Paper Trails

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I have always been taken with the idea of treasure-hunting. Not that I have done much of it myself. I do recall searching (without success) for a reputed abandoned gold mine on Tom Ball Mountain in the New England Berkshires, and I once went so far as to put together an anthology of treasure-hunting stories, which didn’t sell very well. But frankly, for me treasure-hunting is purely an intellectual sport, which is probably just as well. Reading about unexpected discoveries and adventurous expeditions is on the whole more practical than crashing through underbrush and keeping a weather eye for black bears, especially at my age.

I have to admit that the book in hand isn’t ageing well either, physically. The paper is browning almost to the point of flaking and has that distinctive smell of old bookshops whose proprietors have taken in too much stock and will never again have shelf space. After all, sixty years of life as a paperback is a lot to ask of any book. I am nevertheless reluctant to put this one out of its misery to make room for some crisper and more attractive volume. The Scholar Adventurers (1950) still speaks to my own ancient ambitions and interests, terminated by reality equally long ago but never quite extinguished.

In case there is any confusion, I must make it plain that the treasure-hunting involved here is of a very different kind. No metal-detectors. Richard Altick’s protagonists are all searching for their own versions of the Lost Ark, but unlike Indiana Jones their hunting ground is libraries, muniment rooms, family archives and other paper-choked places. Their quarry is new facts – and documents – about the lives and works of great writers.

If this sounds boring, be assured that it isn’t. What we’ve got here is a grand collection of stories about men (and a few women) who devoted their careers to literary detection. Of course they are nearly all academics (I know, the very term is enough to put some people

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I have always been taken with the idea of treasure-hunting. Not that I have done much of it myself. I do recall searching (without success) for a reputed abandoned gold mine on Tom Ball Mountain in the New England Berkshires, and I once went so far as to put together an anthology of treasure-hunting stories, which didn’t sell very well. But frankly, for me treasure-hunting is purely an intellectual sport, which is probably just as well. Reading about unexpected discoveries and adventurous expeditions is on the whole more practical than crashing through underbrush and keeping a weather eye for black bears, especially at my age.

I have to admit that the book in hand isn’t ageing well either, physically. The paper is browning almost to the point of flaking and has that distinctive smell of old bookshops whose proprietors have taken in too much stock and will never again have shelf space. After all, sixty years of life as a paperback is a lot to ask of any book. I am nevertheless reluctant to put this one out of its misery to make room for some crisper and more attractive volume. The Scholar Adventurers (1950) still speaks to my own ancient ambitions and interests, terminated by reality equally long ago but never quite extinguished.

In case there is any confusion, I must make it plain that the treasure-hunting involved here is of a very different kind. No metal-detectors. Richard Altick’s protagonists are all searching for their own versions of the Lost Ark, but unlike Indiana Jones their hunting ground is libraries, muniment rooms, family archives and other paper-choked places. Their quarry is new facts – and documents – about the lives and works of great writers.

If this sounds boring, be assured that it isn’t. What we’ve got here is a grand collection of stories about men (and a few women) who devoted their careers to literary detection. Of course they are nearly all academics (I know, the very term is enough to put some people off), but those of us with the faintest taste for bookish adventures will quickly be caught up in their quests. Unmasking frauds, solving a 400-year-old murder, discovering long-lost manuscripts, identifying forgeries – this is the sort of thing that will be found here, and for my part I can’t get enough.

Start, for example, with Altick’s account of the long hunt for the papers of James Boswell, which went on for years and which, when they were finally unearthed in a cow barn in the grounds of an Irish castle, served to restore the sadly damaged reputation of the great biographer of Samuel Johnson. (The collection included an unexpected bestseller with the publication of Boswell’s frank and lively London Journal.) Luck and monomania all played a part in the search, from the English gentleman who happened to find a cache of Boswell letters being used to wrap parcels in a shop in Boulogne in 1850 to the professors who patiently talked their way past recalcitrant Irish peers in the twentieth century. Add to that the timely involvement of a wealthy New York financier obsessed with all things Boswellian and Johnsonian, and prepared to put up the hard cash needed to bring the papers to light, and you have quite a story.

Of course, as anyone familiar with Henry James’s classic document-hunting novella The Aspern Papers knows, the detective work required to locate the treasure is only the first part of the process. Winkling it out, or even getting a good look at it, can take years of cajoling. It is not only the heir in his collapsing British mansion, protective of his family’s reputation, who can cause trouble but also collectors who, for one reason or another, see enquiring scholars as dangerous interlopers. Altick notes the feud in the Emily Dickinson family that prevented access to the reclusive poet’s papers for nearly a century after her death. (They were finally sold to Harvard.) And newspaper stories about staggering prices paid for rarities at auction simply complicate matters, with ‘indifference, hostility, ignorance and avarice’ too often blocking the way to the researcher’s goal.

Still, The Scholar Adventurers is devoted mainly to success, or at least something approximating it. A whole series of curious scholars spent years trying to figure out the truth about Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur, one of the first books ever printed in England and the main source for tales of the King and his Round Table. To begin with, nobody knew exactly who Malory was or anything much about his life, except that at the time his book was written, he was apparently in jail. The first discovery was his identity, made by an American professor who doggedly sifted through thousands of variously spelled fifteenth-century Malorys (no computers available in 1894). But that was all. Sir Thomas Malory remained a cipher. Then in the mid-1920s came a startling development. Another researcher, working in what Altick calls ‘that vast haystack of government documents’ that is the Public Record Office, found a document that not only referred clearly to Malory but also described him in specific detail as an extortionist, a cattle thief, an attempted assassin and a rapist. The authorities had finally acted when he led a gang attacking a Carthusian monastery. No wonder he was in jail – or soon out of it, because he escaped.

But wait. For all the material that has been unearthed showing our author to have been a thoroughly dubious character, so far nothing incontrovertibly proves that we have the right man. And even if we do, some of the charges against him could be false, given the vastly unsettled conditions in late medieval England. So, as Altick points out, there is still more to be learned, more arguments to be settled, more work for scholars to do. Sir Thomas is not in the clear yet.

There is much less uncertainty in another of my favourite chapters. Thanks to the brilliant sleuthing of a couple of rare-book dealers, John Carter and Graham Pollard, the case of Thomas J. Wise has been settled beyond any shadow of doubt. Fraud interests and amuses me as much as treasure-hunting does, and so far as I’m concerned this case, which Altick calls ‘the most sensational literary scandal of our time’, has pretty much everything.

In the late nineteenth century Wise was generally regarded as the doyen of bibliographers, master of the subtlest details of priorities and points, the authority to whom everyone deferred when arguments over rare books arose. He had also assembled a magnificent library. Around 1930, however, Carter and Pollard – first working separately but then joining forces – noted some oddities about certain rare pamphlets by writers like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Ruskin. For one thing, there were too many of them, and for another, many had passed through the distinguished hands of Thomas J. Wise. Yet nothing was clear; in spite of their suspicions it took the two literary detectives years before the scale of the great man’s culpability could be established – and even then why he had chosen to commit fraud remained a mystery.

We will never be without fraud in some form or other to amuse or annoy us, but the era of paper is ending. Scholars in the future probably won’t find the same opportunities for exciting literary discoveries, at least in the classic treasure-hunt form. Besides, emails and computer text lack the romance of a packet of letters or a revealing diary in a forgotten attic, and they evaporate at the touch of a button. Some adjustments will have to made. In the meantime, these accounts fascinate.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 71 © Charles Elliott 2021


About the contributor

Charles Elliott is a retired editor and author of several anthologies and books of essays.

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