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. …