Vintage typewriter and stack of books.

Ghostwriting – An Age-Old Business

The activity of ghostwriting is arguably known to anybody. We are perfectly aware from our everyday experience that there are individuals who perform writing services on behalf and in the name of other individuals. Actors, musicians or other public figures, due to lack of time or appropriate skills, usually cannot do without a ghostwriter to put their biographies or memoirs on paper in a stylistically adequate and publishable manner. And what would our politicians be doing if it was not for those hidden forces that write their speeches and public statements? US president John F. Kennedy actually was awarded the Pulitzer Price for his 1956 work Profiles in Courage despite the fact that it was his speech writer Ted Sorensen who did the actual writing. However, anyone who now believes that ghostwriting is a comparatively recent activity is massively mistaken. Rather, ghostwriting has existed for ages.


Ancient Ghostwriting As Logographic Work

We encounter ghostwriters as early as in Ancient times, albeit under different professional titles. At the top of the list are the so-called logographers, i.e. people who in return for payment would write court speeches for plaintiffs and defendants alike. Logographers were high in demand, considering that in Ancient Greece, it was perfectly common for people to defend themselves before court. To give a first known historical example of a logographer, consider Greek rhetorician Lysias. The Attic writer and contemporary of Plato made his living by writing defense and prosecution speeches based on the applicable law for each case. Lysias was praised for his ability to put himself with great empathy in the shoes of the person that commissioned him to write the speech. In addition, it was his stylistic skills as well as the appropriateness of his language use that gave his writings that “certain something“. Of his 32 surviving works, On the murder of Eratosthenes is considered to be the most famous speech of Lysias.


For many, working as a logographer paved the way for a career as an orator. Prominent examples of this include Hypereides, Demosthenes, Deinarchos, and Iskokrates (student of Gorgias and teacher of Lysias and Demosthenes). Moreover, some logographers also acted as historians (e.g. Hekataios), as well as letter writers. Even parts of the letters of Paul are considered by many Bible scholars to be an early example of ghostwriting. Thus, there is broad consensus that the authorship of the letters of Paul does not lie with Paul himself but with several of his students.


During the Roman Imperial Period, meanwhile, anonymous authors were operating under the label of scriptores orationis. Their job was to write individually tailored speeches for senators and Caesars, including the emperors Nero and Domitian, as well as Julius Caesar.


Ghostwriting In The Service Of The Clergy, Science, And Art

Phantom writers proved to be a common phenomenon in the follow-up epochs as well. They even were and still are active “in the name of the Lord”. For centuries, Jesuit ghostwriters have been working in the service of the Vatican and the Pope. To cite a very common example, consider the papal encyclical Mystici corporis Christi, which sets out from the thesis that the Mystical Body of Christ and (Catholic) Church are identical: although issued by Pope Pius XII., it was actually authored by the Dutch Jesuit Sebastian Tromp.


Academic ghostwriting, too, does not exist only since the emergence of ghostwriting agencies which offer their academic writing services to students via newspaper ads or online. Many instances of academic ghostwriting occur as early as the 18th century. In this period, aristocrats and other wealthy people would frequently take advantage of the dire financial situation of scholars. They commissioned scholars to create scholarly works such as doctoral theses so as to obtain academic degrees for themselves. Another example of an early ghostwriter is the philosopher and social theorist Friedrich Engels, taking into account that he is believed to be the author of numerous writings of his ideological companion Karl Marx.


Post-Ancient ghostwriting is not only confined to the area of (human) science, though. Dressing oneself in borrowed robes was an activity also done in art. A first example of a contract writer in art is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. To make ends meet, the genius classical composer not only worked as a concertmaster, court organist, and music teacher. In addition to that, he would also compose music pieces for wealthy people who intended to perform the acquired works while presenting them as their own.


In literature, in turn, there are famous works the authors of which are partially or entirely different from those commonly assumed. Consider, for example, the novels The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo. Though attributed to Alexandre Dumas, it is now an undisputed fact that those works derived from the mind of Auguste Maquet. Other novels attributed to Dumas too came into being in collaboration with other writers who in their capacity as “nègres” (negros) would produce novels on a continuous basis.


Ghostwriting – A Never-Ending Story?

This brief historical outline alone clearly demonstrates one thing: ghostwriting is part of our cultural DNA. Ever since people write, they not only write for themselves but for other people as well. From Ancient times right up to the present, contract writing is a professional activity that touches on various fields, ranging from politics through religion to science and art. Not least for these historical reasons, it is likely to assume that this will remain that way in the future as well.

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