Through my research for that book, I learned a lot about other hoaxes that have reared their ugly (or amusing--depends on how you look at it) heads throughout American history. As I discovered one hoax after another, I could not help but find the whole business of writing books that are utterly false or highly embellished to be a rather fascinating aspect of the book industry. Some authors are driven by fame and money, some authors twist the truth under the belief that their book will be made more interesting by dramatizing (and falsifying) aspects of their story. While I sincerely believe that Arthur Train perpetrated his hoax with an innocent and blameless motive, the same cannot be said for most others.
Since the great tradition of the literary hoax shows no sign of approaching extinction--recent hoaxers include James Frey and Greg Mortenson--I will periodically discuss literary hoaxes that have fooled American readers over the years, and will explore whether such hoaxes are ultimately harmful to society or merely humorous literary escapades. Today, I'd like to begin this exploration by discussing Joan Lowell's publication of Cradle of the Deep.
When the New York Times reviewed the book, it sang its praises. The book was deemed a "jolly yarn," told with "dash and ardor" and a "vocabulary as replete with expletives as one will encounter at sea or in a highly modern Broadway show." Although the Times noted that the book seemed plagued with dramatics as Lowell described "each and every calamity at sea--shipwreck, scurvy, fire and so on," the reviewer was quick to add that he did not "question the veracity of the sea-going author."
Oh, but he should have. Nautical experts who read the book found "innumerable flaws" in Lowell's account, including facts that any amateur sailor would not have mistaken. Some were so enraged that it was said that they "called upon Heaven, Homer, and Herman Melville to witness that she didn't know her ship's lee scuppers from a marlinspike." The truth was soon revealed that Lowell grew up exclusively on dry land in California, not on a ship.
Lowell's publisher and her readers had been "had." Not knowing before publication that it was entirely make believe, Simon & Schuster was forced to offer a refund to its fooled readers (as the first printing was 75,000 copies, the refund was a costly punishment). Further, since the book's true nature was not discovered until after the Book-of-the-Month Club recommended it to its members, the hoax's repercussions leaked into the courtroom as this book club was publicly ridiculed and criticized by powerful figures in the book world, which resulted in litigation.
Lowell seems to have escaped her mischief unscathed, as she continued to write and even starred in a movie of her own making. In 1934, her film, "Adventure Girl," was shown in theaters; the movie supposedly re-enacted her adventures with her father and his crew while on board a schooner headed for the West Indies and Central America. Lowell was said to have created the film to lend credibility to Cradle of the Deep--but there was no redeeming the latter after it was exposed for the hoax it was. Lowell never abandoned her tales of navigating the seas; it almost seems that she most of her life trying to revitalize her first fictitious book about such adventures. She even married a sea captain in 1936 and sailed with him to Brazil, where they built a home in the jungle. Her attempts to escape from her hoax were unavailing-- even twenty years after its publication, the book world still reeled from her shenanigan--Cradle of the Deep was declared "one of the most violent literary controversies of modern times" in 1952.
Works consulted for this blog entry:
The New York Times