In 1997, a newly discovered and previously unpublished poem by the much-loved American poet Emily Dickinson was auctioned in New York. There was great excitement at the idea that a new work by this iconic artist had come to light – as if a new Shakespeare Sonnet had been found locked in a trunk in a Stratford attic, or an unknown Picasso had been stumbled upon at a car boot sale.
After the poem was sold at auction and brought home to Emily Dickinson’s home town of Amherst, with much fanfare, it was revealed to be a brilliant fake. It had been created by a man named Mark Hofmann, a convicted double murderer once dubbed the ‘greatest forger of the 20th century’. He had not only matched the paper, handwriting and pencil with astounding historical accuracy, he had produced a new Dickinson work that passed off as authentic.
How was a convicted double murderer able to craft a poem so perfect that it fooled leading Emily Dickinson scholars and experts in historical documents? Dickinson famously lived much of her life as a recluse, producing her works of concentrated brilliance from the bedroom of her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. She chose not to publish during her lifetime and hand-sewn booklets containing some 1,800 poems were discovered in a locked box in her room after her death. Why does Dickinson continue to fascinate, and what might Hofmann’s fake poem tell us about the true poet’s work and life? The writer and journalist Simon Worrall unfolds a gripping true story of poetry, murder and the art of forgery.