If you Google my name (not that I’ll admit to having personal experience doing this) one of the first things you’ll see is a photo of a blond, bronzed bodybuilder wearing a tank top sized for a toddler. That’s not me. It’s someone with the same name, a guy who participated on a TV show called Gladiators that aired in the UK through most of the 1990s. I never saw it, but it apparently involved a crew of buff giants battling civilian contestants (and occasionally each other) for supremacy in a series of bizarre athletic rituals. A “reality” show, in other words, one of those programs that has an element of truth at its core, but a truth that’s surrounded by so much spectacle and spin that it’s barely recognizable as real.
A little further down in the search results you’ll find references to another James Crossley, this one a 19th-century scholar and author who’s said to have amassed a collection of over 100,000 books at his home in Manchester, England. In the early days of the internet, he was at the top of the results pile, and as history rolls on, I expect he’ll resume his place while his flashier, fitter namesake disappears from the web’s memory. Strangely, the two Crossleys have something other than their names in common, but I’ll get back to that later.
My main subject today is the distinguished art of the literary hoax. For almost as long as people have been writing books, other people have been making a mockery of the enterprise for fame, profit, or just for fun. Take James Macpherson, a Scottish poet who, beginning in 1760, published several “translations” of ancient Celtic epics that won admiration around the world and made fans of Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson. Macpherson succeeded in endowing the Gaelic language and its traditions with the same grandeur that had been reserved for Greek and Norse myth, but there never were any ancient manuscripts. He just made them up.
Not long after that, in the 1790s, an English teenager named William Henry Ireland gave a present to his father, a Shakespeare aficionado. It was an old land deed, allegedly found in a trunk, that was signed by the bard himself. Ireland’s dad was so pleased that William went back and discovered more documents in autograph hand, including love letters to Anne Hathaway and tributes to Queen Elizabeth I. The whole country went wild with excitement, snapping up hastily-printed facsimile copies. It must have been an awfully big trunk, because more and more pages kept coming out of it, and pretty soon he’d “found” an original play called “Vortigern and Rowena.” I don’t know if the terrible title had anything to do with it, but the jig was soon up. The theater where the play was to be debuted scheduled the performance for April Fool’s Day and Ireland’s reputation never recovered.
More recently, Australia was caught up in the Ern Malley Affair, which took place in 1944 when two traditionalist poets pulled the wool over the eyes of their Modernist counterparts by slapping together more than a dozen nonsensical verses on a single afternoon and getting them published under a fictitious name in the leading journal of the day. The hoaxers made their point, but the tables turned on them when the editor of Angry Penguins (yes, that’s the real name of the magazine) insisted that the poems, whatever their origin, were the equal of those by Dylan Thomas and W.H. Auden. The work of “Ern Malley” is probably better known today than that of his Australian contemporaries.
Then there’s the convoluted tale of John Gawsworth, sometimes known as Orpheus Scrannel, who in 1947 became king of the Caribbean micronation of Redonda, and later passed his title to Spanish novelist Javier Marías. His brilliant companion books All Souls and Dark Back of Time comprise the fullest account of Gawsworth’s eccentric life, but they don’t dispel the mystery completely. Even after finishing them you won’t be sure how much is fact and how much fiction.
There’s something tremendously appealing about that in-between state, at least when you’re in the hands of an artful enough author. You can trust the skill even when you can’t trust the story. That kind of frisson seems to be what David Shields is after when he calls for new literary forms that “convey the fractured nature of contemporary experience” in his manifesto Reality Hunger. He provides examples in the anthology Fakes, which collects forty short fictions by different writers that assume various factual guises–an academic essay, an auction catalog, an alumni newsletter, and so on.
Full-length examples are plentiful, too. Jan Morris’ travelogue about the imaginary nation of Hav, Stephen Marche’s faux-history Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, Martina Albiona’s erotic confession The Passions of a Librarian, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus . . . . Looking back, you realize that the entire history of fiction is rooted in fact (novels such as A Journal of the Plague Year were first presented as reportage) and vice versa (the fantastical histories of Herodotus). As long as there’s a wink to the audience, no one really cares what’s real and what’s not. Playing it too straight is what actually sparked the James Frey debacle and the great memoir scandals of the early 21st century, although that topic could be a whole column by itself.
I know I’ve wandered far afield, and I did promise to tell you what links those two Crossleys other than their names. It has to do, of course, with everything else I’ve been discussing. The modern-day warrior James who played a cartoonish version of himself on television obviously wasn’t afraid to blur the line between truth and falsity, but it turns out that the stooped, sober, and scholarly James from long ago was equally willing to do so. That Crossley was a devotee of Thomas Browne, the 17th-century essayist who explored religion, science, history, and other topics diverse and sundry in wonderfully florid, idiosyncratic prose. One of his most-cited works is the “Fragment on Mummies,” which lightly treats the weighty subject of mortality, focusing on the practices of the Egyptian pyramid builders. No less a personage than Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “it would not be easy to refuse to [it] the claim of poetry,” and it can be found in many editions of Browne’s collected works to this day. The thing is, Browne never wrote it. When you trace its origins, they go back to a scrap of paper in James Crossley’s handwriting, words he said he copied out of a library book, the title of which he’d conveniently forgotten.
Experts have known about the deception for years, but for the most part readers prefer the pretense. I certainly do. Fudging the truth for the sake of entertainment is a time-honored Crossley tradition, after all.