Imagine discovering an unknown poem by a great poet like Emily Dickinson. It may shed new light on her life and works! Who would want to think that such a poem could be a forgery? But it was.
The Literary Forgeries
It's difficult to guess how many literary forgeries are sold every day, sometimes for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. With that much money on the line (especially for some of the greatest writers), it's not hard to believe that forgeries are created every day.
In The Poet and the Murderer, Simon Worrall traces the path of one notorious forger, Mark Hofman, a man who was so adept at his trade that he created thousands of forgeries of historical documents, including faked manuscripts of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and other famous writers. While many of those manuscripts were taken out of circulation, some of his forgeries are still posing as authentic/original manuscripts.
A Short History of Forgery
Literary forgery has been around since ancient times in Egypt, Japan, Athens, and Mesopotamia. While forgery has been used to protect original manuscripts, forgers like Giovanni Nanni (Annius de Viterbo) and Denis Vrain-Lucas had different goals. As Worrall says, Giovanni was the "first forger in the modern sense," and he forged documents "to boost the status of his beloved Etruria." In creating those "sophisticated, forged historical documents," he was following the example of other statesmen who had attempted to magnify the importance of their cities.
Annius took a slightly different approach. After forging inscriptions on pottery, he broke the piece, buried the fragments, and then proceeded to discover his forgeries and prove their authenticity. Worrall says, "Forgers are attracted by the sheer fun, and creativity, of their craft--the scholarship and research, the inventiveness involved in rearranging the jigsaw puzzle of history in new, and surprising ways." Worrall points out Vrain-Lucas, who "forged letters from Alexander the Great to Aristotle, Francis Bacon to Galileo, Richard the Lionhearted to his troubadour, Blondel."
As Worrall writes, "Money is a comparatively recent motive for forgery. Misplaced patriotism; hatred of authority; a longing for social prestige or a need to reinvent oneself have been others." That's why, I suppose, such acts of fraud have been used for "religious, financial, and political purposes." As Worrall explains, these acts of literary forgery can be used to unfairly influence (or discredit) others.
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