Scrawler I.D.

A Literary Detective Shakes Spears at Hidden Authors

Yet in that qualifier "more or less" resides a thousand shades of gray, as literary hoaxers know so well. The story on the page needs a back story on the book jacket; biography interlocks with orthography. The acclaimed poet Andreas Karavis, a reclusive Greek fisherman, was a ruse by Montreal poet David Solway; the writer Helen Demidenko, winner of a top Australian literary prize for a novel about her Ukrainian family's experiences in the Holocaust, was the alter ego of the well-to-do Brit Helen Darville; Hiroshima survivor Araki Yasusada, celebrated in a 1996 special issue of American Poetry Review, was a fiction contrived by community college professor Kent Johnson. The list goes on; creative writing mutates into creative authoring. Painstaking frauds like these hit a nerve because they organically indict the practice of using the author's sociocultural status to confirm the "authenticity" of a text. In a larger sense, they uproot the reader's assumption of inscribing her idea of an author onto the text she is reading. The reader writes the author as surely as the author does the text; if one authorial mask slips to reveal a less convenient face, the mirror cracks.

As it can for the hoaxer. Take the perpetrators of the Ern Malley prank, which Foster taught in a seminar session on famous literary deceits. In 1943, the aspiring Australian poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart sent a batch of dog-eared, coffee-speckled pages of verse by a Keatsian unknown, dead at 26, to the journal Angry Penguins; the editor, Max Harris, adored the poems, much to the wicked delight of McAuley and Stewart, who claimed they had dashed off Malley's 17-poem canon in half a day. But their little joke turned out to have more than one punch line. As Foster explains, "The Ern Malley poems received critical acclaim even after the actual authors announced them to be utter rubbish. Skilled parody, after all, requires a measure of artfulness." Foster adds, "McAuley and Stewart may join in the critical discussion, but they do so as readers, not as arbiters of meaning or value." He quotes one of his students, Hilary Shroyer: The duo's disavowals "make as little difference to readers (those who 'own' the text in terms of its meaning and interpretation) as would the protestations of a madman that his grocery list is a work of stunning genius."

Harold Bloom says Shakespeare created us; you could infer from Shroyer that we create Shakespeare. It's a splendid means of passing the buck. During the Primary Colors contretemps, Joe Klein shouted from all available rooftops that he didn't pen the book, even after Foster had plucked him from the lineup of suspects; Klein knew the gig was up only when notes in his hand were found on the manuscript. But Don Foster, of all people, sets the bar for burden of proof higher than handwriting analysis or his own well-tested brand of linguistic sleuthing. And it turns out that partisans on any side of the who-wrote-Shakespeare debate have no earthly hopes of reaching it: "It wasn't even the notations that absolutely proved authorship. It was the living author saying, I was lying, it's me."


Check out the other stories in the Winter 2001 Voice Education Supplement.

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