Book: The Poet and the Murderer: A True Story of Literary crime and the Art of Forgery
Author: Simon Worrall
Published: 2002 (Penguin)
This blog entry is brought to you by the lonely boredom that swoops down on me sometime each weekend and my attempts at combating it. I’ve shifted my volunteering at the Book Dispensary to Sunday afternoons because that’s when I’m most likely to need distraction that makes me feel useful, and helping them stem the relentless tide of genre trade paperbacks is actively soothing.
And they pay me the equivalent of $8 an hour in store book credit to do it.
So when I’m elbow-deep in James Patterson duplicates and see this book standing apart from its blood-font siblings on the true crime shelf, I don’t think twice about “buying” it, taking it home, and reading it in two large chunks over the next 18 hours or so. I’ve made a new friend.
(Aside: I’m non-snarkily starting to doubt the mental health of regularly indulging that impulse, especially considering the socially isolating aspects of it—which brings up a question of motive that is very fucking depressing: does it come from a pure place of loving to read with isolation as a consequence, or does my love of reading come from needing to fill the void I never really know what to do with?)
But for now I can counter myself with “Hey, I’m not killing people to cover millions of dollars of debt I’ve incurred from my decades of pawning off historical document forgeries.” That’d be Mark Hofmann’s job, in a knotty tale that begins with him forging documents designed to mess with the Mormon church by rewriting its history. His success and smugness about that leads him to branch out into American historical figures, get in way over his financial head, and blow up two of his creditors with homemade bombs so he doesn’t have to pay them OR fork over documents that don’t actually exist.
That doesn’t go well. He ends up in jail for life, but not before giving the author plenty of excuses to go into details about LDS mythology and modern structure, early American printing processes, handwriting, auction house procedures and corruptions, and how to build a pipe bomb.
It’s all really interesting stuff that flows well into each other, like a string of cursive that connects different letters in ways that aren’t intuitive until you see it in action. Except for the forward and afterword, the author keeps a pretty objective tone and also stays translucent about how difficult it is to know the whole truth about a guy who based his entire business and most of the rest of his life on carefully constructed lies. His only faults are tendencies to reintroduce facts that he’s already mentioned and to write an unnecessary chapter called Victims. We know, dude. You’ve shown us the careers, religions, and hobby joys that Hofman broke; they’re much more compelling to read about as that happens than in a obligatory-sounding list in paragraph form.
One of his forgeries, a “newly discovered” supposedly original poem from Emily Dickenson, gives the author an excuse to talk about the reclusive poet’s life and writing and publishing history, and those are my favorite parts. Dickinson is generally portrayed as a reclusive genius, and this book expands her life into one of combined frustration and defiance that she compacted into her writing. Maybe she was bisexual, in love with like fifty people over the course of her lifetime, embarrassed about her failing eyesight, perversely determined to rebel by keeping everything so private. She let it all out in her poems, which America has revered as an idealized example of pure artistic expression, when they finally got to see the damn things.
There’s not really a connection between Dickinson’s life and Hofmann’s except that he decided to forge her. But their brief intersection is a great jumping-off point to half a dozen related topics that all come together in one of the only true crime books where more ink than blood is spilled.