An anecdote about an Alexander Pope scheme

Over Thanksgiving break (I know, y’all, I’m the worst at reviewing books promptly), I read this book Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography, by Ian Hamilton, which was all about how various authors — nearly all of them public domain folks, nothing super modern and juicy — managed (or failed to manage) their literary estates. Each chapter was a case study, and they were all interesting, and I deeply regret that I didn’t review it when it was still fresh in my mind and I could tell you many anecdotes from it. I AM SORRY.

The moral of the book, in case you are interested, is that everyone will hate the literary estate managers no matter what. They will criticize you if you burn the letters; they will criticize you if you don’t burn the letters. They will be mad if you keep the papers or sell the papers or donate the papers to a university to be opened after a designated period of time has passed. They will be mad if you publish them or don’t publish them. So if you happen to have a famous writer amongst your family or social circle, you should strenuously urge that person to bestow his or her literary estateship elsewhere.

(Unless you are Robbie Ross. In which case you are an m.f. hero of literary estate management and reputation rehabilitation and unconquerable sweetness, and everyone will talk about how sweet and awesome you were. But — can I be honest? — you aren’t Robert Ross. And you should refer to my previous advice, above.)

Anyway, so yeah, the book was really interesting, but my utmost favorite was the chapter about Alexander Pope. I have always felt that Alexander Pope and I would get on like a house on fire, if he could get past disliking women long enough to get to know me. Samuel Johnson said of him that he couldn’t “take tea without a strategem”. Y’all, I love schemes! I would totally help Alexander Pope come up with schemes! The reason I want to write for serialized TV/soap operas/comic books is that those are scheme-heavy mediums and I love schemes. Do you see how me and the Popester would be the best of buddies?

Once upon a time there was a newspaperman who had it out for Alexander Pope. I guess because Alexander Pope was sort of mean, or at least had the reputation of being mean. I forget what the newspaperman’s name was, but I’m going to call him Ernest Hemingway because I don’t like Ernest Hemingway. So Ernest Hemingway announced that he was going to steal and publish a bunch of Alexander Pope’s letters, and Alexander Pope went to his home and thought and thought about how to prevent his letters from being stolen and published.

And here is the scheme he alighted on: He wrote to all his friends and asked if he could have back all the letters he had ever written them, because (he said) there was a nefarious newspaperman trying to publish his letters, and he wanted to make sure that didn’t happen. Once he had the letters back, he edited and revised them to make himself seem cool, awesome, hilarious, and congenial, and he copied them out again so they would look like the originals. Then he hired a guy to go to Ernest Hemingway and say, “Hey, I have all these Alexander Pope letters and I will sell them to you for publication for a small consideration.” Ernest Hemingway totally fell for it and bought the letters and published them. Once they were published, everyone in London was like, “Wow! We thought Alexander Pope was a jerk, but now we realize that he is cool, awesome, hilarious, and congenial!”

And Alexander Pope was like, “Oh my God, my letters have been published, how humiliating. Well, since I cannot abide this disgusting filth of a newspaperman, I shall have to publish an authorized version of these letters, and that’s the one you should buy because it’s authorized.” And he did and people bought it and he earned money and popularity.

Although Keepers of the Flame did not specifically say so, I must assume that the denouement of this episode involved Ernest Hemingway sitting alone in his garret room cursing the name of Alexander Pope and drowning his sorrows in cheap whiskey, while Alexander Pope and his scheme friends (WHICH COULD INCLUDE ME I LOVE SCHEMES) toasted their success over delicious cocktails.

19 thoughts on “An anecdote about an Alexander Pope scheme

  1. Jenny, I love your review! I like Pope’s poetry, and remember reading about him that he had a lot to be annoyed about: very short, and Catholic (which was a big deal in the 18th century).

  2. I think sometimes very clever people get a reputation for being mean because they see jokes and opportunities that other people miss and occasionally they can’t resist pointing them out and it’s hard to do that in a kind way, especially when none of the women in your social circle have been formally educated in anything besides sewing and playing keyboard instruments.

    • Hahahaha, okay, yes, I guess that is possible. Or, OR, Alexander Pope was kind of a jerk. I am a regular level of clever but I think of THOUSANDS of mean joke opportunities every day and I still nevertheless do not make them. Because I am not a jerk! Like Alexander Pope.

  3. I wrote an essay during undergrad about The Rape of the Lock and female imagery or..something. The main thing I remember is our professor sent the class a PDF of the poem, which was named Pope_Rape and my Catholic-leaning friend was one day horrified while leaning over my shoulder and looking at my desktop.

    ALSO Alexander Pope was sooo mean to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Which is not cool. But I still approve of you being SchemeBuddies with him.

  4. Hm, Jeanne makes an excellent point. Two of them, actually. And also, I have a daughter (not you of course, but your miniature sister) who is both short and Catholic. Somehow she copes, but she does get annoyed a lot.

  5. I loved this Alexander Pope story, and do agree that he was quite the schemer! I would have been so totally bushwacked had I been Earnest Hemingway in this story. I agree that everyone always gets totally testy over estate managers and what they do with the work of famous authors, and it seems like they can never do it right. Remember that scandal with Nabakov? It seems they can’t do anything right in the opinion of others.

    • What, when they published The Origin of Laura or whatever it was called? Yes, I remember that! I thought it wasn’t nice of the literary estate manager but I also understood why one would do it. A sensible author should burn all the things he doesn’t want published.

  6. Of COURSE you’d call the newspaperman Ernest Hemingway 😉 Now if I ever hear of this story from other channels, and they name a different reporter, I am going to refute them with the whole “It was Ernest Hemingway who did that!” And they’ll say, “Um, WRONG CENTURY Aarti.” Sigh. You have already set me up for literary embarrassment.

  7. That is a fabulous story! I definitely need to brush up on my 18th-century gentlemen (and ladies) of letters. I am planning to tackle Boswell’s Life of Johnson this year, but I’m a little scared of it!

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