By day, Bill Peschel is a copyeditor and page designer at the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
But at night, he delves into his five-thousand-book library, at his home in Hershey. For the past sixteen years there, he’s collected anecdotes of famous authors behaving badly.
The Naughty Authors Of Indiana
Boozing, drugging, having affairs, committing plagiarism and murder—for Peschel, it all goes to show that literary geniuses are as human as the rest of us.
The stories he’s amassed have been collected in his first book, Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature’s Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes. The writers that interest him range far and wide, but Indiana’s own are not exempt from strange behavior.
The Terre Haute Bore
Literary giant Theodore Dreiser was born in Terre Haute and attended Indiana University. “He was noted,” Peschel says, “for throwing one of the dullest literary parties in history. Which was really surprising, considering F. Scott Fitzgerald and H.L. Mencken were there, and both of them were very party-hardy types.”
Dreiser was also fired from a St. Louis newspaper when he was a reporter, when he reviewed a concert that never happened. He wrote it ahead of time, but then the concert was canceled due to bad weather. That was not the only time Dreiser tried to pull one over on his readership. Peschel tells the story:
He got into a fight with Sinclair Lewis, where Lewis accused him of plagiarizing a book that Lewis’ wife had written about Russia. They had gone over in the ’30s to tour Russia and to come back and write about the glories of Socialism. In that case they were probably both plagiarizing the material that they had been given by the Russians. So it wasn’t like he was stealing actively from her, but of course Sinclair Lewis saw it differently. He publicly accused Dreiser and called him several names I can’t repeat here. Dreiser confronted him afterwards and slapped him. Back then, because writers were so big in the culture, that made headlines around the world. There was even a promoter who offered to sponsor a bout between the two in New York City, but nothing ever came of that.
The Kokomo Faker
Peschel’s book tells the story of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, who got himself into trouble by committing a hoax.
He was working for a Kokomo, Indiana newspaper, and he had made the point that in order for a poem to be popular, it had to be by somebody famous. So he wrote this poem in the style of Edgar Allen Poe, and he got it placed in the paper. Then he wrote an article anonymously, for another newspaper, and claimed that the poem was a hoax. That started a fight between the various newspapers as to whether this was a poem by Edgar Allen Poe or not. Well, the poem spread, and eventually somebody said, “Wait a minute—this is fake,” and Riley was exposed. He ended up getting fired from his newspaper job for it.
Bill Peschel’s stories don’t end there. As he puts it, “Gosh, I’ve got enough material for a second book [about writers misbehaving]. But I’ve got a proposal [in the works currently] for Hollywood Gone Wild.”
- Read more examples of writers behaving badly on Bill Peschel’s Web site.