"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Magazine Clipping of the Day

The August 1, 1902 issue of "The Dial" carried an unusual book review:

The tendency of the English novel to take the form of biography has always been marked, although the imaginative nature of the writing is usually apparent, except in the case of such an extraordinary realist as Defoe. But Mr. Montgomery Carmichael has just produced a work of fiction which it would be difficult, from internal evidence alone, to exclude from the category of actual biography. It is entitled "The Life of John William Walshe, F.S.A.," and reads, from introduction to closing chapter, as if it were in very fact the veritable record of a man's career. What could be more convincing than such a prefatory statement as the following: "The will of my friend Philip Walshe has put me in possession of a large and extraordinary collection of valuable MSS., and has at the same time laid on me a task of no little delicacy and difficulty. These MSS. are the voluminous works of his father, the late Mr. John William Walshe, F.S.A., who died on the 2nd July, 1900, aged sixty-three, at Assisi, in Umbria, where he had passed the latter half of his life. Mr. Walshe was well known to scholars as perhaps the greatest living authority on matters Franciscan; otherwise he had practically no fame." This statement is followed by a minute description of the manuscripts in question, with historical and bibliographical notes, and an account of how the editor has dealt with them in preparing the present "Life," together with his plans for further publication. It takes some time to realize that this is all an elaborate piece of mystification, and to recall the fact that the name of Walshe does not figure in any actual list of Franciscan scholars, living or dead. The present imaginary biography is offered to us as the work of the son, Philip Walshe, who survived his father long enough to prepare it, but not long enough to arrange for the publication of the memoir or of the works themselves. Having said this much by way of explanation, we may now speak briefly of the memoir itself. It is, in substance, the story of a saint, whose instincts from boyhood impelled him to the spiritual life, who groped his way out of the sordid middle-class commercialism of his early English environment into what proved to him the clear light and perfect happiness of the Catholic Church. He made his way to Italy while a young man, entered the household of a Catholic English nobleman residing at Lucca, there received the faith, married the daughter of the house, and succeeded to its traditions. Attracted in middle life to the history of St. Francis, he removed to Assisi, became a tertiary of the Franciscan order, and died in the fulness of time, "of the love of God," as the memoir simply affirms. In all this there is little to attract the ordinary reader of novels, who may as well be warned at once that here is no book for him. But to the more serious reader the book has many things to offer. In the first place, it offers a psychological study of marvellous delicacy, such a study as may be found elsewhere only in the " Lives of the Saints" or in the history of the mystics. This alone should distinguish the work; but we may say in addition that it is written in a style at once simple, strong, and beautiful, that it makes throughout the scholar's appeal to the scholar, and that, with no more than an occasional hint of the controversial spirit, it portrays the great historic church, not the church of an ignorant peasantry led by a hardly less ignorant priesthood, but the church which Newman found irresistible in its claims, and to which Joseph De Maistre gave the rapturous allegiance of his powerful intelligence.

One of my favorite books-about-books, Edmund Pearson's "Books in Black or Red," tells more about one of the most oddly charming of literary hoaxes:

Persons who have burned their fingers would be glad to have the literary hoax forbidden by law. Adventuring among books would be safer and tamer. If it should be provided by statute that all books must follow their title-pages as exactly as a bottle of medicine must follow its label, our self-esteem would get fewer wounds, but our wits could be even duller. The traveller into the future, on H. G. Wells's "Time Machine," found men from whose lives all threats of danger, all but one, had been removed. Their life was safe, pleasant, and mightily stupid.

Easy will be the work of the writer of book-reviews, and of his learned brother, the literary critic, when a hoax is punishable by fine and imprisonment. No band of conspirators will dare to unite in celebrating the life and works of an imaginary Russian novelist; the invention of a fictitious school of poetry, with samples of its style, will be as illegal as printing counterfeit treasury notes; all accounts of voyages to the South Seas must be narratives of fact. And then the writer of book-reviews may go away fishing or golfing, and leave still more and more
of his work to his amanuensis.

The writer of a review is supposed to approach a book; not necessarily with suspicion, but at least with a question. Is it what it appears to be, or is it parody, or satire?

Has this author ever visited the curious place which he describes, or known the poet whose strange verses he quotes? If the writer of reviews believes every statement he finds in print, and passes them on to his own readers, sooner or later he will get bitten. And then he accepts with good humor the joke upon himself, or else (if his self-importance is greatly over-developed) becomes furiously angry with the author, and denounces him in words of fire and brimstone.

"I have heard," said a Churchman of some rank I--think he was a Dean or an Archdeacon, for I remember that he reminded me of Trollope--"I have heard that that book is really fictitious from beginning to end!"

And he glared at me as if he intended to follow his remark with a medieval curse. I told him that I had heard the same thing and from good authority.

"Well!" he said, pounding the table, "the man who would do that is a hound! An absolute hound!"

I could not understand his wrath; the author's skill had aroused my admiration. But the Archdeacon's sense of devotion had been outraged. The book was "The Life of John William Walshe," by Montgomery Carmichael, one of the most inexplicable examples of the literary hoax. There are two outward signs of the biography as distinguished from the novel, as with many other books of fact compared with those of fiction: by some ancient convention it is supposed to be larger in size and higher in price. The Walshe book followed the latter of these requirements, unless I am mistaken, but not the former.

Its size was that of a novel. It contained not one atom of satire, it was not a parody, and so far as I, at least, could have discovered by internal evidence, it was what it purported to be: a sober and reverent biography of an Englishman dwelling in Italy, a devout member of the Church of Rome, and in particular an enthusiastic student and pious follower of St. Francis of Assisi.

But John William Walshe, his ancestors and his family, his extraordinary literary labors, the close parallel of his saintly life to that of his exemplar, St. Francis, and finally his death, in the odor of sanctity and under the Papal blessing, were all of them invented by Mr. Carmichael, a member of the British consular service in Italy, and the author of a number of volumes, mainly works of fact. Why my Archdeacon could not have rejoiced at the creation of an imaginary character, whose piety he so much admired, is hard to explain, except on the ground that his self-esteem had been hurt because he had been fooled.

It is well to remember that if one or two reviewers, such as the one in "The Dial," had not bothered to do even the most basic fact-checking, this "biography" would have gone down in history as the real life of a real man.

Carmichael, a learned and serious man,was not normally the prankster sort. He never explained why he bothered with such an elaborate yet delightfully pointless hoax.

1 comment:

  1. I can understand Carmichael completely. I have devised family trees, country houses, estates, whole histories of people who never existed and for which I have no stories written. I can well see me writing the biographies of these people, tales with no plots, just the stories of their lives. Carmichael probably did it for fun, and when a friend suggested having it published, thought, "Why not?"


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