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Voices Spring-Summer 2008:
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Volume 34
Spring-Summer
2008
Voices

Ah, Fib by John Thorn

Play “You can’t make this stuff up.” That’s what readers once thought about Margaret B. Jones’s memoir of running drugs in South Central Los Angeles; James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which fairly states the current state of the author’s career; or J. T. Leroy’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, whose author we now know to be not a twenty-five–year-old HIV-positive former male prostitute, but instead a forty-year-old woman named Laura Albert.

Truth in packaging is a legitimate issue, but I submit that it’s more needful for bologna than baloney. Lying has a long and honorable tradition in our land, from hype and hokum to bunk and balderdash, from frauds and fakes to educated elephants and sagacious snakes.

Practical lying in the New World owes much to the winks and nudges of the Old, from the myths of the Classical period to the legends of the Bible. History is a lie agreed upon, Napoleon is said to have said . . . or maybe it was Voltaire. Perhaps he recognized the binding force of a usable past, one that not merely records what happened but promotes the virtues required for nation building— courage, endurance, strength, loyalty, and indifference to death.

My take is that you can’t spell “history” without “story,” and stories are things we make up to reassure ourselves that the world as we know it will continue. If the stories entertain, so much the better. Here are some choice examples, making Frey and Leroy seem like pikers.

Early Christians postdated the supposed birth of Jesus by several years and two seasons. They co-opted pagan festivals for their own holidays, accepting their customs while burying their names, as the Bacchanalian rites became Easter and the Saturnalian rites, Christmas. Transforming Saint Nicholas of Smyrna into Father Christmas was a piece of cake.

What do Donald Crowhurst, Rosie Ruiz, and Marco Polo have in common? None completed the journey they purported to undertake. Ruiz “won” the Boston Marathon in April 1980 by running the final mile to the tape . . . after traversing the bulk of the twenty-six–mile course by subway. Her ruse was unmasked a week after she was awarded the medal. Donald Crowhurst, knowing that his boat would never survive the rough Southern Ocean in the Golden Globe yacht race of 1969, sailed across the Atlantic to the coast of South America, where he lay low and waited for the other eight competitors to catch up. After spending months in solitude faking log books, Crowhurst faced the certain prospect of being found out and disgraced. He stepped into the Atlantic and disappeared. Marco Polo wrote a famous book about his journey to China in 1298, but modern scholars believe he never made it farther east than Persia and relied for his reports of China upon the accounts of other travelers.

Perhaps the most celebrated such cases of recent times have been Clifford Irving’s forged autobiography of Howard Hughes, published in 1971, for which he served time, and the Mark Hofmann forgery and bombing murder case. But to me the saddest literary fraud was that of Joe Gould, Bohemian par excellence and barroom poet of Greenwich Village. Cadging drinks for generations by hinting at the wonders of his work in progress, he went to his deathbed having verifiably written only one line of verse: “In the summer I’m a nudist, in the winter I’m a Buddhist.”

But I digress. P. T. Barnum was one-ofa- kind, the Hierophant of Humbug. His hoaxes included the Feejee Mermaid, a stitched-together puppet of mummified mammalian and aquatic remains; Joice Heth, purportedly George Washington’s nurse and, at age 162, on view for those with a dime; the Great Buffalo Hunt at Hoboken in 1843; his hall-clearing sign, “This Way to the Egress”; and more hilarious hoaxes than this slender column can bear.

On April 1, 1985, Sports Illustrated published a George Plimpton story about a new rookie pitcher who planned to play for the Mets. His name was Sidd Finch, and he could reportedly throw a baseball at 168 miles per hour, over the heart of the plate. Inside the magazine, the subhead of the article read: “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent lifestyle, Sidd’s deciding about yoga —and his future in baseball.” The first letter of each of these words, taken together, spells “H-a-p-p-y A-p-r-i-l F-o-o-l-s D-a-y”—plus “a-h, f-i-b.”

Such pranks are closer to the tall-tale tradition that may be our enduring contribution to world humor. Often considered mere bombast, it is better viewed as comic mythology for a growing nation. Disney aside, Davy Crockett was a genuinely important historic and literary figure who provided a template for the Mike Fink, Paul Bunyan, and Babe Ruth tales to come: “Crockett became a myth in his own lifetime,” wrote Constance Rourke in American Humor (1931). “After his death in 1836 he was boldly appropriated by the popular fancy. His heroic stand at the Alamo was richly described; and laments arose in the western wilderness. ‘That’s a great rejoicin’ among the bairs of Kaintuck, and the alligators of the Mississippi rolls up their shinin’ ribs to the sun, and has grown so fat and lazy that they will hardly move out of the way for a steamboat. The rattlesnakes come up out of their holes and frolic within ten feet of the clearings, and the foxes goes to sleep in the goosepens.’”

The difference between lying and telling tales, between inventing history and creating a useful sense of the past, is lost on Publishers’ Row and on Pennsylvania Avenue. What we want is simply to be let in on the joke, not to feel as if we are its butt.





 









John Thorn John Thorn is the author and editor of many books, mostly about sports, as well as occasional pieces for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Boston Globe. He lives in Saugerties, New York. Copyright © John Thorn.


Such pranks are closer to the tall-tale tradition that may be our enduring contribution to world humor. Often considered mere bombast, it is better viewed as comic mythology for a growing nation.



This column appeared in Voices Vol. 34, Spring-Summer 2008. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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