Literary Hoaxes: Irresistible Storytelling

This Column Is Real, But Not All Authors Stick to the Truth
Deja Vu, by Cynthia Crossen
Wall Street Journal
April 7, 2008

harrison2-200.jpgA popular choice for ladies’ book clubs in the early 1940s was a slim volume of poetry by a 10-year-old girl named Fern Gravel. Fern had written the poems about her Iowa hometown in 1900 and passed them along to someone who had preserved them. In 1940, Fern Gravel decided to publish her nostalgic rhymes under the title, “Oh Millersville!”

Two snippets: “My Sunday-school teacher/Is Miss Minnie King./She is not of any use as a teacher/But I love to hear her sing.” “The soap they use in the Commercial hotel/Is awful; it has a horrible smell./Sometimes we have our Sunday dinner there/And the smell of their soap I can hardly bear.”

Critics were enchanted. The Des Moines Register praised the poems’ “warm feeling of validity.” Time magazine called the author a “precocity in pigtails.” The St. Paul Dispatch said “Oh Millersville!” was marked “for immortality.” And the book became the profit center for its small Iowa publisher, Prairie Press.

Six years later, Fern Gravel confessed: She was really James Norman Hall, co-author of the “Bounty” trilogy. In a 1946 article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, Mr. Hall described himself as “shame-faced and apologetic,” but claimed that Fern had come to him in a dream and dictated her poems to him.

Literary hoaxes are almost as old as literature. Some have been inspired by poverty, others are simply pranks. Clifford Irving, who tried to publish a largely fabricated “autobiography” of Howard Hughes in 1971, received a six-figure advance for his book. He was one of the few hoaxers who went to jail for fraud. Last month, a young woman, Margaret Seltzer, who claimed in a new memoir to have been a foster child in the underworld of Los Angeles gangs, was exposed as an affluent, suburban graduate of an Episcopal private high school.

To many of their perpetrators, a literary hoax is just a high-class practical joke, a way of bringing the literary world down a peg. “I wrote the book in a few weeks as a joke,” said Magdalen King-Hall, author of “The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764-1765,” published in 1926. “If I had realized that so many distinguished persons would take it seriously, I would have spent more time and pains on it.”

Miss King-Hall’s imaginary diarist, Cleone Knox, supposedly had traveled around 18th-century Europe, meeting and recording her impressions of Voltaire and King Louis XV of France, among others. Critics declared the diary authentic partly because it contained obsolete expressions and spelling and lots of capital letters.

“Her diary must take its place beside that of Mr. Pepys,” one critic wrote. Another opined, “No modern girl will ever write a diary like this. Cleone Knox breathes the very spirit of the witty, robust, patriotic, wicked, hard-drinking, hard-swearing 18th century.” The diary went through several printings on both sides of the Atlantic.

Six months after its publication, 19-year-old Miss King-Hall admitted that she had written the diary because she was bored. And she did have a lively imagination. About her visit with Voltaire, she wrote, “The great man received us in a chintz dressing gown. … Sometimes affable, more often peevish. To tell the truth, he reminded me of nothing so much as a chattering old magpie. We listened, silent, with the Respect which is due to Genius, however Wearisome it may be.”

The degree of outlandishness of a hoax seems to have little correlation with its commercial success. In early 1929, a young woman, Joan Lowell, published a nonfiction account of her first 17 years, almost all of which had been spent aboard her father’s four-masted schooner. Once, the ship, sailing for Australia with a cargo, had burned and sunk, and she had to swim more than a mile in high seas carrying a kitten on each shoulder.

“The Cradle of the Deep” was chosen as a main selection by the Book of the Month Club and became a nonfiction bestseller. “It’s a jolly yarn, mates,” said the New York Times, “told with dash and ardor.”

Joan Lowell was really Helen Joan Wagner, an actress, and the ship that her father had captained — for one year — was anchored off San Francisco. The book moved to the fiction bestseller lists, and Miss Wagner earned more than $40,000 from it.

“The Cradle of the Deep” touched off a controversy, which was argued in the pages of Bookman magazine under the title “Are Literary Hoaxes Harmful?” Lincoln Colcord, an author of nonfiction books, argued, “if today we have reached the point of progress where a literary hoax is condoned as good business … then we have fallen on evil times in American literature.”

Heywood Broun, a newspaper columnist, took the opposite side.

“When kings and vassals clustered in some ancient castle to hear the minstrel’s tale it never was his custom to begin by saying, ‘None of this I am about to relate is true,’ ” he argued.

Frequently, someone would interrupt the tale to say, “It never happened,” Mr. Broun continued. “But then it was the custom to take that man and drop him in the moat; for ancient man was not disposed to let any factualist spoil a good story.”

poem: University of Iowa Libraries