So Naiman traced the first mention of the mythical meeting to a 2002 article in the Dickensian, "the organ of the Dickens Fellowship," by one Stephanie Harvey, who mentioned the story so matter-of-factly that all but the most skeptical of literary scholars would be (indeed, were) convinced. When the editor of the Dickensian wrote Harvey asking for further documentation, "she responded that she had lost her notes, had a poor memory, and had moved on to other topics"; when he wrote back, he received an email from Ms. Harvey's sister explaining that the scholar had suffered severe brain damage in a car crash and would not be able to reply. Weird, no? But Naiman, who chronicled his academic wild goose chase in astonishing detail, kept digging, locating some of Ms. Harvey's previous work and eventually uncovering a baffling web of seemingly fictitious academics—whose ranks, in addition to Stephanie Harvey, include Graham Headley, Trevor McGovern, John Schellenberger, Leo Bellingham, Michael Lindsay, and Ludovico Parra—who seemed to have spent upwards of three decades citing and praising and picking apart and criticizing each others' work despite possessing few biographic attributes and occasionally committing (self-)plagiarism with unscrupulous abandon. (In one instance, "Trevor McGovern" published a journal article that turned out to be an entire chapter from a 1978 text with only the first and last sentence altered.)
Yes, as you've by now probably surmised, Naiman traced each of these academic identities back to one very strange man. Meet Arnold—or AD Harvey, as he calls himself professionally—an obscure London writer and self-described "rejected scholar" who has spent decades wielding a grab bag of scholarly pen names, both to share his research and make mischief. All that, unfurled by a single, fabricated literary anecdote, tucked in the annals of a ten-year-old journal article.
Anyway, Arnold, exactly three months after being outed, is now the subject of an utterly fascinating profile in The Guardian, an alternately sad and brutally funny portrait of an embittered academic who has channeled his professional failings into an intricate entanglement of academic pranks. Below are some highlights from the mind of AD Arnold, as told to The Guardian's Stephen Moss.
On being a "rejected scholar":
"I'm not an independent scholar," he says, "I'm a scholar who couldn't get a job, a rejected scholar. I didn't choose to be independent. The fact that I was producing books and by 1979 had had half a dozen scholarly articles published, half of them in English literature, half of them in history, to anyone else that would look interesting, but to an academic it looks 'Why can't we do this? There's something wrong with this man.' What makes it look interesting to other people makes it look appalling to academics."
On his decision to begin inventing identities—and his belief in an academic conspiracy working against him:
"I think I was perfectly entitled to do this," he says. "If I was having work rejected because it had my name on it, I was entitled to send in a perfectly decent piece of work with another name."
On being "creative and inventive," not vengeful and bizarre:
"You have failed to detect two things about me," he says. "Yes, I have some of the instincts of the troublemaker. But the other thing is I am creative and inventive. You might have been like this if you hadn't gone into daily journalism. [I try not to take this personally.] It was a jeu d'esprit. Yes, I was misleading the editor of the Dickensian, but it's caveat emptor."
On America's role in the Dickens/Dostoevsky tale:
"What I hadn't bargained for," admits Harvey, "was how much interest there would be in the Dickens and Dostoevsky thing in America. It wouldn't have been noticed if it hadn't been for the Americans."
On what might have been, if only:
"How does the life we live relate to the lives we might have lived or ought to have lived?" he asks rhetorically. "If I'd had the life I ought to have lived, I would have had a junior research fellowship, a fellowship, marriage, marital breakdown, boredom, frustration, might have gone into politics, might have risen to minister of state, then more boredom and frustration. The pattern wouldn't have been that much different in my view."
Now that the jig is up, Harvey, who "has no computer at home, has to go to libraries to get online, writes everything longhand, and pays a typist to type it up," says he is slowing down. Alas. But his work—or mischief—leaves much to be discovered.
Read The Guardian's profile here. Read Eric Naiman's exhausting investigation here. Congratulate Professor Naiman on his admirable detective work here.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.