Thomas Heise is the author of Moth; or how i came to be with you again ($15.95, Sarabande Books)
From Dionysius the Renegade to Jeremy "Terminator" LeRoy, the successful hoaxer must concoct the right combination of elements to make the work believable.
When it comes to a false attribution, mastering another's style is essential. But instead of stealing someone else's letters and peddling them as their own, hoaxers hawk their own words as another's or, in a modern variant, fabricate a past for themselves--and the more outlandish, the better.
Whatever the motive--fame, money, envy, or malice--the act is at heart a desire to recreate the world. For the literary prankster, this world and this life are never enough. While preying upon human gullibility, s/he also caters to our need to have faith in a world different from the one we know. The hoaxer liberates us a little and permits us to imagine that with the right story we too might be someone else entirely.
Here are five famous literary hoaxes:
Young Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770) of Bristol was an exceptionally sensitive boy whose long fits of crying without reason led his widowed mother to call him “an absolute fool.” To escape into the past, Chatterton invented the medieval poet Thomas Rowley, whose writings he claimed to discover in an oak chest tucked away in St. Mary Redcliffe’s church. In actuality, the teenager used old dictionaries to write fanciful poems of court and country life on parchments found among his deceased father’s belongings. To age them, he rubbed the sheets on the floor, smearing them with ochre, and held them over a flame to fade the ink. In the late 1760s, Rowley’s poems were eagerly published and read with curiosity – Samuel Johnson was a believer for a while – but Chatterton himself never received more than a few shillings and little recognition. Impoverished and depressed, he committed suicide at seventeen in a London attic by taking arsenic. In 1818, Chatterton’s kindred spirit John Keats fittingly dedicated his pastoral poem Endymion “to the memory of Thomas Chatterton.”
Long before the 2009 media-fueled hoax by the parents of Falcon ‘Balloon Boy’ Heene, there was the Great Balloon Hoax perpetrated by Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849). With less than five dollars in his pocket, but imagination to spare, Poe arrived in New York in 1844 with a sick wife and a mother in tow. Taking advantage of competition for breaking news, he fabricated a story of the first transatlantic balloon crossing and sold it to the New York Sun. The account was published under the headline, “The Atlantic Crossed in Three Days! Signal Triumph of Monck Mason’s Flying Machine!!!” and hawked as a broadside to a swarming mob. What made Poe’s story seem true—the first successful crossing wasn’t until 1978, by the way—were the details, through excerpts of the diaries by Monck Mason, a real English balloonist, and his co-pilot Harrison Ainsworth. “In a night such as is this to me, a man lives – lives a whole century of ordinary life – nor would I forego this rapturous delight for that of a whole century of ordinary existence,” Ainsworth wrote high above the earth. The sentiment was all Poe’s.
Poe’s penchant for hoaxes inspired at least one imitator. The poet James Whitcomb Riley (1849–1916) devised a plot after becoming frustrated by rejections of his own verse. Insisting that name-recognition, not talent, was key to publication, Riley decided to write “Leonainie” and submit it to a newspaper as an original by Poe. To advance the scheme, Riley contacted John Henderson, editor of Indiana’s Kokomo Dispatch, who agreed to play along. They conjured up a mysterious backstory: They had been given “Leonainie” by a man whose grandfather long ago kept “a wayside inn” near Richmond, Virginia, where one night “a young man, who showed plainly the marks of dissipation, rapped at the door and asked if he could stay all night” and then disappeared in the morning, leaving behind a poem signed E.A.P. Henderson promised Riley, “your fame is assured! You are destined to become a second Thomas Chatterton!” Hardly a comforting thought. The plan briefly worked, but soon newspapers from coast to coast declared the poem doggerel. Exposed, Riley’s reputation momentarily suffered, though he went on to become extremely wealthy as one of America’s most famous poets of sentimental verse, including the well-known “Little Orphant Annie.”
The bestselling autobiography of 1929, Joan Lowell’s (1902–1967) The Cradle of the Deep, turned out to be nearly a complete fabrication. But not before Lowell earned $50,000 in royalties. In her seafaring story, Lowell claimed she spent her first seventeen years living in the otherwise all-male world of her father’s schooner, the Minnie A. Caine, where she harpooned whales, dissected sharks, became steeped in sea lore, bathed in rainwater, and met “natives,” before the boat caught fire and sank three miles off Australia. She recounted how she swam to shore with a litter of kittens on her back. The “true” story was a “yarn” spun around a few thin facts: Lowell’s uneventful months spent with her entire family on a boat off California. When Lincoln Colcord, a writer who had actually grown up at sea, pulled the plug on the story, Lowell was initially dismayed, but then unperturbed: “At first I cried when they criticized my book. Then they told me it was good advertising, so I stopped worrying and made no attempt to answer back.”
The five-year unfolding spectacle surrounding JT Leroy, and the author’s subsequent unmasking, is a case study in performance, publicity, and all-American self-promotion. Leroy said he was forced by his mother into the role of a cross-dressing teen prostitute working at truck stops, before running away to survive on the streets of San Francisco as a transgender hustler. Like many writers before him, he turned a harrowing life into art through a series of critically acclaimed cult novels. It was all a ruse: the unknown writer Laura Albert penned Leroy’s stories and her partner’s half-sister, Savannah Knoop, played the shy Leroy in a wig and sunglasses. Suspicions had long circulated about Leroy’s real identity, and a lengthy 2005 New York Magazine exposé eventually led to an admission. Albert claimed that Leroy wasn’t simply her pseudonym, but an alter ego who helped make sense of her childhood sexual abuse: “[I]f you take my JT, my Jeremy, my other, I die.” In 2008, Albert and Knoop had a falling out when Knoop published Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy. “This book…. disgusts me,” Albert stated, adding, “Just because you play a writer doesn't mean you are a writer.”