The Family Romance of the Imposter-Poet Thomas Chatterton

By Louise J. Kaplan. University of California Press, 1987. 8/10

Very impressive study of ‘the Marvellous Boy’ Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), the pre-Romantic poet whose quasi-medieval poems he attributed to a 15th century cleric, Thomas Rowley. Chatterton claimed to have discovered Rowley’s parchment manuscripts in his native Bristol, England, thanks to his schoolmaster father’s diligence in saving bits of old paper for his students.

A clue as to what we’re getting into shows up on the book’s back cover; the subject area heading is given as: “Biography/History/Literature/ Psychology.” So, four books in one, or a little of this, and a little of that? Thankfully, a pretty good mixture, but just a tad thick with the (mostly Freudian) psychology.

What’s unsettling here is what appears to be a nudge against Chatterton’s character and his work because he had certain traits that, we will see, males inevitably have when they’re deprived of a father figure (Chatterton’s father died before his son’s birth). He was raised, then, by his mother, and to some degree by his older sister Sarah. Well, how many people, especially 250 years ago, were raised by one (the opposite-sex) parent? Hardly an unusual circumstance. What becomes very clear, though, is that Thomas Chatterton was very much his own brand of eccentric.

Admittedly, I can’t legitimately diagnose personality; my psychological comments are just that, musings. [Nonetheless, I’ve had plenty of experience with young people’s thought processes from my career as a special education teacher.] I’d say, at any rate, given his erratic behavior, Chatterton comes across as someone struggling with a form of autism. His mode of expression was fueled by a compulsion to communicate his thoughts to a savant-like degree.

No one would dispute, for example, that he was a prodigy, composing poetry (in archaic style no less) from the age of twelve, if not earlier. Not to mention an accompanying ability to read as much as he could. Between that time, and his death less than six years later, he’d written more (political satire, essays, plays, as well as verse) than many writers would in their much longer lifetimes–conceding that Keats only lived to 26, Shelley to 30, and Byron to 36, all of them quite prolific writers/poets.

Admittedly, Kaplan does hedge her Freudian bets on Chatterton. In a passage that follows up her association of Chatterton’s inflated sense of self and the eagerness to exert his manhood to his mother in the fashion of Jack, from the Jack In The Beanstock folk tale, she states:

“Was Chatterton really so different from most boys his age? It is not at all unusual for a boy on the verge of manhood to try to prove himself by assuming grandiose postures and roles….but the difference is that for the potential impostor, lying, cheating, and manipulating others become a way of life. His shaky masculine identity is held together by the false images he imposes on others” (p.42).

And later,

“Certainly not every fatherless boy surrounded by adoring females is destined to grow up with a defective sense of his own masculinity.”

Additionally, Kaplan allows that “Not enough is known about the fantasies and attitudes of Sarah and Mary.” Nonetheless, she goes on: “We can however, infer from their reminiscences and Chatterton’s letters and literary productions that in a general way they unconsciously fostered and encouraged the little boy’s sense of grandiosity and entitlement.” (all from p. 42).

“‘In a general way they (Sarah and Mary) unconsciously fostered'”? That comment keeps her thesis rumbling along. But doesn’t everything happen “in a general way”? Speaking later of Sarah’s and Mary’s roles in Thomas’s life, there’s a more accusatory cast given, which does have the benefit of being more specific:

“After his death the two women gave out narratives to the world that were innocent, yet crafty. The considerations that claimed their attention were the honor of their beloved boy and the facts that would substantiate that honor” (p.252).

Well, I would expect that they would. That’s a good description of a loyal, loving family defending a dead son and brother, and, by implication, defending themselves (as they deemed themselves responsible for him). In fact, they had to be on the strategic defensive; all manner of interested parties turned out–from mere curiosity seekers to out-and-out vultures. Sir Herbert Croft, in particular (pgs. 254-257), did his own fairly obvious plagiarism job by appropriating large chunks of Chatteron’s history for a popular novel that he published.

It seems that Chatterton was having a good time inventing his Rowley-ese verbiage. Not just inventing words, but alternating their spellings, even in the same stanza of this or that piece. It’s great that the author provides translations of some of the more obscure vocabulary. (I’m wondering if someone has written a complete dictionary of this ‘language’.)

What’s also amusing is how Chatterton led on his Bristol quasi-patrons, Catcott and Barnett. Actually, Barnett more or less didn’t care what Chatterton was writing, just as long as his fictionalized Canynge, Rowley, etc., could help his angle on local boosterism. What’s very clear is that:

“When he posed as Rowley, Chatterton was neither a plagiarist nor an imitator. He invented an entire imaginary world, and the writings that explained, supported, and celebrated that world. It was only afterward, when he tried to become a legitimate eighteenth-century writer, that Chatterton resorted to imitation and plagiarism” (p. 183).

And, regarding the efficacy of imitation (though not plagiarism) the author quotes Chatterton’s biographer George Gregory “He knew that original genius consists of forming new and happy combinations rather than searching after thoughts and ideas which never had occurred before; and that the man who never imitated has seldom acquired a habit of good writing” (pps. 182-183).

Unless writers create an intricate Babel of unique languages, none of which could translate into another, which become the absurd if implicit result of an attempt to delineate one’s linguistic ‘territory.’ Fortunately, we have troves of ideas, phrases, styles, that is–influences, from one’s peers, friends, teachers, publishers, and professors; between generations, schools of thought, or in any possible way that the writer encounters, picks up, refashions, and might put out in his readings and/or writings.

Analogies aren’t quite clear enough to mirror the creative process. Maybe because it’s impossible to create something from nothing, at least for humans. If anything, though, artistic creations are more purely filled with the creator’s (writer in this case) substance than a tangible, functional creation. Objects can not only be produced, but copied, in fact, mass-produced. The same for written creation (newspapers, books, magazines, emails, etc.).

The difference between the literary (and other artistic) creations and the creation of the functional object (brick, oatmeal, car) is that the essence of the thing is the creation for the artist, while only the existence of the creation is supplied by the artisan (mason, cook, manufacturer). It’s no wonder, then, that we go looking for imitation and plagiarism with art, as that’s the natural way for creating objects.

I’m sure everything’s a lot more complex than this quick schema would suggest. For one thing, the artisan is ‘sponsored’, so to speak, by an inventor whom possesses, via patent, a quite explicit protection for his creation’s share of uniqueness.

Actually, the same sort of rules apply, as in copyright, to artistic creations. The distinction between ownership of, let’s say, artistic and functional creations certainly blurs a great deal, but it’s not exactly the same game.

Are Camus, Dostoyevsky, and Sartre lifting existentialism from Voltaire? The 20th century Frenchman were influenced by Voltaire; and we’re all so much the better for it–unless you’re bored to death of existentialism. Undoubtedly, Voltaire himself had his predecessors.

In fact, Notes From The Underground and Confessions Of An English Opium Eater have very Chatterton-esque protagonists. It’s impossible to become literate, then well-read, a writer, and ultimately a published author, without having studied many other writers, and, in the process, applying what one learns from one’s favorites.

The book certainly recreates Chatterton’s milieu, and draws a detailed portrait of his life. My reservations are limited to the depth of Freudian interpretation for Chatterton’s behavior. Entertaining and informative; this is well-worth reading for those interested in the pre-Romantics and the era. 8/10

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