Who is this?

        The home page image is a famous engraving by H. Ridgway of a C18 poet and forger named Thomas Chatterton (1452-1770).  Enchanted by Medieval manuscripts brought home by his father from the local church, Chatterton began a double writing career as a teenager.  He published under his own name a series of poems and other works in the emerging popular magazine market.  Simultaneously, he claimed to be discovering manuscript works by a fifteenth-century English poet named Thomas Rowley, works which were entirely Chatterton's creation.  Rebuffed over the Rowley poems by social heavyweights like Horace Walpole, who suspected his forgeries, Chatterton struggled to make a living as a writer under his own name but the literary marketplace was just not robust enough for him to make a living doing it.  When he reached a point where he realized he was starving, he poisoned himself rather than accept help from his friends.  After his suicide, Chatterton was praised as a precursor of the English Romantic poets, many of whom wrote poems to him or mentioned him in their works (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelly, Keats, and Byron, for instance).

        I picked the engraving for the English 105 web home page because I liked the posture and circumstance the engraver had captured, the writer surrounded by the edited scraps of his emerging composition and entirely lost in thought, trying to imagine what to do next, awash in "the composing process."  When I learned it was Chatterton, I kept it, despite its ominous implications, but I did not know why I did so.  Only when this year's English 104 class (Fall '06) asked me about it was I able to articulate what I think/feel Chatterton has to do with English 105. 

        Chatterton's forgery of "Rowley" resembles, in all its awkward and frustrating artifice, the awful task most college freshmen must attempt when they try to write like professional scholars before they could possibly be expected to belong to that community.  His "Rowley" persona expresses his aspirations to ancient authority and deflects the consequences of that authority from Chatterton, himself.  Or it seemed to do so as he manufactured the manuscripts.  He sought a short-cut to authority that would spare him some of the pain of writing, and the short-cut eventually killed him.  When the "Rowley" persona was rejected by those he hoped to please with it, he despaired of the chances of successfully constructing a "Chatterton" persona that would meet his aspirations.  He was impatient, ambitious, talented, and in some ways prescient about the coming C19 fascination with "Medievalism" in the wake of the French Revolution's experiment with over-the-top embrace of social change.  In other words, he is like every bright young writer I teach in 105, would be if I cannot encourage those writers to believe in the power of their own writing to carry the day.  I will try to remember the warning as I teach.