The Marks of a Hoax: Dickens and Dostoevsky

Copy of a Photograph of Charles Dickens
Copy of a Photograph of Charles Dickens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Russian literature specialist Eric Naiman describes a fake anecdote in “When Dickens met Dostoevsky,” (TLS 10 April 2013), and the bizarre, convoluted, trail that led him to find multiple pseudonyms of someone who seems to be a disgruntled independent scholar. I think some points turned up in his detective work show the typical marks of a hoax, and point to the deeper civilizational issues raised by falsehood.

Naiman traces “the connections between A. D. Harvey, Stephanie Harvey, Graham Headley, Trevor McGovern, John Schellenberger, Leo Bellingham, Michael Lindsay and Ludovico Parra” who may be real friends of “A.D. Harvey” or pseudonyms. (The erotica connection may make your head spin!)

The Dickens-Dostoevsky story is supposed to have appeared in a letter of Dostoevsky describing a meeting with Dickens during his first visit to London. The visit to London happened. The visit to Dickens, in which he bared his soul never happened. But it sounded so good. The fake story originated in an unassuming scholarly note by “Stephanie Harvey” in a Dickens journal, citing an obscure note in an obscure Soviet journal. (Dickens lovers cited the piece in reviews, which brought it to the attention to Russian lit specialists who questioned the story’s authenticity.) The fake story itself has some interesting marks of a successful and, indeed, powerful fake.

From the article:

  • Confirmation bias: “The newspaper’s [i.e., the NY Times] collective unconscious was unable to give the story up. It demands retelling, and by now Dickens and Dostoevsky can be found meeting all over the web. Their conversation appeals to our fancy while, as Gates realized, comforting us with a reaffirmation of what we already know.”
  •  Modest or small seems more real: “The hoax wasn’t clever because it convinced so many Dickens scholars; rather, it was clever for the same reason it convinced them: because it was modest.” (In other words, a small lie is harder to debunk, but any politician knows this to be true.)
  • Wish fulfillment: The story had Dickens speaking tellingly of his own work in a way that we wish he had spoken, making perfect pull-quotes!

In reading the article, the level of cover-up, fabricated citations (and fabricated journals, articles, novels, and quotations), reminds me of some Borges short stories–and the fabrications of the Americana manuscript forger, Mark Hofmann, although it’s important to stress that one of Hofmann’s motivations was money which appears not to have been this case here..

Naiman’s conclusion on the multiple nested aliases and sneaky reviews in its effects on scholars and humanities scholarship:

… submitting articles under fictitious names to scholarly journals might well have a chilling effect on the ability of really existing independent scholars to place their work. Nor is it just the embarrassment caused to editors who might in an ideal world have taken more pains to check the contributions of Stephanie Harvey or Trevor McGovern, but who accepted them in good faith, partly out of a wish to make their publications as inclusive as possible. The worst thing here, if they are fictitious, is a violation of the trust that remains a constitutive element of the humanities.There is, it seems to me, a fundamental difference between posting partisan, anonymous reviews on Amazon, where there is no assumption of proper evaluative standards or impartiality, and placing similar reviews or hoaxing articles in academic journals, which are still the most hallowed sites for the development and transmission of humanistic ideas. The former is a cheap act of virtual graffiti; the latter may be the closest a secular scholar can come to desecration. [emphasis added. PWR]

Like theft from cultural institutions, fakes and hoaxes have a chilling effect on research, access and collegiality. Each of them is a gross violation of the trust which each generation owes to the next and which we owe to each other as we extend the boundaries of knowledge.

(Minor updates 5/16/2013 to clarify some points in the opening, middle and end.)

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Published by Paul Romaine

Paul Romaine is a grant writer and independent curator in New York City.

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