In 1849—months before the term “confidence man” was coined to identify a New York crook—Thomas Powell (1809–1887), a spherical, monocled, English poetaster, dramatist, journalist, embezzler, and forger, landed in Manhattan. Powell in London had capped a career of grand theft and literary peccadilloes by feigning a suicide attempt and having himself committed to a madhouse, after which he fled England. He had been an intimate of William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Barrett, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, and a crowd of lesser literary folk.
Thoughtfully bearing what he presented as a volume of Tennyson with a few trifling revisions in the hand of the poet, Powell was embraced by the slavishly Anglophile New York literary establishment, including a young Herman Melville. In two pot-boilers—The Living Authors of England (1849) and The Living Authors of America (1850)—Powell denounced the most revered American author, Washington Irving, for plagiarism; provoked Charles Dickens to vengeful trans-Atlantic outrage and then panic; and capped his insolence by identified Irving and Melville as the two worst “enemies of the American mind.” For almost four more decades he sniped at Dickens, put words in Melville’s mouth, and survived even the most conscientious efforts to expose him. Long fascinated by this incorrigible rogue, Hershel Parker in The Powell Papers uses a few familiar documents and a mass of freshly discovered material (including a devastating portrait of Powell in a serialized novel) to unfold a captivating tale of skullduggery through the words of great artists and then-admired journalists alike.