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Impostors

Impostors

Notice in the morning mail of a new book—Impostors: Literary Hoaxes and Cultural Authenticity by Christopher Miller—got my attention and struck a chord, or at least the title did. Literature lends itself to hoaxurie, as does art, far more than architecture, though architectural forgery isn’t beyond possibility. But first things first.

There have certainly been far more literary fabrications than I am aware. Howard Hughes’s “diary”, for example, or the counterfeit poem by Emily Dickinson that put its actual author Mark Hofmann behind bars for decades—not for his audacity in simulating the signature literary style of a renowned and reclusive author which itself wasn’t a crime), but for attempted murder to conceal his unraveling spree of literary crime. Arguments surrounding the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays will smolder well beyond my own life, and then, of course, there are those who speculate on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Hoaxes like these and other sorts can be driven by financial gain or the simple pleasures of putting one over on academics and literati.

“A RIDDLE, WRAPPED IN A MYSTERY, WRAPPED IN BACON”

Among my favorite literary hoaxes is one by self-confessed forger Paul LaFarge, who wrote (among other wondrous works) The Facts of Winter — which title, by the way, is based on a French homonym, “les faits de l’hiver”, there being two other phrases with different spelling and totally different meaning but which sound identical. Apparently the French language is rich with this sort of thing. The LaFarge book is, ostensibly, his translation of the work of a 19th century French author who has himself transcribed the dreams of several others—except, the dreamers and their dreams are fake, as is their transcription.

I’ve already used two words somewhat interchangeably here, hoax and forgery, but only one of them has legal implications. A “hoax” falls in the same bin as conspiracy theory—like a second gunman in Dallas or disgusting suggestions concerning Sandy Hook—disreputable, yes, but only illegal when used for some nefarious purpose beyond the questionable enjoyment of mere controversy. Some of us need to have such nonsense swirling about us.

“Forgery”, on the other hand, connotes the creation of value where there was none, and that value maybe financial or simply reputational. The academic, say, who discovers a previously unpublished Shakespeare sonnet has nothing to “sell” except appearance on the Chicken Salad Circuit, enhancing reputation and possibly cementing a promotion. [Ask me about that some time.] If true, it is of inestimable cultural value, but little monetary. Mark Hofmann, on the other hand, sold his fake Dickinson poem for a bundle of cash.

Were someone to pen a study of architectural hoaxes, what would its table of contents include—or exclude, for that matter? Are there even enough examples to warrant more than a few paragraphs in an obscure mimeographed, stapled, and three-ring-bound newsletter of limited circulation? In one category, there are the faint hopes for finding a lost, misidentified, or previously unknown design by the phenomenally productive Frank Lloyd Wright, author of hundreds of projects in a seventy-plus-year career. Yet they do appear, even if with exceptional rarity.

Several years ago a young scholar of the great H. H. Richardson identified a commercial building in central Boston as his design. Early works of LeCorbusier are now included in lists of his projects; not lost or forgotten, but simply overlooked, “inconvenient” in the canon of Early Modernism. Early works by Frank Lloyd Wright, on the other hand, projects that date from his contractual terms of employment with Adler& Sullivan, were suppressed by the young architect himself as violations of that agreement; so suppressed that even Wright himself had lost track of them. Preparation for the project list in In the Nature of Materials by Henry-Russell Hitchcock (1942) illustrates Wright’s own faulty recollection. William Allin Storrer has not only “corrected” the list, but also added several works which had slipped Wright’s memory altogether. Enlargement of even this expanded list has become a cottage industry among Wright scholars and oficionados.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh is yet another Early Modern being revisited in recent years, which involves speculation about projects from his apprenticeship and early partnership, but also late works from the final years of a practice dissolved into (again) orthodox Modernism—thanks largely to the writing of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner—where Mackintosh’s reliance upon ornament and the quainter aspects of the Arts & Crafts made him an inconvenient figure, worthwhile only as an interruption in the flow of historicism, a necessary belch at the end of an overly rich meal. Perhaps that is the value of revisionist history: the opportunity to fill gaps, patch ellipses, and balance the conventional, overly convenient narrative of orthodoxy.

ARCHITECTURAL IMPERSONATION

Discovering a new Nicholas Hawksmoor Church is unlikely, whereas the re-attribution of one previously linked to another architect would make ripples, if not actual waves.  A Louis Sullivan bank on the other hand is highly unlikely to have avoided notice: his practice was public; his ornament so particular that its manufacture would be a matter of corporate record and its presence on Main Street hard to ignore. A preliminary drawing, however, for an unbuilt commission would be a major discovery,  and its sale at auction a matter of note in the architectural and art historical press. Frankly, I’d like to meet someone capable of forging a Louis Sullivan drawing. Hell, I’d like to be that person.

Our former department chair Cecil Elliott laughed at accusations a student had plagiarized the design of another; architecture was, in Cecil’s mind, a mode of expression not only based but dependent upon imitation. Philip Johnson would be unknown were it not for his uncanny ability to remake the efforts of others his own. Johnson was forever (in Elliott’s estimation) running after the stylistic train as it departed the station, shouting “Wait, I’m your leader!” Do you suppose the friendly feud between Johnson and Wright—a veritable love fest—might have grown from the younger Johnson’s envy that Wright was so highly capable of digesting precedent and making it his own. [Sorry for the “poop” analogy.] But back to Christopher Miller’s new book.

Agincourt is the essence of imposture. An invitation to openly engage the work of another or of a whole movement and be subsumed. Subsumption—is that even a word—is more often required for religious conversion. But I’m not going there.


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