ArticlesVolume 36, No. 2 (2013)

A Tale of Three Hoaxes: When Literature Offends the Law


“Tell all the truth but tell it slant[,] [s]uccess in Circuit lies,” begins one of Emily Dickinson’s famous poems.1 Although this advice may be apt in certain circumstances, recent litigation has shown that authors of memoirs or other nonfiction would be better off avoiding it. Over the course of several centuries, the publication of “true” stories peppered with embellishments and falsities has come to form the troublesome tradition of the great literary hoax. Many esteemed authors have participated in this surreptitious and vexatious realm of writing. In fact, “[s]ome of the most respected names in literature have indulged in the sport: Defoe, Shelly [sic], Sir James Barrie,” Edgar Allen Poe and many others.2 In the last century, so many authors masterminded hoaxes that it would be difficult to quantify how many there have been. Perhaps unsuspecting readers are being subjected to an undetected one at this very moment?

Literary hoaxes have taken many different appearances, and their ability to continue to evade early detection by publishing houses, readers and reviewers adds to their mischievousness and the intrigue surrounding them.  Typically, hoax literature provides a compelling narrative that lures readers into valuing the words being read because they are supposed to be true.  Consequently, once the hoax is revealed for what it is, readers often experience strong feelings of disappointment, anger and embarrassment for having been tricked; some are even amused for having been played the fool.  Countless times, the book industry has been brought under fire for not catching a hoax before a book is released for public consumption and allowed to ravage unsuspecting readers.  Despite cries for reform, few changes have been made and publishing companies have increasingly been hailed into court for resolution of disputes arising from these literary capers.  In fact, over the last century, hoaxes have spawned congressional hearings, lawsuits and even criminal prosecution, yet they show no sign of slowing and, if anything, have only grown more prevalent.

This article examines the tradition of the literary hoax, and then focuses on three unique examples that resulted in court intervention.  Part I provides a brief history of literary hoaxes and samples the many guises they have taken over the years.  Parts II, III and IV provide detailed accounts of the hoaxes perpetrated by Arthur Train, Clifford Irving and James Frey, respectively, and explore how Train got away with his mischief, Irving ended up behind bars, and Frey and his publisher became entangled in a class action lawsuit and a multimillion dollar judgment.  Part V attempts to reconcile the differing outcomes for Train, Irving and Frey.  As there is a dearth of case law clarifying what acts might result in civil liability, an examination of past hoaxes and their resulting litigation lends some lucidity as to what acts might result in imprisonment, monetary damages and public acquittal for one’s literary sins.

  1. EMILY DICKINSON, Poem 1129, in COMPLETE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON 506, 506 (Thomas H. Johnson, ed., 1961).
  2. Hoaxes Recurrent in All Literature, N.Y. TIMES, Nov. 15, 1953, at 44