Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A confidence man amok among the Anglo-American literati

Another piece pertaining to literary truthtelling (see also yesterday's post): Simon Morley's review, "Incurable Dodger," in the TLS of November 11, 2011.

Morley examines a book about an industrious and well-known literary figure - a con man and poetaster named Thomas Powell - who, as contemporary as it sounds, "made good use of the cultural capital" he picked up way back in the literary world of the nineteenth century by spreading made-up literary gossip, embellishing literary history, publishing an edition of a famous poet's work "with revisions in the author's (probably forged) handwriting," and persistently recycling these antics until his death.

Far from being a diabolical Melville-style confidence man (e.g., "able to inspire confidence in the most faithless of his compatriots") this fellow "was capable," Morley writes, "of inspiring some quite advanced levels of disbelief," which seems to have been part of the game; he had what the novelist Thomas Gunn called "superfluous ingenuity," which almost always ended up with his being found out.  "Realizing how little credit he had to draw on," our con man, when confronted, "took the line that if he wasn't trustworthy, then certainly he was a pathetic case, unworthy of punishment."

"His presence was tolerated," Morley writes, long after his antics had been unmasked, "although this has less to do with any devious manoeuvring than with his facility in churning out reams of ephemera."  In the end, Powell's "monomaniacal desire to suck up to people overwhelmed his gift for making suckers of them."  Although con men, literary and otherwise, thrive on distrust, "he must have written his creepy little exposés in the knowledge that they would only be consumed, not believed."

Quotations from Morley's review of The Powell Papers: A Confidence Man among the Anglo-American Literati, by Hershel Parker; pictured: manuscript material from Herman Melville's novel The Confidence Man