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Scandal! Literary Fakes as Best Sellers

The often shadowy relationship between “literature,” meaning a canon of imaginative fictional works, and “literary forgery” has always been fraught. Once a work of literature is exposed as a fake, even if it is obviously so, does it altogether fail to constitute a form of imaginative literature? Don’t literary forgeries allow even knowing readers to step, if not into the supposed imaginations of great authors, then at least into the creative minds of their forgers?

Here we can partake of Giuseppe Compagnoni’s and Mariano Alberti’s Romantic “visions” of the poet Torquato Tasso’s presumed lovesick madness, or the odd pseudo-Shakespearean psychological obsessions of the young William Henry Ireland. May we not delight in their fantasies as much as we might share in the exasperation and moral indignation that their forgeries, once exposed, inspired among members of the reading public?

Within the desire and effort to falsify, did there not also reside some measure of literary imagination? Most literary forgeries passed through their historical moments quietly. Fewer still aroused the imaginations and passions of their readers. A precious few, however, sold like hotcakes, setting off waves of sensation and scandal.