J. M. Tyree


Fanshawe's Ghost


If, at one sitting, he caught a glimpse of what happened to be a genuine and permanent expression, it would probably be less perceptible, on a second occasion, and perhaps have vanished entirely, at a third.

The Marble Faun

This all started by accident. I noticed the repetition of an unusual name, Fanshawe (or Fanshaw), in three American novels separated widely in time and literary sensibility. The fact might be dismissed as a coincidence, except that certain thematic similarities emerged among the three works. Further investigation revealed that the last book in the series had invoked the name as a deliberate echo of the first. The name was a tiny thread in American literature, but the more I pulled at it, the more I found myself involved in subterranean intertextual adventures.

The basic facts are easy to summarize. Nathaniel Hawthorne published his first novel, Fanshawe, at his own expense, in 1828. Hawthorne’s queasy relationship with Fanshawe is well known. Millicent Bell, who annotated the Library of America edition of Hawthorne’s novels, is succinct: “Ashamed of this first effort (which does not bear his name on its title page), he forbids his friends to mention his authorship and refuses to discuss the book in later years. His wife does not learn of its existence until after his death.”

In Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom Ripley, having murdered Dickie Greenleaf and assumed his identity, deposits Dickie’s things at an American Express office in Venice under an assumed name. The passage concerning this is brief and the use of the name “Fanshaw” seemingly inconsequential:

So, after scraping the initials off Dickie’s two suitcases, he sent them, locked, from Naples to the American Express Company, Venice, together with two canvases he had begun painting in Palermo, in the name of Robert S. Fanshaw, to be stored until called for. The only things, the only revealing things, he kept with him were Dickie’s rings, which he put into the bottom of an ugly little leather box belonging to Thomas Ripley, that he had somehow kept with him for years everywhere he traveled or moved to . . .

In The Locked Room (1986), the final volume of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, the narrator reveals that he wrote the first two volumes, City of Glass (1985) and Ghosts (1986), in order to cope with the trauma of his relationship with a man named Fanshawe. The narrator and Fanshawe knew each other before they could talk. “Without him I would hardly know who I am,” the narrator explains. Years later, after he has disappeared without any explanation, Fanshawe continues to exercise a parasitic hold on the narrator’s life and identity. When it is discovered that Fanshawe has been working on a profound collection of poems, plays, and novels, Fanshawe’s wife enlists the narrator’s help in promoting the writing. The narrator seduces Fanshawe’s wife, entering his life as a replacement while Fanshawe increasingly takes over the narrator’s inner world.

What’s in a name? It is intriguing to note that, like The Talented Mr. Ripley, Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (1860) is a story of murder and mysteriously shifting identities with an Italian setting. (The Marble Faun was published under the title Transformation in England, itself a nod to Ovid.) But that does not prove that Highsmith read Fanshawe. With Auster, the case is clearer. In a 1987 interview with Joseph Mallin, Auster said:

In The Locked Room, by the way, the name Fanshawe is a direct reference to Hawthorne. Fanshawe is the title of Hawthorne’s first novel. He wrote it when he was very young, and not long after it was published, he turned against it in revulsion and tried to destroy every copy he could get his hands on . . .

Leaving aside how Auster dramatizes the story, the interview suggests that it is not so much the text of Fanshawe itself that interests him, but rather Hawthorne’s feelings about it. Auster scholar Ilane Shiloh has argued that this fact was the “pertinent factor” in his appropriation of the name. The “bad first work” is not universal, but it is archetypal, if not awfully stereotypical. Faulkner’s first book, for example, was The Marble Faun (1924), a volume of imitative poetry which gestures to Hawthorne both in its title and in a less deliberate sense. Its initial printing was financed by a friend and literary admirer, Phil Stone, for $400.

Granted that Fanshawe is no masterpiece, critics have noted its gestures toward recurring themes in Hawthorne’s mature writing--disguised identities, extended allegories, the sinister magic of the woods, etc. Fanshawe is a studious bookworm at Harley College who falls tragically in love with Ellen Langton, a girl under the care of Doctor Melmoth, the head of the college. (The successive deaths of her mother and aunt make her a virtual foundling. Her father, abroad on business for many years, will reappear later on.) Fanshawe and his rival for Ellen’s affections, Edward Walcott, vie for the girl, until a mysterious stranger arrives in town and spirits her away under false pretenses for the purpose of sexual assault. Fanshawe saves her (rather unglamorously), but it is Walcott who ultimately marries Ellen.

Hawthorne scholar Nina Baym has pointed out that Fanshawe was Hawthorne’s attempt to “Americanize the Gothic” of English writers, especially Scott. The results were equivocal at best. “The evening breeze grows chill, and mine is a dress for a summer day,” Ellen observes at one point. “Let us walk homeward.” Edward replies: “Miss Langton, is it the evening breeze, alone, that sends you homeward?” As the reader may well imagine, it is not the evening breeze, alone, that sends Ellen homeward. But since we already know that “Miss Langton” is speaking; that the “evening breeze” is her excuse; and that she wishes to head “homeward,” there is almost nothing in Edward’s reply except the erasure of any lingering subtlety.

Mediocre writing is hardly the worst of man’s inhumanity to man. Yet Hawthorne hides Fanshawe almost pathologically, in a Dimmesdale-like fashion, as if he really had committed some unforgivable crime. A question arises even about the amount Hawthorne paid to have the book printed. Most critics take on faith the assertion of Hawthorne’s sister Elizabeth that he paid $100. Millicent Bell, however, distrusts the figure, offering “in view of contemporary publishing costs more likely $200.” If one accepts Bell’s view, it suggests further shame and deception on Hawthorne’s part. Even the cost of self-publishing had to be divided in half. Unlike Prospero, Hawthorne will not acknowledge this thing of darkness his. Fanshawe is a creation given up for adoption, entirely disowned and repudiated, if not actively stifled or murdered.

The absence of Hawthorne’s name on the book makes the denial possible for a time. The book is not published under a pseudonym, or with the “by anonymous” tag. No name at all appears on the title page--except the name Fanshawe. Hawthorne biographer Edwin Haviland Miller suggests, however, that the names “Hawthorne” and “Fanshawe” bear some resemblance to one another. They both have the unusual final “E” as well as the “aw” sound that existed in Hawthorne’s name even before he added the “W” to it around 1830, restoring an old family spelling.

Not all critics have judged Fanshawe as harshly as Hawthorne himself did. But for him, “Fanshawe” is both the title of a novel and the name of a bad memory, a psychological incident that is not to be mentioned ever again. Fanshawe must be someone else’s child. Fanshawe, Ellen, Edward, et. al. are to be hidden in a locked room, sealed from view. A “Fanshawe” is a skeleton in the closet of authorship. One need not make too much of the fact, but if Hawthorne is a founder of American literature, his founding work as an author is cracked down the middle with trauma, weakness, a perception of ineptitude, a lack of mastery.

On the other hand, it is possible to rehabilitate Fanshawe, if not as a great work, then at least as a writerly and psychological apprenticeship. One might theorize, for example, that hiding Fanshawe is yet another episode in Hawthorne’s biography that trains him in the effects of denial, disguise, guilt, and repression on human character. His great characters are all hiding secrets: Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, Miriam in The Marble Faun. At the very least, Fanshawe instructs us in humility, considering Hawthorne’s greatness. To paraphrase Eliot’s Quartet “East Coker,” every attempt to learn to use words is a different kind of failure. But it is possible to go further, and to submit the notion that understanding artistic failure is essential to creation. In order to go forward, to allow oneself to write anything, one must accept the loss of perfection.


In the Coen brothers film Barton Fink (1991), Barton asks the famous Southern writer cum Hollywood hack W. P. Mayhew (a parody of William Faulkner), why he writes. Mayhew says, “I just like making things up.” But the answer rings false, and it turns out that Mayhew is simply an alcoholic whose brilliant books are secretly written by his female secretary. Mayhew’s answer, however, doubles back upon itself. His answer to Barton’s question is a lie, but it is also the truth, insofar as it reveals that he enjoys lying. If fiction is not exactly a form of lying, it is at least analogous to lying in several crucial ways. In fiction, both the writer and the reader can pretend that they are someone else, and somewhere else. The mystery of the willing suspension of disbelief involves the creation of some compelling world that is not actually real. Like the assumed identity of a fraud or a spy, the lie of fiction must be both extensive and internally coherent. The story must stand up to interrogation, as it were, even to the point of the torture of criticism.


Tom Ripley, the anti-hero of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, is another person who just likes making things up. At the outset of the novel, Ripley is involved in a scam in which he poses as an IRS agent and demands payment on bogus tax adjustments. The payments are to be sent to an “overflow IRS office” that is, in fact, his own apartment. But since everyone pays by check, the checks cannot be cashed, and the scam is, therefore, largely purposeless. The suggestion is that Ripley simply enjoys posing as someone else. The IRS scam foreshadows his murder of Dickie Greenleaf and subsequent absorption of Dickie’s identity in Italy.(1)

The relationship of fiction and lying is one of the pleasures of reading The Talented Mr. Ripley that transcends the ordinary conventions of the crime genre. Ripley’s seamless takeover of Dickie’s life mirrors the act of Highsmith’s creation of the world of her novel. It is an analogous act of impersonation that implicates the process of composition as a crime of fraud perpetrated upon the reader. The whole of the novel, like Ripley’s new life as Dickie, is totally unreal. In a sense, Highsmith raises the issues of metafiction without metafiction, through a character who is a compulsive fabricator of fictions.

Rather than attempting to prove that Highsmith’s use of the name “Fanshaw” is a direct reference to Hawthorne, it is safer merely to suggest the thematic parallels, which would exist even if Highsmith had chosen another name less charged with literary significance. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Robert S. Fanshaw is the false name under which Dickie’s things will be stored in the American Express office in Venice. It will be the title, in other words, by which the things will be identified, a title that will simultaneously disguise the real identity of the responsible party. The process is roughly analogous to the way in which Fanshawe will only be known as Fanshawe, so that Hawthorne will not be forced to own up to the work, to admit that it is his own. In both cases, the name “Fanshawe” or “Fanshaw” becomes more than a name. It’s a mask, the name that will be known to the public and simultaneously preserve the identity--or rather, the anonymity--of the artist.

One of the intriguing features of the Fanshaw passage in The Talented Mr. Ripley is that not all of the things hidden by the name “Fanshaw” actually belong to Dickie. Ripley also sends “two canvases he had begun painting in Palermo.” As part of his total absorption of Dickie’s identity, Ripley has even trained himself to paint like Dickie. Dickie happens to be a very bad painter. Dickie’s landscapes are “all wild and hasty and monotonously similar.” Although they are never described, the Palermo canvases probably have been painted by Ripley in the mediocre style of Dickie.

Ripley’s counterfeit of Dickie is always more than a practical attempt to cover up his murder. It also comes from a sense of profound inner emptiness.(2) Ripley writes letters from the dead Dickie to his girlfriend Marge. He holds “imaginary conversations” with Dickie’s friends in his room, playing the role of Dickie. “Every moment to Tom was a pleasure . . . It was impossible ever to be lonely or bored, he thought, so long as he was Dickie Greenleaf.” That Ripley is sending the canvases to Venice along with Dickie’s effects is not a strategem, but rather part of a psychological compulsion. In fact, at this stage, the Dickie identity has become a liability, and Ripley is facing the horrible prospect of becoming himself again. “This was the end of Dickie Greenleaf,” thinks Ripley. “He hated going back to himself as he would have hated putting on a shabby suit of clothes.” At this point, Ripley weeps, not from penitence, but from the unfairness of having Dickie taken away from him. Ripley has so effaced the border between himself and Dickie that he is confusing the two “characters.”

The third-person narrative simply describes “two canvases he had begun painting in Palermo.” The indefinite pronoun is everything here, and brilliantly deployed. “He” painted them, but who “he” was when he did so--Tom Ripley, Dickie Greenleaf, or some amalgam--is open to question. Robert S. Fanshaw: yet another assumed name, a mask hiding Ripley’s internal void.

A related intrigue in the Fanshaw passage involves the “ugly little brown leather box belonging to Thomas Ripley,” into which he deposits Dickie’s rings, the “only revealing things” he permits himself to keep on his person. The narrative describes “Thomas Ripley” as if he were contemplating someone other than himself. The leather box “had somehow kept with him for years everywhere he traveled or moved to . . .” It is filled with fragmented junk like “cuff-links, collar pins, odd buttons, a couple of fountain-pen points, and a spool of white thread with a needle stuck in it.” The box, like Ripley, is a shell, rather like the “shabby suit of clothes” that he makes for his own identity, a collection of oddments from a life fashioned out of other people’s names.

At this stage, Ripley faces the problem of a Fanshaw. Like Hawthorne’s Fanshawe, the name represents the residual traces of a work that one cannot obliterate and which, therefore, must remain forever hidden. Fanshaw(e) represents the threat of a previous existence that might resurface at any time, like the sunken boat that holds the corpse of Dickie Greenleaf. And, just as Hawthorne effaced his own name from his first novel, Ripley attempts to efface the strange Ripley-Greenleaf hybrid that made the paintings in Palermo with an assumed name. All that is left, as evidence of that previous life, is disguised under a Fanshaw(e).

It is a “cheerful thought” for Ripley, this multiplication of identities, by means of which the connection between himself and his first murder will disappear. He “could check all Dickie’s clothes at the American Express in Venice under a different name and reclaim them at some future time, if he wanted to or had to, or else never claim them at all.” One wishes to distance oneself from the act, while at the same time relishing the hidden evidence of the trophies one cannot bear to destroy. It cannot be assumed with any safety that Highsmith has Ripley choose the name as a direct literary allusion.(3) If she did--and this must remain an open question--then the Fanshaw of The Talented Mr. Ripley forms a wry comment on authorship, pseudonyms, and double identity. One can imagine Hawthorne’s own “cheerful thought” that he could publish Fanshawe without using his own name, yet thereby reserve the right to “reclaim” the book, as if it were lost baggage, should the work prove useful to him at some later date. At the same time, the existence of a Fanshawe or Fanshaw is also obviously a source of shame founded on the denial of a crime. One could postulate Highsmith’s allusion as a subtle form of literary criticism. Hawthorne’s stubborn denial of his authorship of Fanshawe is a strange little literary murder, an attempt to snuff out part of himself.

The key divergence here, of course, is that Fanshawe will be pinned on Hawthorne in time, whereas The Talented Mr. Ripley ends with Ripley miraculously (and unrepentantly) victorious. Dickie Greenleaf’s effects are eventually discovered, but nobody named “Robert S. Fanshaw” can be found, so the police assume that Dickie himself deposited his things in Venice. Foul deeds will rise, but in the case of Ripley, they can’t be connected with him. Dickie’s parents are convinced that he (Dickie) has committed suicide. A newspaper report speculates that he might remain alive “under the alias of Robert S. Fanshaw or another alias.” Fanshaw, however, is not any old alias, but one that opens questions about aliases and authorship as such. The name is an alias, but one which refers to nothing real, only a chain of other fictions, the name of a character in an old book whose famous author didn’t want the world to know he wrote it. As an alias, then, a Fanshaw is not always merely a mask hiding one’s true face, but also might be the figure of a mask with nothing underneath it, pure fiction.


Paul Auster published his first novel, a baseball mystery called Squeeze Play, under a pseudonym, perhaps because it was written for money, and perhaps because the subject matter did not jibe with his public identity as a poet and translator of modernist French poetry. Auster’s remarkable literary polyphony is legendary: he’s also a literary novelist, a memoirist, and a scriptwriter. Much of his fiction concerns itself with themes of multiple identities: characters who aren’t sure who they are; characters who utterly lose themselves and disappear; characters mistaken for someone else; characters pretending to be someone or something they’re not. His most recent novel, The Book of Illusions, has the following quotation from Chateaubriand as its epigraph: “Man has not one and the same life. He has many lives, placed end to end, and that is the cause of his misery.”(4)

Auster’s New York Trilogy is a tour de force of metafiction in which the narrator of the third volume, The Locked Room, reveals that action of the first two books, City of Glass and Ghosts, never really “happened,” not even within the fictional world of the Trilogy, but are, in fact, his own fictional creations. Auster even includes himself in the endlessly recessive play of aliases. In City of Glass, the action begins with a wrong number; the caller is trying to reach a “Paul Auster” who later appears as a minor character.

Arthur M. Saltzman, whose Designs of Darkness in Contemporary American Fiction is the first work to examine Auster’s use of Hawthorne in any detail, describes the overall effect as both a “Doppelganger game” and an “identity relay system.” Saltzman notes that the name of Fanshawe’s wife in The Locked Room, Sophie, echoes that of Hawthorne’s wife. He incorrectly asserts, however, that Hawthorne conspired with his wife to keep his authorship of Fanshawe a secret. In fact, just as in The Locked Room, the wife must not find out the truth.

Like Ripley, the narrator of The Locked Room virtually takes over another man’s identity. When his childhood friend, a reclusive writer named Fanshawe, disappears, the narrator takes on the duty of editing and promoting his work. A rumor emerges that he is, in fact, the author of the works being published under Fanshawe’s name. He eventually marries Fanshawe’s wife, and, more disturbingly, seduces Fanshawe’s mother.

We already know that Auster intended a deliberate reference to Hawthorne. (Auster, however, never mentions Highsmith as a source for his Fanshawe.) Auster’s Fanshawe has the opposite problem of Hawthorne with his Fanshawe --rather than publishing his work prematurely, he lacks the will to publish anything at all, letting his manuscripts pile up. Fanshawe doesn’t want to be seen, he wants to (and eventually does) disappear. On the other hand, the narrator, a critic, feels that he writes too much. Auster’s twist is that the parasite becomes the host. By taking over Fanshawe’s life, he permits Fanshawe to take over his. This, in turn, sets off the process Saltzman describes as “the threat of psychological disintegration from servitude to Fanshawe.”

The effect is somewhat similar to that of Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf. As with Ripley’s Palermo paintings, Auster’s narrator contemplates the idea of writing under Fanshawe’s name. But the strategic difference lies in Ripley’s ability to control the process of assimilation and work it to his own advantage. In contrast, the narrator of The Locked Room feels his own life devoured by Fanshawe’s. “I was even possessed,” he tells us. Ripley is able to absorb Dickie, whereas Auster’s narrator becomes absorbed by Fanshawe, Fanshawe’s work, and Fanshawe’s life. He decides, disastrously, to write Fanshawe’s biography.(5) The critic does not feed off the writer; the writer is devouring him, almost leaching his substance away, gradually emptying his inner life.

Another fatal difference is that Fanshawe, unlike Dickie, remains alive. The narrator decides to keep this fact secret, a fact which turns his biography into a fiction, a fraud, a lie. Though Auster does not do so, one could imagine the hypothetical publication of this biography, perhaps under the title Fanshawe, as a recapitulation of Hawthorne’s original drama. In both cases, the publication must be haunted by the necessity of repression. In Hawthorne’s fiction, the deception will be the absence of the real author; in Fanshawe’s biography, the author fakes the death of its subject.

Auster, therefore, reverses the poles of both Hawthorne’s Fanshawe and Highsmith’s Fanshaw. The real Hawthorne hides behind (or within) the fictional Fanshawe and refuses to admit its existence, just as Ripley hides behind (or within) Dickie Greenleaf and refuses to own up to his murder. Auster’s Fanshawe also hides behind the narrator, manipulating him at a distance and creating through him a public literary persona. For Hawthorne and Highsmith, a Fanshaw(e) is a mask, one that can be used fairly successfully, whereas Auster’s narrator is used by a Fanshawe as a mask. The narrator is tempted by the notion of masking himself in Fanshawe’s life, but, in fact, the task is both impossible and highly destructive. A fatal lassitude sets into the narrator’s life. He is, of course, gradually losing himself. “Fanshawe had used me up,” he explains in the book’s final pages.


The Locked Room ends with a final meeting, in Boston, between the narrator and Fanshawe. Fanshawe gives him one last literary work in the form of a red notebook. On a platform of South Station, the narrator reads the work, which carries a feeling of “great lucidity,” but in which “each sentence erased the sentence before it, each paragraph made the next paragraph impossible.” It is impossible to tell whether the effect is a result of his shaken mental state, or whether it is induced by the red notebook itself. The narrator decides to destroy the notebook, page by page, after finishing it. The act of defiance is a reassertion of self, and it seems significant that the narrator notices that “I could see my breath in the air before me, leaving my mouth in little bursts of fog.” I, my, me, my: the repetitions and variations imply that the narrator finally awakens, beginning to remember who he really is.

The alternative, one imagines, is death, or insanity, the utter effacement of his identity. The act of reading here encapsulates the narrator’s entire relationship with Fanshawe, in which he must resist the parasitic hold of Fanshawe’s writing. The choice is a harsh one insofar as Fanshawe only lives through his writing, at least to the outside world. At the same time, the act feels necessary; the narrator must destroy the book before it destroys him.

On the face of it, this seems like an odd notion. We are not accustomed to viewing books as dangerous. Death by reading? Auster’s conceit, however, echoes another theme in Fanshawe, one from the actual text rather than Hawthorne’s life. Fanshawe is shot through with a contemporary medical theory suggesting that you could die from an excess of studying. In a nice piece of detective work, Haviland Miller notes that in 1828, Hawthorne borrowed a book from the Salem library by a Chandler Robbins entitled Remarks on the Disorders of Literary Men. The book includes the case of a Boston man who died in 1820 “by too great love of learning.” You could read yourself to death.

When we first encounter Hawthorne’s Fanshawe, he is already the victim of “a blight, of which his thin, pale cheek and the brightness of his eye were alike proofs.” The cause of his sickness is books. Fanshawe’s solitary studies are judged to be “destructive labor,” and called “conversation with the dead.” His books are likened to “those fabled volumes of Magic, from which the reader could not turn away his eye, till death were the consequences of his studies.”

As a medical concept, the idea is something like literary consumption. Fanshawe’s case is compared with that of Nathanael Mather, brother of Cotton Mather. Mather, Hawthorne tells us, “in his almost insane eagerness for knowledge and in his early death, Fanshawe resembled.” When Fanshawe dies after total enervation from his studies--perhaps combined with the physical exertion of his adventures in love--his epitaph is borrowed from Mather’s: The ashes of a hard student and a good scholar.

Highsmith’s Ripley, never much of a reader, is immune to the parasitism of scholarship. True, he studies Dickie Greenleaf like a book, and reproduces or simulates him, in a sense keeping him alive, at least for the sake of keeping up appearances. But Ripley is more an actor than a reader; he becomes Dickie without expense to himself because he is nothing at his core. Ripley can actually enjoy the process. Indeed, perhaps the most frightening aspect of Ripley’s character, expanded at length in Highsmith’s other Ripley novels, remains his utter lack of repentance. He gets away with it because his nature allows him to swallow Dickie without becoming poisoned.

Auster’s narrator is similar in one sense--he is drawn to Fanshawe because of a lack in himself. He is a critic and something of a hack, whereas Fanshawe is the reclusive genius that he imagines he might have been, or would like to become. But like the black “Magic” books of Hawthorne’s fable, Fanshawe’s writings and life come to possess him as much, or more, than he possesses them. Fanshawe is the thing from which he “cannot turn away his eye” until the last possible moment--just prior, one imagines, to the fatal instant when “death were the consequences of his studies.” It is possible to speak of Auster psychologizing the literal content of Hawthorne’s pseudo-science. Reading itself may not literally kill you, but an unhealthy obsession with the object of your investigation might just come close.

The act of becoming someone else--whether literally or metaphorically, through acting or delusion, conjuring or possession--is fraught with peril. The fear of discovery involves the terror that people might find out who we really are, or at least what we really did, whether the crime is murder, or some relatively minor offense like self-publishing a mediocre book or destroying the notebook of a famous writer. On the surface, Hawthorne, Ripley, and Auster’s narrator get away with their crimes. On a psychological level, however, dark questions remain, like internal bleeding without a visible wound. For Hawthorne, the question of Fanshawe involves the apparently compulsive nature of his lifelong denial. In the case of Highsmith, the question of Robert S. Fanshaw brings up the inner lack that makes counterfeiting so appealing to Ripley. In Auster, Fanshawe is a corrosive influence that combines both the seductions and the dangers of taking on another man’s life.

In the opening lines of his 1955 novel The Recognitions, William Gaddis describes one character’s desire for a “safe sort” of masquerade, “where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality.” Auster, like Gaddis, however, does not acknowledge that a safe sort of masquerade is, in fact, possible. In their fiction, the mask tends to become wedded to the face. It is no longer a question of the mask being mistaken for reality, but rather of the process by which the counterfeit “presumes itself,” becoming real, and, in fact replacing reality. Hawthorne and Ripley might think that they are engaged in a “safe” masquerade because, in the end, they still know who they are. Despite the dangers of discovery, they seem to remain in control of the play of aliases. Auster’s use of Fanshawe is different insofar as it suggests or reveals that such control is illusory. Truth and lies cannot be disentangled; they bleed into each other and are always mutually contaminated.

This, in turn, may serve as a warning for the potential student of Fanshaw(e)s. The investigator binds himself to his subject in order to capture it, just as a biographer’s life might be taken over by the subject of the biography. The life of the scholar, in the form of time dedicated to the task, is sucked away, haunted, or even possibly destroyed by what Hawthorne calls “conversation with the dead.” Whereas initially I might have sought out Fanshaw(e)s, perhaps for the purpose of mastering their possible meanings, it seems that the task is wonderfully impossible. The three Fanshaw(e)s, as it turns out, have bonded me to their service, taken part of the substance of my life, and driven me to spend my time writing this essay about them, even though they are nothing more--or less--than fiction.


1. Ripley’s sexuality is a point of critical dispute, but if he is a closeted homosexual, or even simply asexual, he has something else “abnormal” to hide.

2. This emptiness is depicted chillingly by Dennis Hopper in his portrayal of Ripley in The American Friend (1977), Wim Wender’s film adaptation of Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game (1974).

3. Ripley is no scholar, although he does attempt to read Henry James en route to Europe, and memorizes “a long inscription by Tasso” on a public building in Palermo. Highsmith perhaps plays with the reference to James; Ripley mistakes the title of a James novel, calling it “The Ambassador” rather than The Ambassadors. The error fits in better with Ripley’s own notion of his ambassadorship (singular) to Dickie on behalf of his family. Ripley removes an “S” from James’s title (and inserts it back into play as Robert S. Fanshaw’s middle initial?), just as Highsmith writes “Fanshaw” without Hawthorne’s “E.” Pure coincidence, probably, this jumble of misplaced letters. But names and identities are permeable here, like the meaning of the “A” on Hester Prynne, or the added “W” in Hawthorne’s own name.

4. It is tempting to relate Auster’s games with identity to the postmodern obsession with the so-called “fragmentation of the self,” but such sentiments are threaded throughout the French tradition, as the Chateaubriand quotation shows. “I give my soul this face or that,” Montaigne says in “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions,” “depending upon which side I lay it down on.” That “we are fashioned out of oddments put together” might be taken to imply that we are partly composed of remnants of other people. What we take to be the trendiest new ideas of literary criticism begin to sound like scraps of old texts, just as Auster’s Fanshawe echoes Hawthorne’s.

5. The relationship between critic and artist reemerges in The Book of Illusions, which, like The Locked Room, is about the absorption of a biographer in his subject’s real life. Saltzman claims that in writing Fanshawe’s biography, Auster’s narrator, “by promoting the death” is “eliminating the parasite’s host.” One could also argue, however, that Auster suggests something more like mutual parasitism.