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Frederic Prokosch and the Butterfly Books

Frederic Prokosch is remembered today primarily as the author of a number of well-received novels and as a minor poet of some note. What is less well known is that he was also an accomplished forger. Frederic Prokosch was born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1908. His father, an Austrian émigré, was a linguist who had a distinguished academic career in the United States. Frederic Prokosch seemed destined for a scholarly career himself. After graduating from Haverford College, he entered Yale and received his doctorate in literature in 1932. While at Haverford, Prokosch began writing poetry and saw his poems published in some of the best-known literary magazines of the time. By the mid-1930s, Prokosch was also experimenting with fiction. His novel The Asiatics was published to critical acclaim in 1935, as was The Seven Who Fled which appeared in 1937. Prokosch went on to produce sixteen novels, several collections of poetry and translations, and an autobiography during his lengthy career.

Prokosch was an avid reader and collector of contemporary literature and had begun corresponding with some of the most prominent authors of his time, including W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Robinson Jeffers, and Stephen Spender. Prokosch also developed a keen interest in the printing and design of books. In the early 1930s he started producing small, hand-printed editions of his own writing, as well as work by authors he admired, including those noted above. He began sending copies of these books to their authors as Christmas presents and they were usually well received. Prokosch continued this practice from roughly 1932-1960 and produced more than fifty different pamphlets printing his own poetry and that of others. Although known to booksellers and collectors, they were quite scarce and seldom came on the antiquarian market.

In 1968, Frederic Prokosch arranged for the sale of his literary archives, ironically, at the instigation of John Carter, who was representing Sotheby's at the time. Included with the archive was a set of his privately-printed pamphlets. The archive and the pamphlets sold at auction and Prokosch also agreed to sell duplicate copies of his pamphlets. For the next several years, small groups of these pamphlets--which were known in the trade as the butterfly books because of their small size and brightly-decorated marbled wrappers--were sold at auction. In May 1972, Sotheby's held an auction at which a complete set of the Prokosch pamphlets were sold to Quaritch, Ltd.

Shortly after the sale, Arthur Freeman of Quaritch began to have suspicions about the authenticity of the pamphlets. He called in Nicolas Barker, the noted bibliographer, historian of the book, and co-author of the Sequel to Carter's and Pollard's Enquiry into the Wise forgeries. Barker launched an extensive investigation and proved conclusively that the pamphlets had been printed long after their alleged imprint dates and Prokosch, when presented with the evidence, admitted to the forgeries. Between 1968 and 1970, Prokosch hired a Paris printer to print additional titles in small editions with false imprints. When questioned about the forged pamphlets, Prokosch, who was clearly embarrassed by his action, characterized it as a prank. Still, unlike his predecessor Thomas J. Wise, he confessed to the forgeries and managed to survive this indiscretion with his reputation largely intact. At the time of his death in 1989, his career as a forger was relatively unknown to all but the specialist scholar or bibliophile.

Nicolas Barker.
The Butterfly Books: an Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Twentieth Century Pamphlets. London: Bertram Rota, 1987.

Using the Carter-Pollard Enquiry as his model, Barker's investigation into the Prokosch forgeries is a technical tour-de-force. Barker also provides an interesting account of the life and career of Frederic Prokosch.

The Latest Ferrule W. H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden, 1907-1973.
The Latest Ferrule. [Bryn Mawr], 1934.

This copy contains the bookplate of Frederic Prokosch with an original, signed drawing by him as the frontispiece. His autograph note on the colophon states that the book was "Printed in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, in November 1934. F.P."

Hart Crane, 1899-1932.
Black Tambourine. Paris, 1969.

With an original, signed drawing by Frederic Prokosch. The printed "Paris 1969" imprint on the title page has been pasted over the original forged "Venice 1939" imprint.

Bahnhofstrasse James Joyce, 1882-1941.
Bahnhofstrasse. Lisbon, 1940.

With an original, signed drawing by Frederic Prokosch. An additional sheet containing autograph notes on the publication by Frederic Prokosch, is laid into this copy.

Ezra Pound, 1885-1972.
Coitus. Paris, 1969.

With an original, signed drawing by Frederic Prokosch. The printed "Paris 1969" imprint on the title page has been pasted over the original forged "Venice 1939" imprint.

Prokosch letter

Frederic Prokosch , 1908-1989.
Autograph letter signed to "Dear Mr. Baines," September 1, [1972], 1 p.

In this letter written to Jocelyn Baines, the Managing Director of Bernard Quaritch, Ltd., Prokosch provides details about his forgeries and offers the following, rather weak apology: "It is difficult for me to know how I can apologize to you for this silly and irresponsible business of my ‘mendacious' poetry pamphlets. What then seemed merely a mischievous prank I now recognize as totally idiotic and irresponsible." The letter is part of a small archive Frank Tober acquired which also includes letters from Prokosch to Jocelyn Baines, Lord John Kerr of Sothebys, and John Carter.

Psalmanazar Macpherson Chatterton
Ireland Index Fortsas
Collier Hoaxes
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