- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 19, 2002

By Simon Worrall
Dutton, $23.95, 270 pages

It is in a way only half a coincidence that Mark Hofmann, who succeeded in forging a purportedly new poem by Emily Dickinson which was accepted by Sotheby's for auction and acquired by the Jones Library in Amherst, Mass., went on trial for murder in 1986, 100 years after the poet died in 1886.
Richard Sewell, the great Dickinson scholar, once remarked that there was little that was clear cut about the life of Emily. On the one hand, she lived in seclusion with her brother Austin and his wife Sue Dickinson. On the other hand, Emily almost certainly loved,passionately, at various times in her life both early and late. She may have been bisexual. What we do know is that a time came when she started dressing only in white and became a virtual recluse in her room, refusing for the most part to come downstairs and see visitors.
There in her room, she wrote much of the oeuvre that now is reckoned one of the greatest in American literature, but did so in a similarly avoiding way: Of her 1,700-odd poems only seven were published during her lifetime. When Emily died, 700 were found among her effects, sewn into little booklets, packets as she called them fascicles as named in a more high-toned way by Mabel Loomis Todd, Emily's brother Austin's lover in the nextdoor house, and her first editor. Another 1,000 and more poems, written on random pieces of paper or the backs of envelopes given to relatives and friends, were scattered far and wide.
The poems were undated, and few were given titles. The situation was made even more complex by Mabel Loomis Todd's cutting of the threads holding the "fascicles" together and rearranging the poems in the several editions that she later published. More recently, a scholar at Yale's Beinecke Library by the name of Ralph Franklin published a two-volume edition of the manuscripts, in the course of which he painstakingly rearranged the poems in chronological order. In this work, Mr. Franklin depended heavily on his study of Emily's handwriting, which changed considerably over the years.
When a poem beginning "That God Cannot Be Understood," dated 1871, was offered to Mr. Franklin for his expert examination, the presenter, Dan Lombardo, curator of the Jones Library in Amherst, reported the Yale scholar's reaction as follows:
"I remember Ralph pounding on the table after he had looked at the poem … He kept saying, 'It has to be genuine! It has to be! No one could know all these minute details about Dickinson's handwriting!' At the same time, he was cautioning me. After all, Vermeer and van Gogh have been forged. Why not Emily Dickinson?"
When the truth that the poem was a forgery came out, it was as deeply embarassing to Mr. Lombardo as any career blunder can be. With no doubts of his own about the authenticity of the poem, he had raised the $21,000 he paid for it from others. In the aftermath Mr. Franklin was generous in pushing Sotheby's to settle, and in the end the Library got its money back. The story is to that extent a cautionary lesson in how major auction houses work, and how far their scruples do and do not go.
This is the tale, with much fascinating background, that Simon Worrall tells in his "The Poet and the Murderer." It is a first book by Mr. Worrall who now lives in East Hampton, N.Y., but after growing up in what look like former British colonies, went to Bristol University. Of more significance to his story, he later worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal Court Theater as a dramaturge.
"A forger is like an actor," Mr. Worrall writes about midway through his account of the notorious Dickinson poem's provenance (or lack of it at one point it was offered for sale, framed, in a Georgetown gallery here in town; am pretty sure I know which one, but shan't say). "Assembling the research materials, getting hold of the right paper and pens, and preparation of the ink, are equivalent to an actor immersing himself in a part."
But that is only one part of the job. In one of his more discursive chapters, this one on "Isochrony," Mr. Worrall goes into the physical aspects of handwriting, the many muscular activities involved and how it becomes reflexive, so to speak. One result of this is that the instant we become self-conscious while writing, some hesitation or anomaly occurs. In a prologue, Mr. Worrall, gives a detailed picture of how the forger feels, going about his nefarious work. It is memorable for the innocent, or comparatively so (in my time, I forged my parents' signatures more than once on school disciplinary notices; the punishment for that was six of the best, but they never caught me out):
"He thought he had gone under deep enough, but as he followed the curve of the letter m, he felt a momentary tremor like the distant rumbling of an earthquake… . The tremor lasted only a microsecond, but it was long enough to cause a sudden tightening of the muscles like a rubber band stretching. As he reached the top of the first stroke of the letter m, and the pencil began to plunge back down toward the line, he had felt his hand tremble slightly."
It is time to return to Mark Hofmann, the forger of almost unbelievable talent, research capacity and audacity, who is the real protagonist of the story on which Mr. Worrall spent three years. Hofmann, now serving a life sentence in prison, grew up in a family of Mormons.
Mr. Worrall provides any number of historical details about famous forgers down history's road, not excluding Thomas Chatterton, the gifted but ill-fated boy, also with Bristol in his background, who wrote enduring poetry in the name of his made-up 15th-century monk Thomas Rowley. But the major education to be had from Mr. Worrall's book is his brief history of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints, starting with its founder Joseph Smith.
Everyone has heard of the golden plates claimed to have been discovered by Smith and revealing God's truth to him. And who hasn't heard about the polygamy, violence and other attributes of the Mormon community in the course of its passage west to Utah and afterwards? Mr. Lombardo's first clue to the falsity of the poem he had acquired came in a telephone call from Salt Lake City.
The thing about Hofmann was that he grew up to become very, very disillusioned with the Mormons. One of the epigraphs Mr. Worrall uses for his book is Brigham Young's remark that, "We have the greatest and smoothest liars in the world, the cunningest and most adroit thieves, and any other shade of character you can mention …"
Hofmann on the face of it was a conscientious family man who dressed in white shirts, ties and suits. He was a legitimate dealer in antiquarian documents and acquired an outstanding collection of early children's books to create a patrimony for his children. His forgeries were in the first place of early Mormon documents, and his motive seems to have been to undermine the Church, to destroy it if he could. His most notorious job in this line was the so-called "Salamander Letter."
So the Emily Dickinson poem was almost an afterthought, though there were many others. The beauty of it, if you don't mind the term, was that as Hofmann went along, his forgeries only added to the appearance of other documents' authenticity: Of 17 reputed signatures of the early Mormon leader Martin Harris sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for examination, 14 were Hofmann forgeries.
But like most villains Hofmann overreached eventually, trading in hundreds of thousands of dollars rather than just thousands, selling to tough investors rather than to mild-mannered curators and collectors. As the pressure built, he created a Ponzi scheme. Finally, and fatally, he built bombs with which he murdered one financial pursuer and, by accident, the wife of another.
The story of Mark Hofmann's career as a forger is sinister but utterly fascinating, and Mr. Worrall tells it well. As for Emily D., she doubtless will continue to keep us mystified on one level or another 'til the end of time.

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