On View Now: Fact, Fiction, Forgery: Thomas Chatterton and Literary Invention

We are pleased to announce the opening of our latest First Floor Gallery exhibition, “Fact, Fiction, Forgery: Thomas Chatterton and Literary Invention,” which will remain on view through September 1, 2017. This exhibition, curated by David Whitesell, traces Chatterton’s career and enduring influence through books and manuscripts from U.Va.’s distinguished holdings of 18th-century British literature, in particular an important collection of works concerning Chatterton recently acquired on the Martin C. and Ruthe R. Battestin Library Fund, the Battestin Fund for 18th Century British Literature, the W. Braden and Kathryn K. Kerchof Library Fund, and the Robert and Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund.

Ever since his untimely death at 17, Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) has been one of England’s most fascinating literary figures. The “Rowley Poems”—pseudo-medieval verses presented by their “discoverer” Chatterton as the work of the 15th-century priest Thomas Rowley—are among the most famous of literary hoaxes. Their posthumous publication in 1777 initiated the Rowley Controversy: a vigorous public debate over the poems’ authenticity and the extent of Chatterton’s involvement. Finding themselves ill equipped to weigh the physical and documentary evidence, England’s leading men of letters were driven to make important advances in literary, philological, and textual analysis that stimulated the field of textual scholarship. Yet underpinning Chatterton’s forgery was prodigious literary talent, tragically silenced by his presumed suicide (more likely an accidental overdose) in the face of poverty and an indifferent world. Such credentials made Chatterton irresistible to the Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites, who mythologized him in their own poetry. Chatterton continues to inspire authors intrigued by issues of literary authenticity and invention.

Born in Bristol, England in 1752, Chatterton was apprenticed as a legal scrivener in 1767. The next year he began to publish a torrent of anonymous and pseudonymous poems and essays in newspapers and periodicals. In April 1770 Chatterton moved to London where, despite his prodigious talent and industry, literary fame proved elusive. On August 25, 1770, not yet 18, he was found dead, ruled a suicide from arsenic and opium poisoning.

Chatterton’s most ambitious literary project—the Rowley Poems—remained unpublished at his death. He presented these mock-medieval English verses—some written on old parchment, most being manuscripts in Chatterton’s hand—as long-lost works by the fictional 15th-century Bristol priest Thomas Rowley. Until their publication in 1777, the Rowley Poems circulated privately in manuscript among England’s literati—embraced as genuine by many, suspected as forgeries by some.

From 1777 to 1782 the Rowley Poems’ authenticity was vigorously debated in print. Their literary merit was undisputed. But could the poems, written in stilted “Rowleian dialect” in a diversity of styles, be genuine 15th-century works? If forgeries, could they truly be creations of a teenage apprentice? Stoking the debate were the tragic circumstances of Chatterton’s death, personal rivalries, the differing perspectives of antiquaries and scholars, and the inability of existing scholarly methods to settle the matter. The controversy prompted significant advances in textual scholarship.

Ever since Chatterton’s death, his life and literary works have provided inspiration to poets, novelists, dramatists, biographers, artists, and composers. For the Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites, Chatterton was a seminal figure: a precocious and original literary talent, and—though not factually true—the very model of the “neglected genius” who, rather than compromise his art, plunges destitute and despairing into suicide. Others have honored Chatterton’s powers of literary invention by invoking their own in reimaginings of his life and legacy.

This Just In: Translations by Jorge Luis Borges

Virginia Woolf, Orlando. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1945. (PQ7797 .B635 O73 1945, Robert and Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund, image by U.Va. Library Digitization Services)

The celebrated Argentinian author (and sometime librarian) Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was famous for his fictional account of the universal library which, because it contains all information, is useless.  Since 1977 the U.Va. Library has built one of the world’s great collections on Borges, encompassing significant manuscripts as well as writings by and about Borges in multiple editions and languages.  Our modest aim has been to form the universal library of Borges, a collection we have found to be far from useless!  Housed under Grounds in Special Collections, the Borges collection was initially described in 1993 by its first curator, C. Jared Lowenstein, in A descriptive catalogue of the Jorge Luis Borges collection at the University of Virginia Library.  Then numbering 979 entries, the collection has since grown to nearly 1,200 entries.  (To see them, search Virgo for “Jorge Luis Borges” and limit to Special Collections.)

Franz Kafka, La metamorphosis. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1943. (PQ7797 .B635 V4718 1943, Robert and Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund, image by U.Va. Library Digitization Services)

Through the good offices of a Buenos Aires bookseller, Special Collections recently added thirty more titles to the collection.  Of particular note are several works Borges translated into Spanish, a lesser-known aspect of his literary career. Indeed, Borges’s earliest publication, at the age of 11, was a Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, published in a Buenos Aires newspaper. Translation also figures prominently in several of Borges’s most celebrated stories.

Proficient in English, French, German, Italian, and later Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, Borges read widely in world literature.  By publishing Spanish translations of numerous works in his newspaper columns and in book form, Borges was instrumental in introducing many contemporary writers to a Latin American audience.  Special Collections already owned Borges’s translations of such authors as William Faulkner, André Gide, and Walt Whitman.  Newly added translations, some with illuminating prefaces by Borges, include Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (a copy signed by Borges); Virginia Woolf’s Orlando; Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the scrivener (“Preferiría no hacerlo”); Henri Michaux’s A Barbarian in Asia; and the first part of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda.  For the last Borges teamed with his wife, Maria Kodama.  During the 1930s and 1940s, as he went blind, Borges was often assisted by his mother, who published several Spanish translations of her own, including a collection of short stories by D.H. Lawrence.

Herman Melville, Bartleby. Buenos Aires: EDICOM, 1969. (PQ7797 .B635 B38 1969, Robert and Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund, image by U.Va. Library Digitization Services)

Borges’s translations provide valuable insights into his literary art.  Many of the works Borges selected for translation directly influenced specific elements of his own writing.  Of special interest is Borges’s theory of translation for, as one critic has wryly noted, Borges held that “an original can be unfaithful to a translation.”  Rather than offer readers a literal translation, Borges did not hesitate to “improve” the original as he saw fit, believing that the work was ultimately more important than its creator.  And because Borges frequently revised his own works—including the translations—from edition to edition, it is critical for scholarship that all lifetime editions of Borges’ writings be collected in one place and made available for textual comparison.  That place—the Aleph, if you will—is under Grounds, in Special Collections.

Henri Michaux, Un bárbaro en Asia. Buenos Aires: Sur, 1941. (PQ7797 .B635 B3718 1941, Robert and Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund, image by U.Va. Library Digitization Services)

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Postscript:  Acquisitions are the lifeblood of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.  Our holdings of books, manuscripts, archives, ephemera, maps, photographs, digital media, and other formats grow constantly by design and serendipity, singly and in bulk, through gift, purchase, and transfer from individuals, publishers, book and manuscript dealers, auction houses, other libraries, and U.Va. departments.  Hardly a day passes without at least one significant acquisition arriving under Grounds.  Curious about what relevant materials this acquisitions flood is bringing your way?  Finding out is easy: simply do a Virgo search for “2012/2013” and limit it to Special Collections in order to see what we’ve added since the fiscal year began on July 1.  New acquisitions will also appear, as appropriate, in any Virgo search you make.

“This Just In” will sample the acquisitions stream, periodically showcasing one or more new and noteworthy items.  Our goal is not only to inform you of interesting acquisitions but to demystify the process through which we build our collections: how we select new acquisitions, where we find them, how these broaden and strengthen our existing holdings, and how these enhance research and instruction on, and under, Grounds.  Please come visit!

D. H. Lawrence, La mujer que se fué a caballo. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1946. (PQ7797 .B635 Z999 .A25 M8 1946, Robert and Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund, image by U.Va. Library Digitization Services)