leisure 01.18.06

The Great Moon Hoax

It's James Frey smackdown week, he of the fictive memoir A Million Little Pieces. While it surely does matter when a piece of writing is presented as fact but veers off into fiction, as Michiko Kakutani argued yesterday in the Times, our impulse is to give artists (wannabes included) a bit more latitude.

In the introduction to Ruth Reichl's memoir Tender at the Bone, she wrote, "Everything here is true, but it may not be entirely factual" and no one has pelted her with stones in the Conde Nast cafeteria. That she cops to embroidery, as she calls it, is one reason. And delightful as Reichl's book is, it was never going to be seen as a motivational story of redemption. So there's a difference, perhaps.

The problem with Frey is both the degree of the apparent deception and the denials, including the assertion by Frey on the Today Show a while back, after Matt Lauer asked him point-blank, that he didn't invent anything.

Frey shouldn't get a pass by any means, but if it were our call, it's elected officials whose feet we'd hold close to the fire. We'd prefer to save our righteous indignation for politicians who behave more like scoundrels than honest, law-abiding citizens. Frey, it seems, is just another hoaxer and there's nothing new under the sun.

Or the moon. The Frey fracas reminded us of another time New York (and the rest of the country) got scammed. It was back on Tuesday, August 25, 1835 and it, too, involved a writer, an established publisher, and a gulled public. On the front page of the New York Sun was the start of a series describing a revolutionary new telescope developed by British astronomer Sir John Herschel. The next day, the Sun announced Herschel's sensational discoveries of highly developed life on the moon.

The astronomer described seeing dozens of lilac-hued pyramids made of amethysts, temples with golden roofs, biped beavers that lived in huts, seas, forests, mountains, all described in plentiful detail. Friday's installment revealed the existence of winged human beings, four feet tall, covered in copper-colored hair, chatting with each other.

And so it went until the following Monday when, the Sun reported, Sir John had neglected to store his telescope correctly one night and, after sunrise, the lens concentrated the rays of the sun back into the observatory, causing a fire. End of series.

As you can imagine, the series was the talk of the town and the Sun's circulation soared (though some historians dispute this). The real Sir John Herschel only later learned about his "discoveries"; the authorship of the articles is generally assumed to be Richard Adams Locke, a reporter on the Sun staff. On September 16, the Sun published an article that said that maybe the story was a hoax, but it didn't go further than that. It was never established whether the Sun editors were complicit in the deception, but here's a guess: yup.

Unlike the current response to Frey, when it became clear to New Yorkers that they'd been conned, there was no groundswell of outrage. Perhaps it was easier to forgive the evocation of a delightful dream than it is to be dragged down into the nightmare of addiction with such an unreliable narrator.

The longing for reliable narrators is understandable when we are so frequently confronted with dishonesty: historians who crib, scientists who fabricate, reporters with hidden agendas, and politicians who deceive.

Candor, genuine candor, is in such short supply that it may have led to a pent-up demand for it. What else could explain the appeal of Simon Cowell?


recent entries

Be It Resolved, Flickr Pool Picks

'Twas the Night Before Christmas, Every Person in New York

Hump Day, Every Person in New York

See all articles in LEISURE

Get a daily dose of MUG
right in your Inbox.