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‘Iocus operatus quoque bene’ — Latin for ‘The joke worked too well’

Bret Harte/ National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Above: Bret Harte. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The newly discovered Latin poem, a sensational find surely, made its way into the campus publications of two colleges within two years of its appearance. But no other colleges picked up the piece. Smart move on the part of those others, it turns out.

What was the poem? What were the colleges? What was the fuss all about?

American writer Bret Harte was at the height of his powers in 1870, the year he published ‘Plain Language from Truthful James.’ Harte was good friends with Nathaniel B. Smithers, a lawyer in Dover, DE. Smithers was known for his command of Latin, as well as for his impish sense of humor.

Smithers, no doubt with a twinkle in his eye throughout, translated Harte’s new poem into colloquial Latin, then dressed it up with a forward, also in Latin, which purported to show that the poem derived from an ancient and obscure manuscript. 

N.B. Smithers had been in the first graduating class of Lafayette College (1836). He was frequently present at commencement ceremonies, and served for a term as president of the alumni association there. These things, combined with his deep love and knowledge of Latin, led to a friendship with Dr. Lyman Coleman, professor of Latin. As a prank, Smithers (with Harte’s knowledge) sent Coleman a copy of the ‘ancient’ poem. Coleman was promptly taken in, and saw to it that the poem got published in ‘The Lafayette Monthly,’ in fall 1871. Smithers stayed quiet. Harte stayed quiet. 

Smithers was extremely influential in Delaware’s Republican political circles in the early 1870s. In September of 1872, for example, he was a keynote speaker at the Republican State Convention. Samuel Bancroft was nominated for state senator at that convention. And William F. Smalley, a law graduate of Franklin & Marshall University, was there.

Just 3 months after that convention, the January 1, 1873 issue of Franklin & Marshall’s “College Days” magazine picked up Smithers’ screed, again accepting it as authentic. Smalley’s law firm advertised regularly in “College Days.” Smithers stayed quiet. Harte stayed quiet. 

Front cover of College Days magazine, January 1873 / Franklin & Marshall College Library
Franklin & Marshall College Library

It all seemed like harmless fun until Samuel Bancroft sent his copy of Smithers’ poem to the New York Herald, calling out Bret Harte as a plagiarist, a fraud.

“Bret Harte was caught,” related the NY Times. “Here was his ‘Plain Language from Truthful James’ all complete, word for word, verse for verse, jingle for jingle. And Dover waxed wroth. The bold, bad man should be pilloried. His shame should be known to all men. The literati of the dear little puffed up town made copies of the dingy Latin sentences on the ragged yellow parchment and sallied forth to purify the literary atmosphere.

“The Delaware newspapers chronicled the remarkable find and communications poured in on the rural press excoriating the base penny-a-liner who had dared to resurrect an ancient poem and turn it boldly into English rhyme with not so much original work as the change of a punctuation mark! Mr. Smithers did not join in the clamor for poor Harte’s scalp. 

“Soon the letters denunciatory extended beyond Delaware. A New England journal that represented Boston culture gave room to a contributor in a most learned disquisition on the subject. 

N.B. Smithers / "Memoir of Nathaniel B. Smithers". 1899. Frontispiece.
N.B. Smithers / “Memoir of Nathaniel B. Smithers”. 1899. Frontispiece.

“Mr. Bret Harte was as silent as Mr. N.B. Smithers. Why he was so quiet nobody knew, until one day the New England journal of high Boston culture came out with a little paragraph that the New York Herald copied with much more alacrity than explanation. It read: ‘That Latin version of the Plain Language from Truthful James which has provoked much discussion in literary circles is finally found to be merely a clever hoax perpetrated by an admirer of Bret Harte.’ ”

The NY Times observed, with great mirth, that all the hot air could have been avoided, if only the recipients of Smithers’ poem had noticed “the small faced modern type printed modestly in a lower corner of the ragged sheet: “Bret Harte’s poems, put into Latin verse by N.B. Smithers and printed for him on this ancient bit of parchment just for an experiment’s sake.”

Bret Harte’s papers are today held at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas/Austin. His papers contain two letters pertinent to our story. I wish I could tell you, dear reader, how they ended up in Harte’s possession. I just don’t know.

Letter #1: Nathaniel Smithers sent the original handwritten version of his poem to Samuel Bancroft on April 1, 1886, less than 6 months after the NY Times article above.

Nathaniel Smithers died in January 1896. 

Letter #2: Samuel Bancroft sent a letter to William F. Smalley at the end of October 1897 containing the only 3 typescript copies of the Smithers poem known to have been circulated.

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