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The Immortal Hoax of William Henry Ireland

By Courtney Reed

“I’m happy that this book is stable enough for scholars to use,” said Inkyung Youm, a graduate intern in the Ransom Center’s Conservation Department, when asked about the most satisfying part of conserving a book of fabricated Shakespearian manuscripts.

When Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare first crossed Inkyung’s workbench, time had taken its toll. The book had split apart in several places. The leather that remained on the binding was chemically deteriorated, and the covers were detached from the text block. Thankfully, the paper was in fairly good condition despite some foxing, a term applied to orangish spots, often present in older paper, that are attributed to deteriorating mold spores or microscopic bits of metal.

Samuel Ireland, an engraver and publisher of travelogues, published this printed collection of alleged Shakespeare manuscripts. Later, the manuscripts that inspired the publication were revealed as forgeries made by his son, William Henry Ireland.

In two published exposés that chronicle his voyage down the slippery path of a forger, William Henry recalls the 1792 trip he took with his father, Samuel, to Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-on-Avon. Samuel Ireland, a fervent enthusiast of everything Shakespeare, hoped to discover Shakespearian heirlooms and tracked a promising lead to Clopton House, home of a Mr. Williams. To his father’s horror, Mr. Williams facetiously told Samuel he should have arrived sooner: “Why it isn’t a fortnight since I destroyed several baskets-full of letters and papers, in order to clear a small chamber for some young partridges which I wish to bring up alive: and as to Shakespeare, why there were many bundles with his name wrote upon them.” Missing the joke entirely, Samuel burst out in anger: “Good God, Sir! You do not know what an injury the world has sustained by the loss of them.”

The trip to Stratford-on-Avon and his father’s love of Shakespeare clearly inspired the 17-year-old William Henry Ireland. Two years later, in 1794, young William Henry “procured” from an anonymous gentleman a lease agreement between William Shakespeare and Michael Fraser. He presented this document to his father, who was enormously delighted. The lease was a fake, as were the dozens of other items William Henry “unearthed” during the following months. His father, though, was convinced they were authentic and in 1796 he published Miscellaneous Papers, a compilation of the forged manuscripts.

Among the forged manuscripts that William Henry “discovered” was a lost manuscript of a play titled Vortigern & Rowena. At the same time that he published the forged manuscripts, Samuel Ireland negotiated to have the lost tragedy produced at Drury-Lane. The audience was filled with doubters, including antiquarian Edmond Malone, who questioned the play’s authenticity in An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments. Even the renowned actor John Philip Kemble, playing the role of Vortigern, doubted the play’s authenticity and decided to give the tragic role a comic turn. The premiere was the play’s only performance.

The critics began to accuse Samuel Ireland of making the forgeries. Hoping to “exculpate my father from the odium which was heaped on him [instead],” William Henry published a pamphlet in late 1796, An Authentic Account of the Shaksperian Manuscripts, confessing that he forged the manuscripts. Nevertheless, it seems that Samuel Ireland thought his son a dullard and refused to believe that he had the skills to compose and write the forgeries—Samuel went to his death in 1800 still believing in the manuscripts’ veracity.

In the preface to his 1805 book, The Confessions of William Henry Ireland, William Henry wrote that he preferred that his actions be “regarded rather as that of an unthinking and impetuous boy than of a sordid and avaricious fabricator instigated by the mean desire of securing pecuniary emolument.” He describes in detail his forging methods and reiterates that he wanted to please his father with these gifts. He admits that pride in his own forging abilities led him to undertake some of the projects.

William Henry made a business of his scandal until his death in 1835. He cashed in by selling sets of “original” forgeries to collectors. One such copy of the handwritten forgeries, which originally was presented to the Prince Regent (later George IV), was acquired by the Center in the 1980s.

Conservators often study the historical background as well as technical information relating to an artifact to enhance their understanding of the artifact and to guide their treatment methodology. “At the Ransom Center, our approach to conservation treatment is usually quite conservative to safeguard physical information intrinsic to the item. Usually, we stabilize the physical structure and, sometimes, the chemical condition of a book so that patrons can safely handle the item,” says Ransom Center Book Conservator Olivia Primanis.

Originally, Inkyung planned a conservative treatment: to repair the book structure by reattaching the covers to the book with tackets, a technique that reconnects covers to the text block by looping thread through small holes that are pierced in the cover and through the shoulder of a text block. This repair would have left the book close to its original state, but the binding structure proved to be too deteriorated for a minor repair. While Inkyung was working on the book, the sewing threads broke, which required that the book be disassembled. Once apart, Inkyung mended tears in the pages and guarded the single leaves into gatherings with long-fibered Japanese paper and then resewed the book.

“This is a big job,” says Primanis, “especially when the book is large in size. This one measures 44 centimeters by 33.7 centimeters.”

Inkyung made a new cover for the book since the marbled paper covering and much of the original leather that remained were chemically deteriorated. Inkyung made the new cover with a marbled paper that had a pattern similar to the original cover and book cloth, which, today, is considered more durable than most newly made leathers.

Inkyung constructed a housing for the book that accommodates the original cover. Because deteriorated leather can stain adjacent materials, a folder was made for the original cover to protect the new binding.

Evidence of William Henry Ireland’s hoax lives on in the manuscript facsimiles and the printed publication. Because the book is working as a book should, Ransom Center patrons can now safely handle and study the forged Shakespearian manuscripts along with other texts revealing the context of these fabrications. These volumes might also be called on by those interested in background information on the recently published monograph inspired by the life of William Henry Ireland, The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips.


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In the galleries: Mailer's character timeline for "Harlot's Ghost"

By Courtney Reed

Norman Mailer's character timeline for 'Harlot's Ghost.' Click image to view larger version.
Norman Mailer's character timeline for 'Harlot's Ghost.' Click image to view larger version.

Norman Mailer was among the most prominent cultural and literary figures in late twentieth-century America. His talent as a writer was apparent early in his career; he received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, which was published in 1948 when he was only 25 years old. In the 1950s Mailer began publishing commentary about such topics as race, feminism, sexuality, politics, literature, art, culture, and society, in magazines including Dissent, Esquire, Partisan Review, and The Village Voice, which he co-founded in 1955.

Norman Mailer’s 1991 novel, Harlot’s Ghost, is a sprawling, 1,300-page chronicle of the Central Intelligence Agency that blends both fictional and factual characters and events.

On a detailed timeline of the novel, Mailer charts world events and various characters’ activities over more than five years. Mailer created a systematic grid; dates on the left side chronicle the events of various subject headings that run across the top of the chart, including Hunt & Cuban Exiles, JFK, and Judith Campbell. The timeline is covered in pencil and black, red, green, and blue ink.

The chart can be seen in the current exhibition Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century, on display through July 31.

Mailer remained a prolific writer and cultural commentator throughout his long and colorful career. The Ransom Center acquired Mailer’s archive, which fills more than 1,000 archival boxes and makes it the Ransom Center’s largest single-author collection, in 2005.

In the galleries: Tennessee Williams interviews… Tennessee Williams

By Courtney Reed

The first major production of a Tennessee Williams play, Battle of Angels (1940), was a complete failure and scandal. The play was poorly received; one critic compared watching the play to being “dunked in mire.” Boston City Council members called for the play to be censored, and it ran for less than two weeks there. As Williams biographer Robert Bray wrote, “the haphazard decision to move the opening from New Haven to Boston in December of 1940 left Williams faced with a priggish audience unprepared to entertain his juxtaposition of sexual and religious themes.”

At the production’s end, Williams left Boston with the intention of finding a quiet place to recuperate. In a letter to his friend, Joe Hazan, Williams writes that he is sickened by the failure of his play, laments that the audience could not recognize the “poetic tragedy” of his work, and calls the critics who reviewed the production second-string “prissy old maids.”

After its failed Boston debut, Williams continuously revised and rewrote Battle of Angels with the hope that the play would be reproduced. He confesses in an “Imaginary Interview” with himself, “there was something about it that was inescapably close to my heart, that never let go, and I kept re-writing the play, I guess I must have re-written it once every two or three years since 1940.” The play embodied a theme central to his writing—“a prayer for the Wild at Heart Kept in Cages.” The play eventually reemerged some 16 years later, transfigured as Orpheus Descending (1957).

In Williams’s tongue and cheek “Imaginary Interview” Williams, the interviewer, struggles to get a straight answer from Williams, the playwright, about the theme of Battle of Angles:


I still wish you would tel [sic] what it’s a prayer for, this play.”

Williams, playwright, finally answers Williams, interviewer, that the prayer is for “More tolerance and respect for the wild and lyric impulses that the human heart feels and so often is forced to repress in order to avoid social censure and worse.”

Williams was the “primitive poet” of Battle; his prayer for the “Wild at Heart” was one against censorship and for artistic appreciation. He asserted that his work dealt with the “wild at heart kept in cages:” those who struggled against conventions, relationships, expectations, or prejudices that at the very least tamed them and at the worst crushed them beyond recognition.

This typed interview can be seen in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, on display through July 31.


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In the galleries: Bob Woodward's typed notes about his meeting with Deep Throat

By Courtney Reed

Bob Woodward's typed notes about his meeting with Deep Throat.
Bob Woodward's typed notes about his meeting with Deep Throat.

Between 1972 and 1976, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke one of the biggest stories in American politics. Beginning with their investigation of a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex, Woodward and Bernstein uncovered a series of crimes that eventually led to the indictments of 40 White House and administration officials and ultimately to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. While reporting on the scandal for The Washington Post and for their subsequent books, Woodward and Bernstein kept all of their notes and drafts. The result is a meticulous record of the Watergate scandal from beginning to end, providing a behind-the-scenes perspective into the nature of investigative journalism, the American political process, and the Nixon presidency.

Bob Woodward’s secret source about the Watergate scandal, famously referred to by the reporters and their editors as “Deep Throat,” was identified as FBI Associate Director Mark Felt in 2005.

In his typed notes from an early morning parking garage meeting on October 9, 1972, Woodward simply refers to the exchange with Felt as “interview with x.” These notes can be seen in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century, on display through July 31.

Woodward’s notes with Felt were used for the October 10, 1974 Washington Post story that exposed the Watergate burglary as part of a larger plan. The notes, marked up with spelling corrections and asterisks, quote Felt saying, “no names but everyone in the book.”

Soon after winning the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting in May 1973, Woodward and Bernstein signed a contract with Simon and Schuster to write a book about Watergate. Working nights and weekends while still covering the scandal for The Washington Post, the reporters tried several approaches, including telling the story from the burglars’ perspective. In an early outline of the book, the reporters briefly describe a day in the life of many of the major conspirators. Eventually Woodward and Bernstein decided to tell the story of their own investigation of the break-in and cover-up.

In 1976 the film version of Woodward and Bernstein’s 1974 book, All the President’s Men, was a box office success. In the publicity surrounding the film, Woodward and Bernstein received as much notoriety as the stars who portrayed them, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.