November 2008

November 2008

"Forging chats and chatting about forgeries"
by Hari Nair
For R. Narayanan
From whom I first heard of the JCBL

The Two Title Pages

Image from the collections of the
John Carter Brown Library.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

Unassuming American librarians are attractively intriguing. They subtly answer queries without premeditated agenda and without that flourish typical of wannabe writers and disgruntled dons. I would love to linger my gaze at these inscrutable beings at work, but they instinctively spot a visitor from afar, and offer to help. Therefore, the only way I could possibly learn from them was through conversations, but I had to invent queries. 
Thus, I ended up sputtering a vague question to Susan Danforth–the librarian at the front-desk that evening–about a certain tome containing various tracts of Bartolomé de Las Casas. With gilt edges and bound in morocco by MacKinzie, this volume probably belonged to Lord Stuart de Rothesay before coming into the possession of Henri Ternaux-Compans. Susan forthrightly suggested that I compare the copy with the other one available at the JCBL–a lone pliego suelto bound by Cuzin– just for curiosity’s sake. But, it was almost closing time.


The next day, I approached the curator of Latin American books with the two different copies of that troubling tract titled Aqui se contiene una disputa..., and inquired why two texts with near identical colophons (same date, place and printer’s name) appeared so markedly different. Ken Ward’s keen eye spotted different ornamentation and typography, and inferred that the lone copy was probably forged. His inference coincided with the expert opinions of Clive Griffin (Crombergers of Seville, 1988), and Anthony Pagden (The School of Salamanca and the ‘affair of the Indies’ in the History of Universities, 1981). Their opinions, however, stand on the shoulders of the information accumulated in the invaluable catalogues of Americana– those by Sabin and Church.
Sabin noted that 19th-century American book collectors–infected with that delightful epidemic called Bibliomania–had eagerly sought the printed works of Las Casas. This is confirmed by a sticker inside the MacKinzie binding with a quote attributed to Thomas Dibdin, announcing that the seven un-counterfeited works of Las Casas formed the great gun in the Dibdin’s bibliographical battery.
Still, many questions remain unanswered. Was the duplicate edition meant for the poor, credulous reader interested in the hot-and-spicy polemical exchange between Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Las Casas? Or, was it aimed at the rich book-collector? Is it a mid-sixteenth century forgery, or is it of a more recent origin? Counterfeit editions were probably printed in the mid 17th century, at a time when the first catalogues of rare books came into being. I still have not put the puzzle together, but let us allow the anecdote to meander before dissecting it. A detailed textual examination of the two editions may be found here.


I noticed that the so-called original had contemporary corrections by hand, similar to the ones that authors usually make while proof-reading. The so-called duplicate did not have any. The contrast would arouse anybody’s suspicion, as it did in my case. Yet again I returned to the front-desk, and vaguely articulated my worries to Allison Rich, who soon brought me the acquisition files to the MacMillan reading room. These were rich with clues.
The acquisition file of the so-called duplicate contains a letter apparently written by Geroge Parker Winship to Lawrence Wroth, where Winship highlights the results of his textual comparisons between the two different copies of the Lascasian text and speculates about duplicates. Once again, Ken was spot-on because he had reckoned that it would be strange to consider the possibility of a pirated edition slipping the eye of someone like Wroth. We shall ignore Winship’s irony towards cataloguers, and instead turn our attention to the acquisition file of the ‘original’. Dennis Landis warned me that the files might have something of interest before handing those over. Indeed, they did.
The news of the Nuremberg trials does not seem to have distracted Lewis Hanke very much from his primary research interest. His postcard to Wroth, dated 22 October 1945, mentions that the corrections in the ‘original’ were made by Las Casas himself. One is tempted to agree with Hanke because few would have known the scrawny hand of the bishop better than he. Ken, too, suggested that it is plausible to argue that the author was correcting typographical errors in the first edition. Palaeographical clues may offer interesting hypotheses, but as proof they are not conclusive (at least in this case).
One cannot discard the possibility that the corrections were made by a contemporary comrade-in-arms of Bishop Bartolomé, for example, someone like friar Alonso de la Veracruz. Incidentally, the JCBL holds manuscript copies made from original Lascasian writings that do have notes in the margin by Veracruz. On the other hand, there are no such corrections whatsoever in the so-called duplicate. But, would a forger ever draw attention to his own errors or, to those of his accomplice (the typographer) by highlighting them? The chances are few.


In the end, the underlying question still goes begging. What is the relevance of a long anecdote of suspended speculations regarding forgery? I am afraid that there is none, except for the time well-spent chatting with intelligent librarians. But, perhaps Anthony Grafton’s mastery of textual criticism may mitigate my inability to critically mimic Lorenzo Valla in the post-Gutenberg age.

«Forgery and criticism also share a fundamental limitation. (...)The forger imposes personal values and period assumptions and idioms on his evocation of the past; that is why his work must eventually cease to seem credible as what it once purported to be, and becomes instead a document of its own time. But, the critic rejects fakes for personal reasons and on the basis of period assumptions about the world they claim to come from; that is why at least some of his rejections of texts will be rejected in their turn.» Forgers and critics: Creativity and duplicity in Western scholarship, 1990:125.

Like the critic, my perusals and speculations, too, would be rejected sooner than later. However, sophisticated book-collectors were generically different from critics. Not only were they richer, but wiser as well. They neither discarded the so-called original nor the so-called duplicate, neither the counterfeit nor the un-counterfeited. They simply did not bind them together.

In November 2008, Hari Nair was a Norman Fiering Fellow and a doctoral candidate in the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.


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