Literary forgery

Literary forgery (also known as literary mystification, literary fraud or literary hoax) is writing, such as a manuscript or a literary work, which is either deliberately misattributed to a historical or invented author, or is a purported memoir or other presumably nonfictional writing deceptively presented as true when, in fact, it presents untrue or imaginary information.


Literary forgery may involve the work of a famous author whose writings have an established intrinsic, as well as monetary, value. In an attempt to gain the rewards of such a reputation, the forger often engages in two distinct activities. The forger produces a writing which resembles the style of the known reputable author to whom the fake is to be attributed. The forger may also fake the physical alleged original manuscript. This is less common, as it requires a great deal of technical effort, such as imitating the ink and paper. The forger then claims that, not only is the style of writing the same, but also that the ink and paper are of the kind or type used by the famous author. Other common types of literary forgery may draw upon the potential historical cachet and novelty of a previously undiscovered author.

Literary forgery has a long history. Onomacritus (c. 530 – 480 BCE) is among the most ancient known literary forgers. He invented prophecies, which he ascribed to the bard Musaeus.[1]

In the 3rd century CE, a certain Septimius produced what appeared to be a Latin translation of an eyewitness account to the Trojan War by Dictys of Crete. In the letter of dedication, the translator gave additional credence to the document by claiming the Greek original had come to light during Nero's reign when Dictys' tomb was opened by an earthquake and his diary was discovered. Septimius then claimed the original had been handed to the governor of Crete, Rutilius Rufus, who gave the diary to Nero during his tour of Greece in 66-67 CE. According to historian Miriam Griffin, such bogus and romantic claims to antiquity were not uncommon at the time.[2]

One of the longest lasting literary forgeries is by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a 5th-6th century Syrian mystical writer who claimed to be a disciple of Paul the Apostle. Five hundred years later, Abelard expressed doubts about the authorship, but it was not until after the Renaissance that there was general agreement that the attribution of the work was false. In the intervening 1,000 years, the writings had much theological influence.[3]

Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770), the English poet and letter writer, began his brilliant medieval forgeries when little more than a child. While they brought him praise, and fame after his death, his writing afforded little in the way of financial success and he committed suicide aged 17, penniless, alone and half-starved.

The English Mercurie appeared to be the first English newspaper when it was discovered in 1794. This was, ostensibly, an account of the English battle with the Spanish Armada of 1588, but was, in fact, written in the 18th century by Philip Yorke, 2nd Earl of Hardwicke, as a literary game with his friends.[4]

Literary forgery was promoted as a creative method by Charles Nodier and, in the 19th century, many writers produced literary forgeries under his influence, notably Prosper Merimee and Pierre Louys.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was an antisemitic forged document first published in Russia. The abridged version was available to the public in 1903. The unabridged version was later edited by a retired officer of the Russian Imperial Guard, G.V. Butmi. This forgery exploits Jews by stating that Jews were inevitably trying to exercise a coup against Christianity in order to essentially rule the world. The document was exposed as plagiarism by English journalist Philip Graves in 1921. Graves exposed the strong similarities in the political satire by Maurice Joly, The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. The forged document was supported and promoted by Henry Ford in his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent.[5]

Fake memoirs

The genre of false and deceptive autobiography or fake memoirs has seen the rise of misery lit books, in which the author claims to have suffered illness, abuse, and/or drug abuse during his or her upbringing.

Stephen Longstreet, a prolific and popular novelist in the mid-20th century, referred to and eventually produced a manuscript called Nell Kimball: Her Life as an American Madam, by herself, allegedly penned by a prostitute who lived from (1854-1934) and worked in New Orleans. Additionally, the work was partly plagiarized from the works of Herbert Asbury.[6]

A recent example is Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones, the author's story about being a young American foster girl who was raised in a gangland culture in Los Angeles involving drugs, forced sex and criminality. The author, real name Margaret Seltzer, was exposed as a fraud by her elder sister: in reality, she has lived a middle-class life without trauma, and received a good education (which also included a course in creative writing).[7]

Danny Santiago, author of Famous All Over Town, published a novel in which he depicts life through the eyes of a young Hispanic boy growing up in East Los Angeles. The novel won the Rosenthal Award for Literary Achievement in 1984, though suspicion arose about the true identity of Danny Santiago when the author refused to supply a biographical sketch for editors at Simon & Schuster who wanted to submit the book for a Pulitzer Prize.[8] An investigation revealed that the writer was actually Daniel James, a middle- to older-aged Caucasian male writing from the standpoint of a young Latino American boy. He received criticism from the literary community, and gave up writing for good.

James Frey, another author chastised for forging his memoir, published A Million Little Pieces, a memoir about his struggle with drug addiction and his journey through the inner working of the legal system and rehabilitation. The truth about his "imagined escapades" eventually came to light when his close family and friends revealed that he had actually never been a drug addict or incarcerated. Frey eventually faced more than 10 class action lawsuits, including negligence, false advertising, and breach of contract. At the heart of each suit was an allegation of fraud.[9]

See also



  1. B. Ehrman, Writing in the Name of God--Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, HarperOne (2011)ISBN 0062012614, pp. 39-40
  2. Nero: The end of a Dynasty, Miram T. Griffin, 1984. Chapter 9. ISBN 0415214645
  3. Sarah Coakley (Editor), Charles M. Stang (Editor), Re-thinking Dionysius the Areopagite, Wiley-Blackwell (2009), ISBN 978-1405180894
  4. Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Volume 9, January 18, 1840, pp. 17-19
  5. Graves, Philip (1921). The Truth about the Protocols: A Literary Forgery. The Times of London.
  6. "Guide to the Stephen Longstreet Papers". Retrieved 14 September 2018.
  7. William McGowan, Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means, pp. 160-161, Encounter books, 2010, ISBN 978-1594034862
  8. Folkart, Burt A. "OBITUARIES : Daniel James : Writer Who Masqueraded as a Latino."Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 21 May 1988. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <>
  9. Stern, Simon. "Sentimental Frauds." Law & Social Inquiry 36.1 (2011): 83-113. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.


  • Bart D. Ehrman Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics, Oxford University Press, USA (2012) 978-0199928033
  • James Anson Farrer Literary Forgeries. With an Introduction by Andrew Lang, HardPress Publishing (2012)ISBN 978-1290475143
  • Anthony Grafton Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990) ISBN 0-691-05544-0
  • Ian Haywood The making of history: a study of the literary forgeries of James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton in relation to eighteenth-century ideas of history and fiction, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986, ISBN 978-0838632611
  • Lee Israel Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger Simon & Schuster; 1st edition (2008)ISBN 978-1416588672
  • Melissa Katsoulis Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes (London: Constable, 2009) ISBN 978-1-84901-080-1
  • Richard Landon Literary forgeries & mystifications, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library U. of Toronto, 2003, ISBN 978-0772760456
  • Robin Myers Fakes and Frauds: Varieties of Deception In Print & Manuscript (New Castle: Oak Knoll Press 1996) ISBN 0-906795-77-X
  • K. K. Ruthven Faking Literature Cambridge University Press (2001) ISBN 978-0521669658
  • John Whitehead This Solemn Mockery: The Art of Literary Forgery (London: Arlington Books 1973) ISBN 0-85140-212-7
  • Joseph Rosenblum Practice to Deceive: The Amazing Stories of Literary Forgery’s Most Notorious Practitioners (New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 2000) ISBN 1-58456-010-X
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