‘The sly and cunning masquerade’

A brief history of literary fakes

Things can get complex when you are considering the relationship between life and art within the pages of a novel. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby is actually a self-made man who has refined himself from the lowly Jimmy Gatz into the figure whose distinguished family hailed from San Francisco. At one point in his career, Gatz/Gatsby appeared in a photo with the Earl of Doncaster. At Oxford. All this happens within the fictional bounds of the novel. Also fictional is the racist historical screed, “The Rise of the Colored Empires,” which the carelessly malevolent Tom Buchanan recommends to his listeners. But wait. Racist propagandist Madison Grant issued his book The Passing of a Great Race in 1916, and scholars agree that that polemic gave Fitzgerald the idea for Tom’s book-of-the-week.

Now consider that in real life, an African-American named Sylvester Clark Long was translating himself, Gatsby-like...