and heteroclite a mortal, than whom I have scarce ever known a man more perverse and unamiable."27 Macpherson's petulance has done him no favors with posterity. Chatterton's suicide at the age of seventeen, on the other hand, has turned subsequent critical reception from indignation to sympathy. We still pity the young genius destroyed by a narrow-minded critical establishment, the archetype of Adonais. But is that all? Had Macpherson died a similarly romantic death, would he have been similarly beloved? I rather suspect his death at his own hands would have been an occasion for glee among some of his more bitter enemies. Maybe, then, it was a less savory adjunct of personal character, that is to say, national character. A Scot, a poor provincial Englishman, and a wealthy man at the center of power naturally had different receptions.
The ratio of interrogative to declarative sentences in my paper thus far betrays my own uncertainty and confusion. Nothing I've said amounts to an explanation of their various fates, but I'd like to set that question aside for a moment to ask another, which may be related. What was it about the 1760s that led to such similar pretenses? Explanations of literary phenomena that invoke some vague Zeitgeist are always seductive when first proposed, and deeply unsatisfying once stated, but I'll soldier on just the same.
Part of that 1760s Zeitgeist, I think, is the coexistence of two contrary aesthetic principles. On the one hand, an aesthetic of originality was all the rage. This is associated most obviously with Young the Conjectures appeared in 1759 but few critics were untouched by it; even Johnson, whose critical temperament is more conservative than most, wrote that "The highest praise of genius is original invention."28
At the same time, there was a competing aesthetic of authenticity. And these two critical principles often clashed, because "authenticity" often took the form of unsophisticated honesty, or naïve factuality; and the reporting of universally accessible facts rarely seemed original. This curious valuation of simple fact implies a devaluation of fiction an assertion which is perhaps surprising. But the imagination sustained many indirect hits even as its praises were being sung most energetically. Contemporary readers placed an uncommon amount of attention on the factuality of literature. The Gentleman's Magazine for September 1761, for instance, includes "Annette and Lubin; said to be a true Story,"29 and that refrain rings throughout the decade. Think of the late century's favorite praise of Pope's Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady: it was authentic.30 The best poetry reproduces actuality as closely as possible; the worst feigns.
It strikes us, frankly, as a naïve and even vulgar brand of "realism"; I'm reminded of every NBC miniseries in which Valerie Bertinelli or Farrah Fawcett strives to recover her kidnapped children: "Based on a true story." But the 1760s were a time when critics were trying to decide whether "artful" or "artless" was the greater compliment. As William Shenstone wrote in 1761: "The public has seen all that art can do, and they want the more striking efforts of wild, original, enthusiastic genius."31 And Percy advertised his Reliques as "effusions of nature," not "labours of art."32
So where is an enterprising modern to turn for poetry that's both authentic and original? To the authentic originals: the primitives, whose authenticity is their originality, their proximity to nature's great original. Blackwell, for instance, praises Homer not for what we'd call "creativity," but for his facility at depicting ancient Greek life. Other theorists of primitivism following in Blackwell's wake Blair, Ferguson regard this essential transparency of primitive art not as a defect but as its paramount virtue, and anything admirable in ancient poetry is attributed not to the ancient poet's fertile imagination or craftsmanship, but to his environment. Even Thomas Warton suggests almost as much about the age of Elizabeth in his History and his Observations on the Fairy Queen.
Behind this valuation of the past lies an important critical axiom: great art reflects life. And from that axiom, we can derive a corollary: to investigate life, you need only to find the appropriate great art, and everything follows. If, after all, the best artists present transparent and unproblematic renderings of real life, the historian's task is simple: art becomes the raw materials of history. Attempts to bridge the literary and the historical past were very much in the air. Just look at the big titles: Evan Evans's Specimens of the Ancient Welsh Bards appeared in 1764, Percy's Reliques in 1765, Dalrymple's Ancient Scottish Poems in 1770, Beattie's Minstrel in 1771. And let's not forget England's more recent and familiar past, which was undergoing the same sort of recovery: Johnson's edition of Shakespeare was published in 1765 and Capell's in 1768, along with Farmer's Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare in 1767. Even Johnson's Dictionary of 1755 "studiously endeavoured to collect examples and authorities from the writers before the restoration."33
Why all the emphasis on the literary past? Perhaps because the literary present was unsatisfying. The 1760s were a time of cultural uncertainty. Pope's generation was dead and gone; the first volume of Warton's Essay on Pope appeared in 1756. We might expect that the outcome of the battle of the ancients and moderns decades earlier the moderns won would have resulted in confident proclamations about the superiority of the present, but we find just the opposite. Attempts to measure up the current state of affairs think of Brown's Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times (1757) and Goldsmith's Present State of Polite Learning (1759) had none of the confidence of Addison or Pope or even Swift, who, for all his satirical grousing about his contemporaries, was at least well assured about the value of his own enterprises. But now the present looked much less attractive than the past any past. Hence the fascination with chivalry in Hurd's Moral and Political Dialogues (1759), and the laments about the passage of time in Goldsmith's Deserted Village (1770).
Now let's review our three fakers in this light. All three shared this much: they manufactured a literary past (under the pretense of its recovery), whether the third, the twelfth, or the fifteenth century. But the effect of Walpole's imposture, whatever his intention, was not to throw light on the world of Onuphrio Muralto; the period setting feels almost (but not quite) disposable. No expert in twelfth-century Italian culture, then or now, has reason to object to anything in The Castle of Otranto, because The Castle of Otranto doesn't presume to tell us anything about that culture.
Macpherson, on the other hand, took great pains to describe Ossian's society, and encouraged Blair to do the same. And in the very work where his forgeries were most extensive, he made the grandest historical claims: "What renders Temora infinitely more valuable than Fingal," he wrote, "is the light it throws on the history of the times."34 And many believed him. The reviewer of Fingal in the Edinburgh Magazine, for instance, prefers to think the poem authentic, "because we derive a particular pleasure from considering it as a work of a son in praise of his father; a circumstance which makes it affect us . . . above all other epic poems."35 And for a few decades, histories of ancient Caledonia drew on Ossian as authentic source material. But Macpherson's quest for authenticity paradoxically led him into a violation of authenticity; the very criterion by which he justified the worth of the Ossianic poems was the criterion by which they were debunked. Had he been less insistent on their factual value or at least less skilled at making them seem real he might have been spared the opprobrium posterity has heaped on him.
Chatterton is interesting in this respect, because he went out of his way to produce documentary evidence deeds, wills, histories, drawings, heraldries to authenticate Rowley's poetry. But whatever his intention, that material didn't enter popular consciousness; little of it was published at the time. So the documentary material wasn't admitted as evidence into our imagined trial. To judge by the amount of effort he put into his architectural plans and fifteenth-century news-flashes (dateline: Bristol), he wanted very much to influence antiquarian thought. But perhaps the most pathetic fact about his terribly pathetic career is this: he escaped Macpherson's ignominy only because he wasn't very good at invoking a believable world. It's partly owing to the relative proximity to his own time (people knew more about fifteenth-century England than about the third-century Highlands), but partly to his inability to conjure up a textual world that critics could treat as the real world.
This may be at least a kind of an answer to both of the questions I've proposed: why the 1760s, and why is Macpherson worse than Chatterton, who's in turn worse than Walpole? It may have to do with the rise of this essentially historicist brand of criticism, in which literature is valued for the light it casts on the world that produced it. Notice, then, Macpherson's crime: being good at invoking an ostensibly real world. It's an amusing paradox at the heart of these cases: Chatterton's failures, both personal and literary, have saved him from the obloquy that Macpherson's successes, both personal and literary, brought him. Macpherson's greatest transgression may have been skillful consistency with critical orthodoxy.
Well I've graduated from interrogative sentences to declarative sentences peppered with "probably," "perhaps," and "maybe," and I don't know whether that's a step in the right direction. But I hope I've at least hinted at the great complexity of this idea of fraud. I'll just add, as a quick postscript, the hope that we'll resist the temptation to use charges of forgery or fakery to dismiss something as unworthy our attention. Too many critics of Macpherson and Chatterton are eager to convince their readers that it's not really a question of forgery, as if its meaning were too obvious to need explication. Treating Horry, the ruffian, and the whelp as forgers doesn't end the discussion it only begins it.
2. Gentleman's Magazine 32 (Sept. 1762): 395-97, 36 (Jan. 1766): 45.
3. See, for instance, the case of James Gibson, who forged a bill for £437 but was freed on a technicality, in GM 36 (1766): 45; Henry Domine, executed for forgery, GM 37 (Dec. 1767): 607; an anonymous counterfeiter, GM 39 (March 1769): 162; a forgery of £1,000 against Benjamin Smith, GM 39 (March 1769): 164; Richard Brace, sentenced to death for forgery on 8 April 1769, GM 39 (1769): 212.
4. The Letters of David Hume, ed. J. Y. T. Greig, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932), 1:320 (letter 172).
5. Hume, Letters, 1:335 (letter 178) and 1:349 (letter 188).
6. GM 32 (January 1762): 43-44.
7. GM 32 (Feb. 1762): 81-84.
8. GM 32 (1762): 114.
9. GM 32 (1762): 90.
10. The Poems of Ossian and Related Works, ed. Howard Gaskill (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1996), p. 5.
11. The increasing concern with authenticity throughout the century is visible in the increasing frequency with which the word "authentic" appears in book and pamphlet titles, as indicated in the ESTC. By decade:
12. GM 30 (July 1760): 335.
13. GM 30 (Sept. 1760): 407.
14. GM 32 (Jan. 1762): 9.
15. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L. F. Powell, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934-64), 5:241.
16. Robinson Crusoe, ed. Michael Shinagel, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), p. 3.
17. Letter to Pope, 27 November 1726.
18. The Monthly Review, May 1765.
19. Letter of 14 April 1765.
20. The Complete Works of Thomas Chatterton: A Bicentenary Edition, ed. Donald S. Taylor, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 1:341.
21. Edinburgh Magazine 6 (Jan. 1762): 13.
22. Boswell, Life, 3:50-51.
23. Boswell, Life, 5:242.
24. Boswell, Life, 5:164.
25. "The Intentional Fallacy."
26. The Letters of Samuel Johnson, ed. Bruce Redford, 5 vols. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1992-94), 2:168 (letter of 20 January 1775 to Macpherson).
27. Hume, Letters, 1:330 (letter 328) and 1:403 (letter 217).
28. Johnson, The Life of Milton, in The Lives of the Poets, ed. G. B. Hill, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908), 1:194.
29. GM 31 (1761): 398-402.
30. See Joseph Warton, Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope (London, 1756), 1:253-54.
31. Shenstone to MacGowan, 24 September 1761.
32. Reliques, Dedication to the Countess of Northumberland.
33. Dictionary of the English Language, 2 vols. (London, 1755), 1:sig. C1r.
34. Poems of Ossian, p. 215.
35. Edinburgh Magazine 6 (Jan. 1762): 13.