Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Memiors of Jean Laffite??

I’ve been yapping about America’s most famous pirate a lot this week because editor Matt Hilton was kind enough to include my story, "The Judgment of Jean Lafitte" in the new anthology ACTION: Pulse Pounding Tales Vol. 1 (available HERE).

This week we've looked at the real Lafitte from several different angles. Today we discuss his memoirs. Or do we?

It has long been believed that Lafitte died sometime in the 1820s in the Gulf of Mexico. But is it possible he survived, changed his name and moved to St. Louis, where he raised a family and lived until 1854, dying of pneumonia at age 72?

The answer is . . . Well, Jeez, with Jean Lafitte, dang near anything is possible.

The manuscript eventually published in 1999 as The Memoirs of Jean Laffite first came to the attention of Lafitte historians in the 1940s. A very strange individual by the name of John A. Lafitte turned up in New Orleans claiming to the great grandson of the great pirate. In a suitcase, along with other family documents, he carried a manuscript, handwritten in French, said to be a journal of Jean Lafitte.

 This painting, supposedly depicting Lafitte in 1804,
was part of the John A. Lafitte collection.

John A. Lafitte was exceedingly paranoid, giving hints of the document’s contents to many but showing it to few. His goal, he said, was to sell the manuscript to someone who would have it published.  He spent the next fifteen years being secretive and evasive with a succession of Lafitte scholars, eventually alienating them all. Finally he had the document translated by a group of nuns, and it was published in 1958 as The Journal of Jean Laffite*.

At about the same time, a new biography called Jean Laffite, Gentleman Rover, was published by Stanley Clisby Arthur. Arthur had been given access to most or all of the “Journal” and treated its contents as fact in his book. That’s when the real controversy began.

Historians have been squabbling over the issue ever since. Is it real or fake? Or part real and part fake? Soon after the Journal’s publication, a number of self-proclaimed experts branded the work a forgery and were generally believed. But in the years since new discoveries have come to light. And it's been shown that the “experts” had either misrepresented their qualifications, were commenting purely on hearsay, or had other axes to grind.

Meanwhile, the “Journal” was found be poorly translated, and not really a journal at all, but a memoir. So a new translation was prepared, resulting in this book, The Memoirs of Jean Laffite.

The lengthy introduction detailing the manuscript’s history is a fascinating detective story. I had read that introduction before, but not the rest of the book. Not until now.

NOW I understand what all the controversy is about. My gut tells me that much of detailed information contained in this document is real. If it did not come from Lafitte himself, it had to have come from records kept by him or someone close to him. On the other hand, my gut tells me that some of this is NOT real, and that some unknown writer was exploiting Lafitte’s notoriety to expound his own opinions.

You see the dilemma. It’s almost impossible to separate fact from fiction here, or to separate what might be real Lafitte from phony Lafitte.

Some passages present lengthy and detailed descriptions of significant events in Lafitte’s life. Other passages are made up of scattered thoughts - brief paragraphs focusing on unrelated events, memories or observations.

As if this isn’t confusing enough, there is a good deal of political diatribe. The author describes his lifetime war against both Spain and England, and often takes the U.S. to task for being untrue to the principals of the Declaration of Independence. He refers to his smuggling bases in Grand Terre and Galveston as his “communes”, and later claims to have donated large sums of money to Marx and Engels to help save the world from “wage slavery”.

So what’s the bottom line? Did Lafitte write this (or part of it) or not? Did he really move to St. Louis and create a new identity? Heck, I can’t decide. All I’m sure of is that this manuscript merits much further study.

* We touched on the Lafitte/Laffite earlier this week. I think it's silly to be changing the spelling of his name after 150 years, just because he signed it both ways. So he wasn't a great speller. So what?

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