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.