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Cover of first edition (paperback)
|Author||Frederick R. Ewing
|Cover artist||Frank Kelly Freas|
|Genre||Fake novel, Literary hoax|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover & Paperback)|
I, Libertine was a literary hoax that began as a practical joke by late-night radio raconteur Jean Shepherd. Shepherd was highly annoyed at the way that the bestseller lists were being compiled in the mid-1950s. These lists were determined not only from sales figures but also from the number of requests for new and upcoming books at bookstores.
Creation of the hoax
Shepherd urged his listeners to enter bookstores and ask for a book that did not exist. He fabricated the author (Frederick R. Ewing) of this imaginary novel, concocted a title (I, Libertine), and outlined a basic plot for his listeners to use on skeptical or confused bookstore clerks. Fans of the show eventually took it further, planting references to the book and author so widely that demand for the book led to it being listed on The New York Times Best Seller list.
Rife with jokes and wordplay, the novel can still be read as an entertaining historical romance. It tells the story of a social climber who styles himself Lance Courtenay, and most of the plot is closely based on the historical personage Elizabeth Chudleigh. An afterward states "The story of Elizabeth Chudleigh is substantially true ... ." which could easily be taken as part of the hoax, but the deception is double, for the seemingly fantastic story of Elizabeth Chudleigh actually is true.
Bookstores became interested in carrying Ewing's novel, which allegedly had been banned in Boston. When publisher Ian Ballantine, novelist Theodore Sturgeon, and Shepherd met for lunch, Ballantine hired Sturgeon to write a novel based on Shepherd's outline. On September 13, 1956, Ballantine Books published I, Libertine simultaneously in hardcover and paperback editions with Shepherd seen looking as dissolute as possible, as Ewing, in the back cover author's photograph. The proceeds were donated to charity.
The front cover displays a quote: "'Gadzooks,' quoth I, 'but here's a saucy bawd!'". The cover painting by Frank Kelly Freas includes hidden images and inside jokes: The sign on the tavern, Fish & Staff, has a shepherd's staff and an image of a sturgeon, referencing both Sturgeon and Shepherd. A portion of the word often spoken on the air by Shepherd – "Excelsior!" – can be seen on the paperback cover in a triangular area at extreme left, where it is part of the decoration on the coach door. The hardcover dust jacket, with more of the illustration to the left, shows the entire word.
- J. R. Hartley – author of another fictitious book, written after it became famous.
- T. H. White, The Age of Scandal, Faber & Faber, 2011, ISBN 978-0571274765
- An interview with Shepherd on the hoax from Long John Nebel's radio show Long John Nebel's radio show
- Henderson, Carter (1 August 1956). "Ballantine Books Makes Hoax Come True". New York Times. Retrieved 27 February 2014.