Craig Abbott. Forging Fame: The Strange Career of Scharmel Iris

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Craig Abbott. Forging Fame: The Strange Career of Scharmel Iris. DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP, 2007. xii-192 pp.

Literary forgery is prompted by multifarious motives: the literary ambition of Thomas Chatterton can be balanced by the commercial ruthlessness of Thomas Wise; the historical and erotic fantasies of Sir Edmund Backhouse by the delicate 'butterfly books' of Frederic Prokosch. The most notable forgers all have qualities, creative, intellectual, or aesthetic that make their activities worth attending to. The career of Scharmel Iris (1889-1967) has no such mitigating interest. Indeed, what emerges most insistently from Craig Abbott's careful researches is a life of unredeemed banality, in which ambition was unmatched by talent, and where enterprise seems wholly lacking. Iris seems never to have had a job, never to have married or formed meaningful relationships, to have left Chicago infrequently, and then only at someone else's expense. His sole preoccupations were finding people to give him money and/or to publish his not very good verse.

One might hope that ambition was made of sterner stuff. As it is, it is hardly Abbott's fault that Iris's tireless, not particularly successful efforts at self promotion rapidly become tedious through their self-absorbed banality. Greatness did not visit him so he largely invented the accolades of his poetic prowess that stud his bathetic progress in search of patronage. The names of those whose praise he invokes are as impressive as they are implausible: Eliot, Frost, Pound, Sandburg, Shaw and Yeats (among others), all of whose encomia he was forced to write himself. His strategies for self-promotion were so clumsy and transparent that their general failure was readily predictable. His is a career so marked by a lack of wit, enterprise and energy that it was inevitable that he should always remain where he was.

What Iris did have was a wisp of talent that occasionally attracted the attention of discerning .judges. Chief among these was Harriet Monroe, who gave him his first and only entree into the poetic major leagues by publishing some of his early verse in Poetry. Typically, he ruined his relationship with her by forging testimonials under her name, and doing so so incompetently that she quickly found out. Henceforward Scharmel Iris was denied access to the pages of Poetry, although, interestingly, as Abbott shows, he did continue to be published there under a variety of pseudonyms. But few other doors opened to him. The main outlets for his verse were Catholic journals or local magazines and papers. After an early collection, Lyrics of a Lad (1914), it was forty years before anything else by him appeared between hard covers, Bread Out of A Stone (1953), with a forged preface by Yeats. Remarkably, there were four other collections in the last decade of his life.

Iris was also a plagiarist of a particularly uninspired kind, filching bits from figures as diverse as Quiller-Couch, Santayana and Eliot. Abbott is particularly good at spotting these bits. But the appropriations are so random and at times so readily identifiable that it may be that in the respect he is chiefly guilty of being true to himself in his disregard for any form of truth rather than of any more systematic effort to claim the work of others as his own.

Scharmel Iris is an arrestingly dull figure, possessed of a small, parochial talent. Surely wisely, Professor Abbott makes no claims for his poetry. Instead he focuses on the mechanics of self-promotion that sustained him through his long life. It may seem perverse to have hoped for more. But is a pity not to have a proper checklist of Iris's publications, including those written under his various pseudonyms. Since no one will do this work again this is an opportunity that ought not have been missed. There are occasional slips. The "John Creagh" poems appeared in the October 1933 not October 1931 issue of Poetry. There are also occasional errors, either of transcription or of unremarked instances of Iris's eccentricity of spelling (it is hard sometimes to be sure which): "The desserts [sic] of America have their buzzards" (126); "the sperage [2 steerage] son of a steerage mother" (133); a scattering of literals; for example, "complied" (for "compiled"), "blub" for "blurb" (both 156); and occasional failures of sense: "I do not argue with history's verdict that Iris was a distinctly minor poet. Nevertheless, I think that he really ought to see what was going on ..." (x): Clearly Iris continues to inspire error from beyond the grave.

Abbott concludes:

 
   Iris never succeeded in forging fame in the sense of using forgery 
   to achieve fame, yet he did forge fame in the sense of faking fame, 
   that is, of creating a spurious fame, one that was the product of 
   his fantasy and a great deal of time at his typewriter. (163) 

One may feel that this is not a very useful distinction. It is also one that may serve to question the effort that Abbott has expended in extending his original 1983 essay on Iris in Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America into the present book. Iris is irretrievably small time, lacking the cunning of Wise, the inventiveness of Backhouse or the talent of Prokosch. One can at least be grateful that he can be interred forever with such fame as Abbott's efforts have earned him.

A. S. G. Edwards

De Montfort University

A Reply to A.S.G. Edwards's Review of Forging Fame

In reviewing Forging Fame, A. S. G. Edwards is disappointed that as a forger Scharmel Iris lacked "the cunning of Wise, the inventiveness of Backhouse or the talent of Prokosch"--or some other quality that might make his "activities worth attending to." I could suggest that Edwards consider Iris's persistence, audacity, or narcissism. After all, the reviewer for the Chronicle of Higher Education found the story of Iris's career "jaw-dropping in places" for just those qualities. Also, while Edwards finds Iris's "strategies for self-promotion.., so clumsy and transparent that their general failure was readily predictable," a good number of people were in fact taken in by Iris's forgery, imposture, and other deceptions--among them poets Paul Engle, Oliver St. John Gogarty, Archibald MacLeish, Harriet Monroe, and Ezra Pound; publishers Henry Regnery and Max Schuster; social activists Jane Addams and Eleanor Roosevelt; clerics Bishop Bernard J. Sheil and Archbishop Samuel Cardinal Stritch; journalists Van Allen Bradley and Fanny Butcher. So too have some scholars taken as genuine the prefaces Iris forged over the names of Edith Sitwell, Woodrow Wilson, and W. B. Yeats. If nothing else, my study fixes the authorship of a good many published and unpublished texts. I should like to think that it does more than that, providing an unusual perspective from which to catch revealing glimpses of the development of more than sixty years of twentieth-century American poetry, for what Iris's sought to do over those years, often with the cooperation of others, was to forge himself as an American poet, a role that encouraged him in his grandiosity, his sense of neglect, and his extension of fantasy from art to life.

Edwards does find an incorrect date, and I am also grateful for his spotting some typos. Yet when he accuses me of making "occasional errors ... either of transcription or of unremarked instances of Iris's eccentricity of spelling," he quotes rather selectively. Here is the passage from which he selected the phrase "the sperage son of a steerage mother":

 
   Thinking of himself, Iris adds, "The sperage son of a steerage 
   mother is not a contemptible whiffmagig nor she a Tottie 
   all-colours giving juice for the jelly of some Julius Caesar--a 
   transmogriphy at the botchers for transmogrification." The 
   spellings and coinages are Iris's. 

The concluding sentence seems to be a sufficient version of sic in this case. Because Edwards takes the lack of evidence that Iris ever held a job to be a sign of his lack of "enterprise," he might want to know that since publication of the book, I have heard from a reader, a retired attorney, who recalls meeting Iris at a restaurant in Chicago called the Congress Pizzeria. Iris, he says, worked there, "taking orders and stuffing boxes." The reader remembers the pizza as "thin, crispy, delicious" and Iris as "a small thin older man delicate in his speech and manner." He bought from Iris a copy of Bread out of Stone. He now has bought two copies of Forging Fame, one for himself and one for his brother, who also remembers Iris.

Craig Abbott

Northern Illinois University

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