Unmasking a literary lion

A century ago, a fictional writer named David Grayson gained fame beyond Dickinson, Frost

  • This bookshelf and books are among the items once owned by David Grayson that now reside in a room of the Jones Library Special Collections dedicated to him. KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jones Library Curator of Special Collections Cynthia Harbeson prepares a display case for an exhibit of materials from the library’s David Grayson archives. KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Jones Library will present a program Saturday on the early 20th- century Amherst writer who used the name David Grayson. KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 3/11/2016 4:38:16 PM

AMHERST — The town where Emily Dickinson lived all her life, and Robert Frost lived much of his, will honor a third writer in residence who was much more popular than either poet a century ago.

He went by the name of David Grayson. His simple stories of country charms and human generosity captivated readers, and his nine books sold over 2 million copies. They inspired David Grayson clubs and were translated into many languages, even Braille.

But readers did not know who he really was. Between 1906 and 1916, the fictional David Grayson received thousands of fan letters and impostors gave lectures claiming to be the famous writer. His true identity was a well-kept secret that not even the books’ illustrator knew.

The writer known as David Grayson lived in Amherst from 1913 until his death in 1946. On Saturday, the Jones Library will hold a program about Grayson to mark the 100th anniversary of the month when the name of the true writer was revealed.

It will include readings from his books and a revival of the old TV show “To Tell the Truth,” in which three residents will portray writers who might have written the books, and attendees will guess which one is the real David Grayson.

Only then will his true identity be revealed, mirroring the revelation of 100 years ago. The program will start at 10:30 a.m. in the Special Collections section on the second floor of the library.

Grayson’s pull

“David Grayson is an important figure in Amherst history and American history,” said Cynthia Harbeson, the curator of special collections. “We want to raise awareness of who Grayson was.”

Visitors come to the library from all over the world to see the extensive collections of Dickinson and Frost papers and memorabilia. The library also has 46 boxes of letters to and clippings about David Grayson that are much less commonly requested.

“I find it fascinating that Grayson’s identity was the question everyone wanted to know the answer to 100 years ago, but today he’s not well known at all,” Harbeson said. “And the reverse is true for Emily Dickinson, who was unknown in her lifetime but is famous now.”

Grayson’s books were read all over the English-speaking world, and one went through 40 printings in England. He portrayed himself as an educated man who has left the city to live on a farm. He liked to walk around visiting friends and meeting strangers, often quoting the Bible and Shakespeare.

Grayson is patient and understanding with his rural neighbors, and shows respect for the humblest citizens. His books “helped make people understand and enjoy their lives a little more deeply and fully, by presenting the beauty of neighborliness, the richness of the quiet life, and the charm of common things,” the actual author wrote.

The books had titles like “Adventures in Contentment,” “Adventures in Friendship,” and “The Friendly Road.” A mix of essay, philosophy and observation, Grayson’s articles and books resonated deeply with readers in an era of urbanization and worldwide war.

A passage

In “Adventures in Friendship,” he wrote: “Contentment, and indeed usefulness, comes as the infallible result of great acceptances, great humilities, of not trying to make ourselves this or that (to conform to some dramatized version of ourselves), but of surrendering ourselves to the fullness of life, of letting life flow through us.”

One reviewer wrote of his books, “They give a feeling of respect for honest work, of admiration for manliness and independence.” A magazine ad for the Grayson books in 1926 called him “America’s most popular philosopher.”

The Grayson stories first appeared in McClure’s magazine in 1906, and later in The American magazine. Originally conceived by panicked editors as a way to fill space in the next issue, their popularity was a complete surprise.

The actual writer, whose articles appeared in the same pages under his real name, admitted to being jealous of his alter ego.

“They who read Grayson with sympathy and enlightenment are strangely conscious that here is a loyal, familiar and well-approved friend,” a British magazine wrote in 1927. “Here is a man who has thought our thoughts for us, and who has given the soul of those thoughts their appropriate body in words.”

Letters to Grayson flowed in to the magazines from nostalgic elderly people, students, men who missed rural life and women with romantic intentions.

“Yours was a new gospel of life to us, urging to beauty, simplicity and the commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest things that came nearest happiness,” wrote Ethel G. Bradley.

Dan O’Brien wrote from Shanghai, where he was stationed on an American ship: “You have made me forget for a time that I was in a place where dreamers are not wanted.” G. W. Elderkin of Pasadena, California, wanted to know if “Adventures in Contentment” was based on personal experience and if Grayson was a regular churchgoer (the real writer wasn’t). “He comes nearer to being a real Christian than anyone I know,” Elderkin wrote.

Many readers asked for Grayson’s address, or his photo, or invited him to visit. “Any time you come out this way, drop off the trail and stop at my camp,” wrote Louis Eytinge of Florence, Arizona.

Many of these letters will be on exhibit at the Jones Library starting on March 12.

Clamor for disclosure

The publishers responded to all the letters, saying that the Grayson stories are “partly fiction and partly fact” and that the writer “lives on a small New England farm” and “as a letter-writer he is quite hopeless.”

But the longer that Grayson’s identity remained a secret, the more rumors spread and pressure built for disclosure.

“You are doing readers a flagrant injustice unless you tell them who David Grayson is. We can’t wait another year to find out. Some of us will explode!” wrote Dorothy Seward of Nebraska. W. H. G. Temple of Seattle wrote to Grayson, “Are you real or imaginary?”

There were at least six David Grayson imposters, one of whom convinced a woman to marry him by telling her he was the famous author. It was an early form of identity theft. In Denver, detectives and newspaper reporters cornered a man who gave lectures claiming to be David Grayson and confronted him with a telegram from the real publishers.

A Maine writer named David Gray and an Atlanta attorney actually named David Grayson insisted that they were not the author of the famous stories.

Other writers who were suspected of writing the Grayson stories issued statements saying they hadn’t.

The Grayson stories both captured and contributed to a greater interest in simple living as a way to alleviate the stress of a changing society. Grayson was a link between 19th century New England writers like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and the 20th century back-to-the-land movement inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing.

The unmasking of David Grayson 100 years ago this month stunned many people, because the real writer was known for hard-hitting journalism in a different style.

On Saturday, the Jones Library will re-enact that unmasking.

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