Splendide Mendax:
Fakes and Fakers
in the Age of Johnson

By Jack Lynch,
Rutgers -- Newark

Delivered 16 March 1999, Providence College

David Letterman recently held up a CD and, to the ecstatic screams of a hundred teenage girls, introduced a hot new band called Fresh Step. Five hunky young things -- Corey, Jeremy, Jamey, Brad, and D.J. -- came out and danced and lip-synched their way through a poppy, hip-hoppy tune called "Ya Gotta Be Fresh."

It turns out, though, that there is no group called Fresh Step. They had never played together, they never recorded a CD, and they'd never been on stage together. It was all a hoax played by Letterman and his staff: in a parody of the Back Street Boys and similar bands, they scoured Broadway for five pretty boys and wrote a catchy number for them to dance to. The art department dummied up a CD case, and the producers recruited teenage girls to shout like maniacs when the band was introduced. They named the group -- this is priceless -- after a brand of kitty litter.

But what does it mean to say there is no such band? What does a fake band look like? Weren't they on stage, singing and dancing? And isn't that all it takes to be a "real" band? How can we call a song a fake, when we were listening to it? They might not be who they say they are, but it's hard to figure out what it means for a band not to exist. To answer that question, I'd like to look at a few notorious cases of forgery -- not from the archives of The Late Show with David Letterman, though there's plenty of material there, but from the eighteenth century -- to see what kind of answers were considered two centuries before Letterman was born. That age had an uncommon fondness for fakes, as the frontispiece to an early edition of Gulliver's Travels reveals: below Gulliver's picture is the Latin motto from Horace, "Splendide mendax" -- "Delightfully deceptive." It was a century crowded with famous fakers, forgers, and frauds of all sorts.


The most famous of them all is the Scottish poet, James Macpherson. The early works published under his own name attracted little attention, but he created a stir when, in 1760, he published Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Galic or Erse Language. It was a collection of sixteen short poems translated into English prose. Contemporaries were excited by the recovery of an old poetic tradition they hadn't known before, and especially by its elegiac tone and sublime descriptions. A typical passage:
The dark rock hangs, with all its wood, above the calm dwelling of the heroes.

The sea with its foam-headed billows murmurs at their side.

Why sigh the woods, why roar the waves? They have no cause to mourn.

But Thou has cause, O Diorma! thou maid of the breast of snow! Spread thou thy hair to the wind; send thy sighs on the blasts of the hills.

They vanished like two beams of light, which fly from the hearth in a storm: They sunk like two stars in a cloud when the winds of the north arise.

Okay, to modern sensibilities this sort of self-consciously "poetic" tone is unbearably tedious. But it excited Macpherson's contemporaries, especially nationalistic Scots, who were thrilled with the thought of an ancient Scottish poetic corpus. And Macpherson was smart enough intimate that there was more: "Though the poems now published appear as detached pieces in this collection," he wrote, "there is ground to believe that most of them were originally episodes of a greater work." And that greater work may well still be out there, he said, waiting to be discovered:
It is believed, that, 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.
That's what's known as "dropping a hint" -- "If encouragement were given" means "Give me encouragement," or, more to the point, "Give me money." When he did in fact raise the money to conduct his "careful inquiry," he made a tour of the remote Scottish Highlands and, mirabile dictu, discovered a "work of considerable length, . . . which deserves to be styled an heroic poem." This was Fingal, an ancient epic by the third-century Scottish bard, Ossian. Once again, his translation of the old Gaelic poetry into rhythmic English prose was a huge hit. So successful was Fingal that Macpherson discovered yet another heroic poem by Ossian, this one called Temora. Within a few years, everyone in Europe knew the ancient epics; critics confidently pronounced them better than Homer and Virgil, and Napoleon traveled to Egypt with a copy of Ossian's works in his breast pocket near his heart.

Now, a cache of ancient Scottish epics drew attention from many quarters, not just the general public. Scholars in particular were keen to see the originals, to read the Gaelic poetry that lay behind the translation. But they were curiously rebuffed -- Macpherson wasn't willing to show his source material, which many found baffling. Finally, after years of badgering, Macpherson released a short fragment in Gaelic, the original of part of one of the epics. But to the few who could make anything of it, the "original" raised more questions than it answered. Scholars demanded a glimpse at the original manuscripts, and were once again snubbed -- this time until Macpherson's death.

You can guess where this story is going. There was no third-century Scottish bard named Ossian. Many of the fragments were in fact old Scottish and Irish ballads that were decades, even centuries, old. But Macpherson stitched them together, fleshed out the stories, turned them from folksongs into epics, and attributed them to "Ossian," whose name he found in old Irish myths. Though the battle raged for decades, hampered by the scarcity of people who could read Scots Gaelic, by 1805 most people accepted that Ossian never was, and that the only "originals" were old ballads that Macpherson elevated into epics.


Macpherson isn't the most likable character, but other fakers deserve more sympathy. Thomas Chatterton was a fifteen-year-old lawyer's assistant in Bristol in the late 1760s, right in the middle of the Ossian controversy, who began doodling on scraps of old paper. Soon that doodling turned into composition at an assembly-line pace. In the space of just a few years, Chatterton turned out literally thousands of pages -- poems, letters, geographical descriptions, histories -- and attributed them to Thomas Rowley, a monk who lived in Bristol in the early fifteenth century, shortly after Chaucer.

Most of these works weren't published until after Chatterton's death, but modern critics tend to agree with readers in the years after their first appearance: they were superb works of art. But whatever his poetic virtues, he was a lousy forger. His idea of old spelling consisted of doubling most of the consonants, changing I's to Y's, and sprinkling E's liberally; and he was delighted to load up his poems with real or invented old words like forslagen (killed), bestoikerre (deceiver), gemoted (assembled), and quaced (destroyed). Anyone who had actually read fifteenth-century poetry could see through it in a minute. So when he wrote to Horace Walpole, a well-known specialist in the "Gothic" ages, to seek his endorsement, he was snubbed -- first politely, then with increasing hostility.

Recognizing that he wasn't getting anywhere marketing his Rowleian poems, Chatterton moved from Bristol to London, and became a hack writer, publishing short prose pieces and satirical poems in the London magazines. But after a few months, even though he seemed to be doing well, he swallowed arsenic in his apartment and was found dead the next morning -- dead at the age of seventeen. Some like to blame Walpole for Chatterton's suicide; if only he hadn't rejected him so mercilessly, the poor boy might not have ended so sadly. That's unfair to Walpole, who had to explain for decades that Chatterton killed himself a year and a half after his dismissive letter. But Chatterton quickly passed into the realm of the mythological: he became the archetype of the misunderstood genius, rejected by a narrow-minded establishment, and driven to despair because he wasn't yet appreciated. A romantic myth was born.


Some later forgers were very conscious of the romantic model Chatterton provided. William Henry Ireland -- only a year or two older than Chatterton at the time he began his impostures -- had, like him, access to old paper, and he made good, or perhaps bad, use of it. His father, Samuel Ireland, never thought much of young William; had the word "screw-up" existed in the eighteenth century, it's a safe bet Samuel would have used it about his son regularly. Samuel was also a Shakespeare fanatic, eager to track down any relics associated with England's great dramatic genius. So when, in the 1790s, young William came to his father with a Shakespeare signature he had forged, his father showered him with love and attention.

It's not hard to figure out what happened next: William, wouldn't you know it, discovered another legal document signed by Shakespeare, then another, then another -- the supply of Shakespearean documents seemed to be as inexhaustible as the supply of paternal affection. Then came Shakespeare's "Profession of Faith," proving he wasn't a Catholic; then letters to his lover, Ann Hathaway; then a few short poems. Ireland's father was naturally curious where all these relics were coming from: he had been hunting for Shakespearean manuscripts for decades without success, and now his son was turning them up by the cartload. William's quick-witted answer was that he had dined with "a gentleman" -- he called him "Mr. H" -- who had a large chest of old papers at his house, and invited the young man to sort through them. Mr. H allowed him to take any papers he wanted, provided only that Ireland preserve his anonymity, and that he had time enough to copy them. This clever condition gave Ireland an excuse for producing pages bit by bit: he was in fact composing them page by page, and using Mr. H's need to copy them as an explanation for his pace.

With his cover story in place, Ireland began getting bolder. One of the most brazen examples is his discovery of a letter of gratitude from Shakespeare to William Henry Ireland: he invented not only the letter, but the recipient, his supposed ancestor, who had his own name. (No doubt he enjoyed this most private of jokes.) Then came the original autograph manuscript of King Lear, in which, wouldn't you know it, all the supposed flaws that so bothered eighteenth-century critics were shown to be the interpolations of incompetent actors and printers: Shakespeare's supposed originals had none of those blunders. Finally, the pièce de resistance: two entire plays, lost Shakespeare masterworks, called Vortigern and Rowena and Henry II. Ireland's father used his connections in the theatrical world to put Vortigern on stage, and soon it was in rehearsals.

Ireland had so far succeeded in deflecting requests to see the famous chest; Mr. H provided good cover, so he avoided Macpherson's problems with showing originals. But as the discoveries grew more and more stunning, pressure was mounting from Shakespeare experts to see the source. In fact, the experts were skeptical all along. His forgeries weren't much better than Chatterton's: the paper was genuine, and he mixed up a batch of old-looking brown ink, but his antique spelling was just as ridiculous as Chatterton's, and his forgeries were full of historical inaccuracies. So Ireland's father, eager to have testimony from the owner of these controversial papers, asked his son to convey a letter to Mr. H. Remember there was no Mr. H, so Ireland had to forge letters from his imaginary benefactor to his own father. And the insecure sixteen-year-old decided to score more points by praising himself -- in Mr. H's voice -- to his father: "Your son is a genius, or I am not a man." (Of course he wasn't a man, but an imaginary friend -- another of Ireland's inside jokes.) Samuel wrote back, asking, in effect, "My son? -- You're sure we're talking about the same kid?" But still young William refused to allow anyone to see the chest or meet the mysterious Mr. H.

But while Vortigern and Rowena was in rehearsal, the whole structure began to shake and then to crumble. Critics found all sorts of inconsistencies in his documents, and though the battle went back and forth for a while, it all came crashing down on the night before the play was to open. That's when Edmond Malone, a prominent antiquarian and Shakespeare scholar, published a massive four-hundred-page book demolishing the whole imposture. Word spread quickly. The play was a disaster; the audience heckled the actors mercilessly, and it ended after one performance. Ireland soon confessed the whole thing. In the final pathetic twist to the story, his father was so convinced he was a screw-up that he refused to believe his son's confession, thinking him incapable of forging the documents he confessed to.


These stories sound like open-and-shut cases: having heard the prosecution's case, we're prepared to throw the book at them, however much we might admire the moxie of the youngsters who pulled the wool over the eyes of the best critics of the day. But is it really so simple? Do we really know what forgery means? Can there be such a thing as a "fake" poem, so long as we have words on a page? After all, why should it matter who wrote Fingal or when Vortigern and Rowena was written, as long as they're good in their own right? A forged work of literature isn't like a forged check, which depends on the payer's name for its value -- or is it? And so I return to the question I first raised about Letterman's ersatz band -- what does it mean for these writers to be fakes?

Let's look at these cases once again, and try to think about what the problem is. And let's start with the most infamous of the lot. The crime for which Macpherson was convicted as history's most perfidious literary fakir was nothing more than attributing a group of poems to an author. The question, of course, isn't whether they had an author -- they obviously had at least one (Macpherson, Ossian, anonymous ballad-writers, or some combination of them) -- but instead whether they had a particular kind of author. And here we arrive at an important realization: the three possible answers to the authorship question (Macpherson, Ossian, anonymous balladeers) demand of an audience three different and apparently irreconcilable ways of reading. We need to know who wrote them and when before we can judge whether they're any good. This was the Ossianic question from the beginning. A modern critic puts it concisely: "Disbelievers refused to grant any distinction between the historical authenticity and the literary worth of the poems. If they were not ancient, they had no value as literature." And it was the common wisdom right after the poems appeared. David Hume noted that "The Laird of Macfarlane . . . insists as strongly on the historical truth, as . . . [on] the poetical beauty of these productions." And others seemed to agree: "There is a second Edition of the Scotch Fragments," said the poet Thomas Gray to Horace Walpole, "yet very few admire them, & almost all take them for fictions." Notice that admiration and authenticity always go together. Walpole himself is equally unable to dissociate historicity from poetic worth, for his ostensibly purely aesthetic complaint that "It tires me to death to read how many ways a warrior is like the moon, or the sun, or a rock, or a lion, or the ocean" is followed immediately by the more historical justification that "I cannot believe it genuine," and in 1781 he finally dismissed the poems as "dull forgeries."

It's not just Ossian. It's funny that Horace Walpole should weigh in on this question (and on Chatterton's Rowley poems), because he soon pulled almost the same stunt himself. His Castle of Otranto appeared almost exactly between the works of Macpherson and Chatterton, on Christmas Day, 1764. Otranto is famous for being the first Gothic novel, the original horror story; its castles and dungeons and spectres paved the way for the procession running through Frankenstein and Edgar Allen Poe to Stephen King and Nightmare on Elm Street. To modern eyes it looks laughably clumsy; one of my students recently described it as "the Muppets trying to do a horror movie." But it apparently aroused a lot of shudders in 1765. And at least part of its macabre effect is owing to the circumstances surrounding its publication. The title page reads, "The Castle of Otranto, A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. from the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto," and the Preface begins, "The following work was found in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England. It was printed at Naples . . . in the year 1529." Walpole devotes several pages to figuring out in exactly what year it was written -- somewhere between 1100 and 1500, he guesses. Of course, it's all bunkum. There was no Italian edition of 1529, no mysterious Catholic library, no Onuphrio Muralto; Walpole made it all up himself. In his second edition, just a few months after the first, he confessed the whole thing, explaining that he thought a medieval origin would contribute to the terrifying effect.

But although most readers probably saw through the pretense from the beginning, some were genuinely taken in. And for some of them it made a real difference in how they regarded the novel. Here's what one reviewer, John Langhorne, had to say about it:

When this book was published as a translation from an old Italian romance, we had the pleasure of distinguishing in it the marks of genius. . . . We wished to acquiesce in the declaration of the title-page, that it was really a translation from an ancient writer. While we considered it as such, we could readily excuse its preposterous phenomena, and consider them as sacrifices to a gross and unenlightened age. -- 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.
In other words, what would be acceptable if it were actually old is mere rubbish when it's new. He liked the Castle of Otranto that was written in 1529, but the one that was written in 1764 wasn't nearly so good.


Why? Isn't it the same book, regardless of when it was published? Does it matter who wrote it or when? I think the great sin of these famous forgers is that they lived in an age when, perhaps for the first time, it did matter who wrote it and when. All of this depends on the conviction that different ages and different nations make for different kinds of people and different kinds of art. That sounds obvious enough -- the standards for a play in Shakespeare's day, for instance, were different from those for a modern play -- but in fact this way of looking at cultural history is a relative newcomer in the eighteenth century.

Earlier periods had little conception of the way ages differ from one another, a conception we can call "historicism." Chaucer, for instance, in his Troilus and Criseyde populates ancient Troy with people who dressed and acted just like his own contemporaries. It would never have occurred to him that the world in 1100 B.C. was fundamentally different from the world in A.D. 1375, and to someone like that, it wouldn't matter when Ossian's works were written. Even Shakespeare, living in a much more historically aware age, makes the same blunder about the same historical moment; characters in his Troilus and Cressida quote Aristotle centuries before Aristotle was born. And it's not just that Troy is a blind spot: Richard III compares himself to Machiavelli, whose work appeared almost a half century after Richard died; and Douglas, in Henry IV Part One, fires a pistol long before pistols had been invented. Anachronism abounded, and no one cared. Historical periods were more or less interchangeable.

Shakespeare's age didn't notice the anachronism about the pistol, but Johnson's did. Samuel Johnson, in fact, has a note on this very line in his edition of Henry IV: "Shakespeare never has any care to preserve the manners of the time." And it means that eighteenth-century critics became acutely aware of the historical background of the works they criticized, recognizing that what came out of Shakespeare's age would bear the marks of its origin, and would have to be judged on that basis. Johnson is not often regarded as a historicist critic; most later commentators, confused by his emphasis on "generality" and "universality," assume this precludes any attention to Shakespeare's historical situation. But here's how he begins his edition of Shakespeare's works: "Every man's performance, to be rightly estimated, must be compared with the state of the age in which he lived." He makes the same point throughout his works, from his earliest to his latest critical publications. "In order to make a true estimate of the abilities and merit of a writer," he writes in his Observations on Macbeth, "it is always necessary to examine the genius of his age, and the opinions of his contemporaries"; and four decades later, he writes in the Life of Dryden, "To judge rightly of an author we must transport ourselves to his time."

So Johnson's critical practice depends on three convictions: first, that historical periods are distinct from one another and have their own characters; second, that works of literature reflect this character; and third, that these works can be understood only with reference to it. And he shared these convictions with many critics of his day. His friend Thomas Warton, for example, in writing about Spenser, makes as clear a statement of the importance of historical criticism as we are likely to find anywhere:

In reading the works of a poet who lived in a remote age, it is necessary that we should look back upon the customs and manners which prevailed in that age. We should endeavour to place ourselves in the writer's situation and circumstances. Hence we shall become better enabled to discover, how his turn of thinking, and manner of composing, were influenced by familiar appearances and established objects, which are utterly different from those with which we are at present surrounded.
So let's look at Johnson's comment again: "Every man's performance, to be rightly estimated, must be compared with the state of the age in which he lived." To evaluate a work, in other words, we have to know the conditions under which it was composed. This helps us to understand what Macpherson, Chatterton, and Ireland did wrong, and what it means for them to be fakers. No one in Chaucer's day would have thought it mattered if something was written yesterday or three hundred years ago -- it was still the same text. But in Johnson's day, readers had become convinced that something published in 1450 had to differ from something published in 1750.

And our gang of forgers and fakers not only knew this, they took advantage of it. Because notice what each of them did: their crime is the opposite of plagiary, where someone claims someone else's work as his own. Instead, they all passed off their own work as someone else's. And in every case, they passed it off as the work of the distant past -- whether Ossian's third century, Rowley's fifteenth, Walpole's sixteenth, or Ireland's seventeenth. They had learned the historicist lesson.


And so we're left with the conclusion -- either obvious or counterintuitive, depending on how you look at it -- that works of art become different things, depending on when and how they were produced.

It's counterintuitive because when we think about it abstractly, it shouldn't matter whether Ossian or Rowley "really exists," as long as their poems are good, and it shouldn't matter whether Letterman's Fresh Step "really exists," as long as their songs are good. But it's also obvious, because Johnson's age has taught us all to read ancient literature differently than we read modern literature. Reading in our historicist age simply cannot take place until we have been informed which set of reading rules to employ, and these rules depend on the identity of the author. It makes no sense to talk about how good the poems are until we've figured out, good for whom? The aesthetic, in other words, lapses into abeyance, awaiting a verdict from history. Shakespeare's Vortigern and Rowena was a much better play than Ireland's Vortigern and Rowena, even though they were exactly the same text. Ossian's Fingal is better than Macpherson's Fingal, even though every letter is the same. It's a lesson Horace Walpole learned well, because his own preface admits that's the reason he faked his date of composition: he knew Onuphrio Muralto's Castle of Otranto would be better than his own.

So let me sum up, and give my answer to what it means for poems or plays to be "fake," and therefore automatically bad. Whether Letterman's delightfully deceptive pretty boys named after kitty litter had any idea they were dancing their way into such heady territory is, let's say, unlikely. But now that we're all good historicist readers -- the legacy, I argue, of Johnson's age -- we can no longer separate questions of authenticity from questions of value, whether we're reading Fingal or "Ya Gotta Be Fresh." We have been taught to interpret works differently depending on their origins, and we've internalized this lesson so much that the origins actually become a part of the works themselves. The aesthetic experience begins not with the first page but with the title page: in the historicist age, the author's name and circumstances determine what we read, and therefore tell us how to read.