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Olinick, S.L. (1989). The Family Romance of the Impostor-Poet. Thomas Chatterton: By Louise J. Kaplan, Ph.D. New York: Atheneum, 1988. 301 pp.. Psychoanal Q., 58:672-676.

(1989). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 58:672-676

The Family Romance of the Impostor-Poet. Thomas Chatterton: By Louise J. Kaplan, Ph.D. New York: Atheneum, 1988. 301 pp.

Review by:
Stanley L. Olinick

Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) was a precociously talented, brilliantly creative English literary impostor, who fabricated medieval parchments and manuscripts of poetry, prose, and architectural sketches. These he successfully passed off for a time as authentic. When the forgeries or impostures were exposed, he fled his native Bristol for London, where he wrote political, satirical poetry and prose, imitating the works of more successful radical pamphleteers. These ventures also failing, he is presumed to have taken arsenic, a lonely, impoverished suicide. Less romantic versions of his death are that he ate contaminated oysters or that he overdosed himself with medications administered by his apothecary for syphilis. All is enwrapped in ambiguity, rumor, and conjecture, which pursued him beyond his death at the age of seventeen. Controversy swirled around him during his life and after his death, disputing the factual evidence of his impostures and the manner of his death and place of burial, and accepting at face value the tendentiously favorable reports of the youth given by his adoring sister. Several biographies have been written. Hardly a literary personage of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries failed to write or pontificate aloud about him. He became the resurrected darling of the later Romantic movement in literature, eulogized by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Browning, and others.

Kaplan's monograph presents documented facts about this brief, tragically wasted life, and offers an explanation of his motivation toward literary imposture—strictly, forgeries, since the young poet did not pretend to be other than who he was, except through his writings; that is, in inventing his writings, he was essaying the inventing of himself and his family.

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