September 27, 2012

An extraordinary record of human skullduggery


The Rare Books and Manuscripts Department of Johns Hopkins University has just received an extraordinary addition: informally called the “Bibliotheca Fictiva,” it’s the Arthur and Janet Freeman Collection of Literary and Historical Forgery: twelve hundred rare books and manuscripts that represent the world’s most significant collection of literary and historical forgeries, along with accompanying forgery-debunking material.

It is a bonanza of fakery. Johns Hopkins Magazine lists the following choice pieces:

There’s an eyewitness account of the fall of Troy. “Evidence” that one Johann Mentelin, not Johannes Gutenberg, invented printing by movable type. “Proof” that John Milton plagiarized substantial sections of Paradise Lost. A prank by some early 18th-century students in the form of a 14th-century edict from Queen Jeanne de Naples authorizing royally licensed whorehouses. (College boys never change.) Phony travel narratives, including one from the early 18th century in which the author, George Psalmanazar, claimed to have traveled in Formosa (now Taiwan) and compiled a fake alphabet and lexicon that included a version of the Lord’s Prayer in “Formosan.” The first apparent printed account from 1581 of the “Aquila discovery” of a scroll that “recorded” Pontius Pilate’s death sentence upon Jesus Christ. Speaking of Christ, there’s some correspondence from him, including a “letter from heaven” (a forgery first promulgated in the sixth century), and an account of his missing teenage years in India.

The collection also holds some of history’s most notorious and influential forgeries, including the Donation of Constantine and, it sounds like, material connected to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, both good examples of the stubbornness of forgeries — long after they were definitively debunked, people continued to believe in their validity.

Arthur Freeman has been collecting forgeries since the 1950s, an interest that began with his research into John Payne Collier, a 19th-century Shakespearean scholar of considerable standing who created a series of forgeries, including a new copy of the Second Folio with emendations he said had been made by an “old corrector” (technically true if he’d been referring to his own 60-year-old self). Years of studying Collier’s activities and motives seems to have produced a benevolent fellow-feeling in Freeman: “The question [of why] is never answered in a paragraph, for any forger. I think if Collier and I could talk openly, we wouldn’t have any problem understanding each other.”

JH Magazine also interviews scholar Walter Stephens about the acquisition and Stephens, who has been studying forgeries since the 1970s, has some interesting things to say about their relationship to another very familiar genre:

In some of these older texts, there’s a very thin line between what we would now call fiction and what we would now call forgery. There’s even a subclass of literary works that are what I call ‘fake forgeries’ or ‘pseudo-forgeries.’ That is, they are works that only pretend to present themselves as genuine, knowing quite well that the reader will intuit from the way they’re presented that these are forgeries. Since the reader isn’t fooled, we can’t call them forgeries in a strict sense. If you trace the trajectory of fake forgeries, what you eventually come across is the novel.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.