HistoryofScience.com Blog

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Publisher accused of 'grave robbing' for printing last two novels marred by Sir Walter Scott's ill-health

As a specialist in rare books in the history of science and medicine for more than 40 years, I have handled numerous rare items concerning the history of resurrection men, also called resurrectionists, or body-snatchers. These pamphlets, broadsides, and books usually concern the business of illegally supplying corpses to anatomy schools in England and the United States during the early nineteenth century when criminals sentenced to be hanged and anatomized were the only legal supply of corpses, and this supply was insufficient to support the demand from private anatomy schools. The most notorious of all resurrectionists were Burke and Hare, who were able to supply fresh, undeteriorated corpses to the anatomist Robert Knox by smothering their victims. A hero of my youth, the poet Dylan Thomas, wrote a screenplay on this topic entitled The Doctor and the Devils, which was published in 1953. It was significantly re-written and produced as a film with the same title in 1985, starring Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, and of all actresses--Twiggy. In my opinion, this film is one of the most entertaining and authentic dramatizations relating to medical history. It is available on DVD.

While I have had a lot of business experience with rare material concerning resurrection men, I never imagined that a publisher could be accused of resurrecting a manuscript that rightly should have been left undisturbed in its archival grave. However, that is exactly what happened recently, according to a review published in Scotland on Sunday of Sir Walter Scott's posthumous The Siege of Malta and Bizarro. These unfinished novels were written by Scott in 1831 and 1832 after he had suffered a series of strokes which affected his writing abilities. Because of their obvious major flaws neither Scott nor his descendants believed that they should ever be published. "The late John Buchan read both works while researching a biography of Scott in 1932 and remarked: 'It may be hoped that no literary resurrectionist will ever be guilty of the crime of giving them to the world.' " For decades the manuscripts, with all their limitations, were preserved in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library.

However history judges these literary "resurrectionists," and I suspect that it will be with tolerance--it should be pointed out that no professional body-snatcher ever wanted to be accused of actual "grave-robbing." That is because punishment for stealing a dead body was a misdemeanor, punishable with a fine or imprisonment, while actually stealing property from a corpse, such as jewelry that might have been buried with a body, was a felony, potentially punishable by "transportation" or even execution.

In keeping with our enlightened, tolerant view of this questionable publishing project, and not wanting the publisher to suffer more than appropriate critical ridicule, would we want to remove the words "grave-robbing" from the headline and revise it as follows: "Publisher Accused of Literary Body-Snatching for Printing Last Two Novels Marred by Sir Walter Scott's Ill-Health?"

posted by Jeremy Norman @ 11:20 AM   14 Comments

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Do You Prefer the Map Thief in the Wikipedia or the Forger's Autobiography?

In 2005 a map dealer, E. Forbes Smiley III, was caught stealing maps from Yale's Beinicke Library, leading to an investigation proving that he had stolen maps from numerous institutions, and that he had sold them to various unsuspecting dealers and clients. In everyone's best interests except Smiley's, the case received a great deal of publicity during 2005 to 2007, leading to increased security at some rare book libraries. A well-known expert on early maps, Smiley's M O was to study early atlases and travel books in rare book libraries and reading rooms, and-- when nobody was looking--razor out individual maps and sneak them out concealed in his clothing. When he returned the volume to the librarian he knew that the removal of a thin leaf or two from a bound volume would not be noticeable. Through this scheme, which went undetected for several years, Smiley was able to sell, often at comparatively reasonable prices, some of the world's rarest and most desirable maps. His arrest and conviction brought him jail time, demands for restitution, and notoriety that he did not desire, including a good, objective article in the Wikipedia.

Is the crime of theft that much different than the crime of forgery? Recently the biographer and forger of literary autographs, Lee Israel, published a brief (127pp.) self-aggrandizing autobiographical account of her escapades entitled Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger. Most probably the institutional libraries, dealers, and scholars she conned cannot forgive her. However, the New York Times reviewer, Thomas Mallon, seems understanding about the human aspects of these admittedly interesting literary crimes. Certainly the publishers, Simon & Schuster, must have felt that there was a ready market for this story. Will a film be in the works?

After posting the above a much more objective review of Lee Israel's book in the Los Angeles Times came to my attention. The reviewer, Jonathan Shapiro, a former federal prosecutor, is an adjunct law professor at USC and a co-executive producer on the NBC television drama "Life." To Shapiro " 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' is an entertaining read that showcases Israel's many gifts as a writer, as well as her tragic defects as a human being. Caveat emptor: It is the work of a self-confessed liar."

UPDATE: On August 17, the New York Times published the following letters concerning the literary forgeries of Lee Israel:

To the Editor:

As a biographer, no, I cannot ever forgive Lee Israel, the author of “Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger” (Aug. 3). The letters she forged make a mockery of writers’ attempts to seek out the truth when researching books. But Israel gets a Simon & Schuster contract for her crimes and thinks the whole thing is “a big hoot.” As for me, I’d like to see her head on a pike in front of the New York Public Library, as a warning to others.

Eve Golden
Lyndhurst, N.J.

To the Editor:

As the dealer who approached the F.B.I. with his suspicions regarding Lee Israel’s forgeries and theft of rare letters from Columbia University, and who participated in the operation that caught her, I am appalled by the tone of the press coverage her book has received. Among the forgers mentioned in your review could be added the name of Mark Hofmann, the 1980s forger of Mormon historical documents, who not only defrauded dozens of dealers and betrayed his co-religionists but murdered several people to conceal his crimes. Maybe he, too, will write a “pretty damned fabulous book” about his “misadventures.” Betrayal, greed and immorality are not so amusing to the scholars, collectors, dealers and institutions Israel hurt.

David Lowenherz
New York

posted by Jeremy Norman @ 8:56 AM   7 Comments

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Most Famous Antiquarian Bookseller

Reading the
New York Times
review immediately caused me to order and read Larry McMurtry's recently published Books: A Memoir. McMurtry is the author of twenty-eight novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove, and over thirty screenplays, including the coauthorship with Diana Ossana, of the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain. Besides the honor, he received negative fashion notoreity for wearing jeans and cowboy boots to the Academy Awards, as shown, when he received the Oscar with Ossana.

What is less widely known about McMurtry is his parallel career as a book scout and antiquarian bookseller. Years ago I had the opportunity to meet him when I visited the version of his bookstore, Booked-Up, that he used to run in the Washington DC area. Currently he operates one of the largest antiquarian bookstores in the world in his small home town of Archer City, Texas.

As one would imagine, McMurtry's account of his adventures in the book trade is fascinating, even it is retrograde. McMurtry, who still writes all his manuscripts--10 pages per morning--on an old Hermes 3000 typewriter rather than a computer, emphasizes the value being lost to book collectors in the life experience of visiting book shops. On that I fully agree, but the Internet has caused the closure of numerous shops, and it is difficult to turn back the clock. I also understand how he feels about his Hermes typewriter since I used to type all my letters on one until I bought my first PC, a Compaq Plus 28 pound so-called portable, about 1988.

In his memoir McMurtry reminds the reader that he is better-known for his many films and screenplays than for his books, even though some have been best-sellers. His films include Hud, The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment and other classics. In line with other commentators, he observes that reading habits have changed as a result of electronic media. I quote from the beginning of his chapter 57:

"I nowadays have the feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support--reading--is itself an eccentricity now, if a mild one. Interrupted narrative has become a natural thing. One could agrue that Dickens and the other popular, serially published nineteenth century novelists started this, and the television commercial made interruption come to seem normal. But the silicon chip has accelerated the process of interruption beyond all reckoning: iPods, BlackBerrys, laptops all break narrative into shorter and shorter sequences.
"Still, it's at least possible that these toys will someday lose their freshness and an old-fashioned thing, the book, will come to hold some interest for the masses again."

Ironically McMurtry's wonderful memoir is an example of just this sort of interrupted narrative, containing on its 259 pages no less than 109 separate chapters, some only one page long. Maybe that is why it is so easy to read!

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posted by Jeremy Norman @ 7:52 AM   26 Comments

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