This Way to the Egress
“You can’t make this stuff up.” That’s what readers once thought about James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which now appears to describe the smithereens of his career, or J.T. Leroy’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, which now seems to have contained a confessional clue. Last week we learned that Oprah no longer recommends Frey’s novelistic memoir of hard times in a rehab gulag. This week we found that autobiographical novelist Leroy is not a 25-year-old former H.I.V.-positive male prostitute but instead a 40-year-old woman named Laura Albert.
For better or worse, the memoir is the literary genre of the age, as the novel was a century ago, and when it comes to storytelling, sinners are more fun than saints. And to the credulous, crap spread on a cracker may taste like pate if it is served up with sincerity. If readers of Frey and Leroy feel betrayed, it is not because the works were suddenly stripped of artistic value but because as consumers they were conned.
Truth in packaging is a legitimate issue, but I submit that it’s more needful for bologna than baloney. Lying has a long and honorable tradition in our land, from hype and hokum to bunk and balderdash, from frauds and fakes to educated elephants and sagacious snakes. The hoax, the prank, the tall tale, invented facts and fanciful foreign policy — all are as American as Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap and Babe Ruth’s called shot.
Practical lying in the New World owes much to the winks and nudges of Old, from the myths of the Classical period to the legends of the Bible. History is a lie agreed upon, Napoleon is said to have said (maybe it was Voltaire). Perhaps he recognized the binding force of a usable past, one that not merely records what happened but promotes the virtues required for nation building — courage, endurance, strength, loyalty, and indifference to death.
My take is that you can’t spell history without story, and stories are things we make up to reassure ourselves that the world as we know it will continue. If the stories entertain, so much the better. Here are some choice examples, making Frey and Leroy seem like pikers.
Predating the birth of Jesus by several years and two seasons? No problem for early Christians. They co-opted pagan festivals for their own holidays, accepting the prior customs while burying their names as the Bacchanalian rites became Easter and the Saturnalian rites, Christmas. Transforming Saint Nicholas of Smyrna into Father Christmas was a piece of tansy cake. Hawking phony relics — bones or body parts of saints and martyrs, the milk of the Virgin Mary, the teeth, hair, and blood of Christ, pieces of the Cross — was a thriving business. Stealing relics from another locality, like frat boys out on a mascot raid, only served to increase their value as agents of the miraculous.
The Donation of Constantine, however, took real chutzpah. A document supposedly written by emperor Constantine (285-337 A.D.) granting the Catholic Church ownership of territories within the western Roman Empire, the Donation was a fake, created no earlier than the date of its revelation, 756 A.D. Although the Donation was revealed to be a fraud in 1440, and the Church not long thereafter admitted as much, the Papal States were not returned to Italy until 1929.
What do Donald Crowhurst, Rosie Ruiz, Sir John Mandeville, and Marco Polo have in common? None completed the journey they purported to undertake. Ms. Ruiz “won” the Boston Marathon in April 1980 by running the final mile to the tape ... after traversing the bulk of the 26-mile course by subway. Her ruse was unmasked a week after she was awarded the medal. Donald Crowhurst, knowing that his boat would never survive the rough Southern Ocean in the Golden Globe yacht race of 1969, sailed across the Atlantic to the coast of South America where he lay low and waited for the other eight competitors to catch up. After spending months in solitude faking log books, Crowhurst faced the certain prospect of being found out and disgraced. He stepped into the Atlantic and disappeared, leaving the log books behind as expiation.
Marco Polo wrote a famous book about his journey to China in 1298, but modern scholars believe he never made it farther east than Persia and relied for his reports on China upon the accounts of other travelers. Mandeville’s Travels described the tour of an English knight who left England around 1322 and journeyed throughout Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Persia, and Turkey. He told of islands whose inhabitants had the bodies of humans but the heads of dogs, a race of one-eyed giants, and other peoples who obviously (at least to us) did not exist. Nor, as it turned out, did Mandeville, and the book’s true author remains unknown.
Literary frauds have ranged from the polite convention of finding a manuscript in a trunk — Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Washington Irving’s History of New-York, and countless others — to skillful forgery: Thomas Chatterton’s Rowley poems, James Macpherson’s Ossian, and the spectacularly brazen “discovery” of a lost Shakespeare play, Vortigern and Rowena. Backed by Richard Sheridan, the play opened and closed at the Drury Lane Theatre on April 2, 1796.
Perhaps the most celebrated such cases of recent times have been Clifford Irving’s forged autobiography of Howard Hughes, published in 1971, for which he served time, and the Mark Hofmann forgeries and bombing murder case. But to me the saddest literary fraud was that of Joe Gould, Bohemian par excellence and barroom poet of Greenwich Village. Cadging drinks for generations by hinting at the wonders of his work in progress, he went to his deathbed having verifiably written only one line of verse: “In the summer I’m a nudist, in the winter I’m a Buddhist.” His manuscript was a cipher, and Joseph Mitchell, the great writer who told “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964, never published another article though he showed up for work at The New Yorker for the next 30 years.
But I digress. P.T. Barnum was one of a kind, the Hierophant of Humbug. His hoaxes included the Fee-jee Mermaid (a stitched-together puppet of mummified mammalian and aquatic remains); Joice Heth (purportedly George Washington’s nurse and, at age 162, still on view for those with a dime); “The Great Buffalo Hunt” at Hoboken in 1843; his hall-clearing sign, “This Way to the Egress”; and more hilarious hoaxes than this slender column can bear.
In that same annus mirabilis of 1843 William Miller proclaimed the apocalypse, selling muslin robes to his faithful Adventists. When the anticipated end failed to eventuate, he pushed back his date by one year and tried again, with similar effect. That year of 1844 also produced Edgar Allan Poe’s Balloon Hoax, announced in an “extra” in the midday issue of the New York Sun of April 13. Poe’s reputation as an author and poet survived the momentary furor over the falsified Atlantic crossing. Frey and Leroy are unlikely to be so fortunate.
Recent great impostors have included Frank Abagnale, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, and Ferdinand Waldo Demera, played by Tony Curtis in The Great Impostor (Curtis also impersonated an actor). But the all-time great impostor was George Psalmanazar, a Frenchman whose true name is unknown to this day. His most important work, the Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, was published in 1704, a year after his arrival in England. Describing a land unknown to Europeans, he shared such fantastical tidbits as the Formosan practice of sacrificing 20,000 infants to their gods each New Year. The book brought him celebrity: he was asked to teach the Formosan language at Oxford and invented an alphabet; the Anglican Church commissioned him to translate the Bible into “Formosan.” But by 1706 the ruse was over, and he drifted into hack writing. The year after he died, his memoir appeared in print: Memoirs of ****, Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; a Reputed Native of Formosa (London, 1764).
In its April 1, 1985 edition, Sports Illustrated published a George Plimpton story about an unheralded rookie pitcher whom the Mets were poised to sign up. His name was Sidd Finch and he could reportedly throw a baseball at 168 miles per hour, cutting the corners off the plate. Inside the magazine, the subhead of the article read: “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd’s deciding about yoga —and his future in baseball.” The first letter of each of these words, taken together, spells “H-a-p-p-y A-p-r-i-l F-o-o-l-s D-a-y” (plus “a-h, f-i-b”).
Such pranks are close to the tall-tale tradition that may be our enduring contribution to world humor. Often considered mere bombast, the tall tale is better viewed as comic mythology for a growing nation. Davy Crockett, he of the Disnified coonskin cap, was a genuinely important historic and literary figure who provided a template for the Mike Fink, Paul Bunyan, and Babe Ruth tales to come: “Crockett became a myth in his own lifetime,” wrote Constance Rourke in American Humor (1931). “After his death in 1836 he was boldly appropriated by the popular fancy. His heroic stand at the Alamo was richly described; and laments arose in the western wilderness. ‘That’s a great rejoicin’ among the bairs of Kaintuck, and the alligators of the Mississippi rolls up their shinin’ ribs to the sun, and has grown so fat and lazy that they will hardly move out of the way for a steamboat. The rattlesnakes come up out of their holes and frolic within ten feet of the clearings, and the foxes goes to sleep in the goosepens. It is bekos the rifle of Crockett is silent forever, and the print of his mocassins is found no more in our woods.’”
The difference between lying and telling tales, between inventing history and creating a useful sense of the past, is lost on Publishers Row and on Pennsylvania Avenue. What we want is to be let in on the joke, not to feel as if we are its butt.