PURLOINED LETTERS

PURLOINED LETTERS

Are we too quick to denounce plagiarism?

BY JAMES R. KINCAID

from
THE NEW YORKER, JANUARY 20, 1997
pages 93-97


EARLY in 1992, Neal Bowers read a poem that carried with it a bouquet of familiarity-at first faint, and then strong, stronger, strongest. The poem, David Sumner's "Someone Forgotten," began like this:

He is too heavy and careless, my father,
always leaving me at rest-stops, coffee shops,
some wide spot in the road. I come out,
rubbing my hands on my pants or levitating
two foam cups of coffee, and I can't find him
anywhere, that beat-up Ford gone.

Bowers was struck by the resemblance of this poem to his own "Tenth-Year Elegy," published in Poetry a couple of years before. You be the judge:

Careless man, my father,
always leaving me at rest stops,
coffee shops, some wide spot in the road.
I come out, rubbing my hands on my pants
or levitating two foam cups of coffee,
and can't find him anywhere,
those banged-up fenders gone.

Beyond the title and the first few words, one is hard pressed to find differences. Sumner makes two additional changes in this stanza, both terrible: the insertion of an "I" in the penultimate line louses up the rhythm, and the substitution of the cliché "beat-up Ford" for the evocative "banged-up fenders" is a fool's amendment. As revisionist, Sumner is bungling; as plagiarist, immensely successful. Whatever the quality of his changes, the remarkable fact is that he makes hardly any. After altering the title and the first line, doubtless to escape detection by way of indexes, Sumner simply fiddles with the line breaks and every so often slaps down a synonym.

Bowers had the dizzying sense of looking into a mirror only to behold David Sumner. Still reeling, he soon caught up with Sumner, again and repeatedly, in a growing number of respectable poetry journals: Sumner's "My Careless Father," "My Forgetful Father," and "Father's Forgetfulness" , for instance, were identical to "Someone Forgotten," which, you will recall, was just about identical to Bowers's "Tenth-Year Elegy." Sumner was, as it were, plagiarizing himself plagiarizing Bowers. Looking in other journals, Bowers found Sumner's "Aspects of Death," "Courtesies," and "The Visitor" all copies of a poem by Bowers entitled "RSVP." Sumner - sometimes calling himself Diane Compton, but actually a man named David Jones - turns out to be a blazing human Xerox machine, who has published dozens of times in dozens of journals. In "Words for the Taking" (Norton; $17), Neal Bowers-a professor of English at Iowa State as well as a poet-describes how this stalker-copier ("my plagiarist") agitates the life of this victim-poet somehow manages to evade the full light of justice. Bowers, employing both a lawyer and a detective, ended up with cringing letters from Jones but never his physical presence, much less retribution. All of this left Bowers considerably out of pocket, but with an elegantly written and compelling cry of outrage.

Sumner/Compton/Jones is a cheat, no doubt about it; and now and then we run across other cases of plagiarism that shut before they are open. For instance, one of my own students turned in a paper on "Great Expectations" which was an exact copy of Dorothy Van Ghent's essay - an essay so celebrated that I recognized it right off and, at the first opportunity, raised the issue with my student. "Shit!" she said. "I paid seventy-five dollars for that." It did seem a cruel turn of the screw to have term-paper companies selling plagiarized essays for students to plagiarize; but ethics are ethics, I told my student.

I could speak loftily on the subject because the ethical issues in her case were so clear-cut. They aren't always. When the story of Neal Bowers's plagiarist was picked up by the newspapers, Bowers was gratified to find that journalists viewed the offense with the same clarity that he did. "For them, plagiarism was not an occasion for philosophical maundering but for indignation and action," he writes. "Because their world is a pragmatic one built on facts, journalists see plagiarism for what it is-the theft of someone else's creative and intellectual property. Journalists who plagiarize are ruined."

Actually, what's plain is that newspaper editors tend to be as busy denouncing plagiarism as reporters, columnists, and bureau chiefs are committing it. Journalists, of course, often quote the same source: they use wire services, they use computer searches, they patch and scratch and snitch a little, and always have. Curiously, the denunciation of plagiarism gets louder as the practice gets closer. The Columbia Journalism Review examined twenty prominent and often lightly punished cases of journalistic plagiarism which surfaced between 1988 and 1995 and ranged from transporting twelve paragraphs from another's story for a fifteen-paragraph piece to stealing five paragraphs for a story on a plagiarized commencement address.

The most widely publicized of these cases was that of Ruth Shalit, whose youthful journalistic triumphs were mounting so fast that one had the feeling this was bound to happen: at least four plagiarism accusations within a year. Writing brilliantly for The New Republic and, later, for GQ and the Times Magazine, she fell into these scrapes, she say,, through the windows on her computer: one window (her notes) opened too breezily onto another (her text). Journalists often seem to have difficulty knowing which window they've climbed in through or, once in, how to keep the words of others from shinnying up the trellis. Shalit's easy access windows allowed sentences of a National journal piece written by Peter Stone to appear virtually, but not entirely, unaltered in an essay she did for the Times Magazine. Here's Stone:

He left to join the old-line Washington corporate law firm of Hogan & Hanson. But although Bennett spent five years at the firm, he never quite fit into its culture-partly because of his brash style and partly because of his budding interest in developing a white- collar criminal defense practice, something that Hogan & Hanson appeared to have little interest in.

Here's Shalit:

He joined the old-line firm of Hogan & Hartson. He spent five years there but never quite fit into the culture, partly because of his boisterous style and partly because of his interest in developing a white-collar criminal defense practice, something that didn't seem to interest Hogan & Harston.

Shalit tightens Stone's prose in ways that some might applaud if Shalit were an editor: "interest" is better than "budding interest" and "boisterous" says more than "brash." Such improvements do not, of course, constitute what most regard as thoroughgoing originality. But then journalism is less often a matter of thoroughgoing originality than it is a series of artful textual variations on stories with no dear point of originatories employing language that is boilerplate anyway. It's easy to imagine Neal Bowers's outrage when a work written to commemorate the tenth anniversary of his father's death is published as the work of another, and is mangled in the process. What's curious is that anyone should have professed similar indignation over what Shalit did. Can we not distinguish Shalit from Sumner? Is "budding interest in developing a white-collar criminal defense practice" a phrase, even without the buds, worthy of being declared "original"? Should we be marshalhng our legal forces to protect it?

A KIND of workaday swapping of stories is common among reporters and correspondents - a swapping that sometimes extends to the way stories are structured, the major points of emphasis, key phrases, even sentences. This non-felonious copying is especially evident among foreign correspondents, who, cast among strange peoples in other lands, seem to seek out the company of other foreign correspondents and their words.

Not so long ago, most of the major American papers covered a Protestant march in Londonderry - a march that had dreatened a great deal of violence, because it had been planned to direct rabid Protestants along city walls overlooking the Catholic Bogside section. Last - minute compromises resulted in a different routing and little combat, but the coverage steamed forward all the same. This is how Shawn Pogatchnik, a reporter for the Associated Press - a wire service that provides bought-and-paid-for fodder for other journalists summarized the situation in his second paragraph:

The 15,000-strong Apprentice Boys, the pro-British Protestant fraternal order in this mostly Catholic town, decided not to face off with soldiers. Instead they marched through the predominantly Protestant east side of Londonderry.

Here, in order, are the second paragraphs written by Kevin Cullen, of the Boston Globe; Fred Barbash, of the Washington Post; and Louis J. Salome, of the Atlanta Journal- Constitution:

The Apprentice Boys, a Protestant fraternal orgarazation, decided not to defy a British government decision that barred them from walking on a section of the city's 400-year-old walls overlooking the Bogside, a Catholic neighborhood.

Some 15,000 members of a traditionalist Protestant fraternal order, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, paraded proudly if -bitterly through the streets of this historic walled city as scheduled, but chose not to challenge a police blockade preventing them from passing close to a Catholic neighborhood.

The Apprentice Boys of Derry chose not to challenge the blockade that prevented them from passing close to a Catholic neighborhood.

This is typical of the theme-and-variation techniques of the modern correspondent; and, once in a while, there is less variation than theme. Shawn Pogatchnik goes on to report on the troubles in the nearby town of Dunloy:

But in the Catholic village of Dunloy, 35 miles east, residents cut down a tree to block a road, while police closed roads leading into town and fired plastic bullets to restore order. No serious injuries were reported.

And here is Louis J. Salome's version of this news:

But in the Catholic village of Dunloy 35 miles east, residents cut down a tree to block a road while police closed roads leading into town and fired plastic bullets to restore order. No serious injuries were reported.

Such word-byword agreement certainly isn't culpable where a wire service is involved, and, in any event, seems little more than a signal of brisk workmanship.

Often, the language arranges itself in ways so trite and predictable that taking it in is hardly a conscious act. Honoring such language almost feels like saluting the cook of yesterday's oatmeal. If I write, "Plagiarism is indeed a complicated subject," have I originated anything at all? In Dickens's "Pickwick Papers," one Count Smorltork, the "famous foreigner" writing a book on England, mentions politics to Mr. Pickwick. Mr. Pickwick declares, "The word politics, sir, comprises, in itself, a difficult study of no inconsiderable magnitude." "Ah," says the Count, "ver good - fine words to begin a chapter. Chapter forty-seven. Poltics. The word poltic surprises by himself-"

The Count, like Ruth Shalit, is only improving things. What's clear is that not all plagiarisms are the same, nor is originality a simple concept. It's just that plagiarism is so important to us that we seldom think about it. Indeed, the word plagiarism comprises, in itself, a difficult study of no inconsiderable magnitude. As for defining it, we leave that to the officials-in this example, Northwestem University: "A conscientious writer always distinguishes clearly between what has been learned from others and what he or she is personally contributing to the reader's understanding." But how do I distinguish what I have "learned from others" from what I am "personally contributing"? If I subtract everything I have learned from others (including Mother?), what is left? Neal Bowers argues that scholars feel particularly anxious about the subject of plagiarism because of the "cumulative nature of scholarly work." He observes, "One person's research builds upon everyone else's, and footnotes don't always itemize the total debt. Virtually every scholar believes himself to have been plaglarized and, conversely, worries that his neighbors will find their work unattested in his." That's why even so outrageous a figure as David Jones can inspire in honest writers "feelings of vulnerability," of doubt concerning their own originality. Jones is, in fact, a nimble sociopath-a man who variously presented himself as living in Japan, as some other David Sumner, and as his own brother. Some of Bowers's colleagues seem worried that Jones is their brother.

BUT, no doubt because there's so much uncertainty around, fervent denunciations of plagiarists are popular: out-and-out plagiarists are criminals who safeguard the idea of originality they threaten, giving us conscience-clearing villains to hiss. They copy; we don't. Politicians are always popular targets: Joseph Biden, who apparently plagiarized even his acknowledgment of plagiarism; John F. Kennedy, whose "Ask not what" line was lifted from Oliver Wendell Holmes by way of Warren G. Harding; my own local congressman, who is given to saying that he is neither a borrower nor a lender. Two employees of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Ned Feder and Walter Stewart, went as far as to devise a machine for divining plagiarism. The machine actually a computer program-can scan any number of books and spot matches of thirty-character strings. Their first target, a historian, had already been cleared of the charge of plagiarism by the American Historical Association, and the zealous Feder and Stewart were soon reassigned. But I expect that they took their detector with them.

Perhaps they should turn to the literary canon: the number of great writers who were plagiarists has often been noted. Shakespeare loved to poach words from his surprisingly limited sources, among them Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch: Volumnia's plea to her son, in "Coriolanus" (V, 3), is, Harry Levin says, "eloquently massive" but still "scarcely more than a metrical adaptation of North's prose." A little like Sumner, then, Shakespears copied it out and rearranged it a bit, as one might do to refit a suit stolen from J. C. Penney. To Shakespeare could be added Montaigne, John Webster, Ben Jonson, Sterne, Dryden, Lessing, Diderot, Coleridge, De Quincey, Charles Reade, Plato, and thousands more. So many that we might start to wonder, as we compile our list, whether "plagiarism" has always meant what it now means to us.

JUST as we suspected, our idea of plagiarism is in fact local and of recent birth. "All men delight in imitations," Aristotle says, and in his time the matter to be imitated was common property. The idea that words, ideas, texts were originated privately was not honored much in the classical world, and many have said that it was meaningless to the medieval, where writing was connected not to personality but to a total coherence provided by God.

Coupling texts to authors was a slow process, which has been traced in a number of excellent studies, the best of them being Mark Rose's 1993 "Authors and Owners." Copyright, developing after Caxton's printing press got going, in the midfifteenth century, became the means by which the idea of "the author" and then "the originating author" could, by the late eighteenth century, take hold. At first, though, copyright was simply a way for the Crown to control the spread of seditious or heretical material, by granting a monopoly on printing to the Stationers' Company guild to censor and to settle disputes among printers concerning the piracy of texts. It wasn't until 1710, with the Statute of Anne, that England formauy acknowledged the rights of authors, even in a limited way; and, gradually, throughout the century, the notion of "literary worK" and "the author" took on the shapes that we recognize and therefore suppose to be natural and universal. The causes of such a massive shift-the rise of printing, Renaissance humanism, capitalism, democracy, individualism, Romanticism, you name it - are less my concern than the fact that it is all so recent and so jarring, so decidedly unnatural. Not only are "author" and "worik" newfangled ideas but, it appears, there are still a few bugs in the system.

In modern dress, the work looks like a detached object, not part of a larger system of culture or religion or language. Writing is no longer a rhetorical act (teaching and delighting) but the manufacture of a product or the eruption of genius, pretty much the same thing in the eyes of the law. The product is property that can be owned and protected on behalf of its owner, the originator.

Not everyone supports such a notion, of course. T. S. Eliot took a dim view of it, and so did Goethe ("My work is the work of a collective being") and Roland Barthes ("It is language which speaks, not the author"). Helen Keller, upon being accused of plagiarism, answered, "It is certain that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read becomes the very substance and text of my mind."

Keller's insight is the cornerstone of structuralism: the mind is formed in and through language, not outside it. The Latin plagiarius refers to the kidnapping of slaves-a metaphor that was extended to the heisting of words by the Roman poet Martial, who evidently regarded himself as the master of his slave words. Structuralism argues that he has it the wrong way around. The mind does not claim language but is claimed by it and comes to an understanding only in reference to what language offers. "Poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels," Northrop Frye declared in his "Anatomy of Criticism." Ridiculing Romantic notions of individuality and the copyright laws protecting those notions, Frye pointed out that it is illogical to think of an individual as "prior to his society"-that we, like poems, come into being within structures already in place, one of which is the structure of literary forms. This anti-Romantic tradition, denying originality seems to theorize what Montaigne and John Webster practiced.

What is plagiarism in such a world? In Philip Roth's "Letting Go," one of his heroines, Libby, clears off the breakfast table, pulls out a yellow pad, and starts her career as a poet. Chewing the pencil for a bit, she writes, "Already with thee! Tender is the night." Further tries produce "The expense of spirit in a waste of sliame," and so forth. Some poets, Frye would say, disguise things better than Libby but, all in all, poems are made by piracy-and only trees can make a tree.

Still, the law lumbers on as if nothing more complicated than cattle rustling were involved. According to Oliver Wendell Holmes, the law protects that "something irreducible" in art, that "which is one man's alone," the distinctiveness that Holmes saw in every personality. The United States Constitution recognizes "the exclusive Right" of authors to their writings; the 1976 Copyright Act promises to protect "original works of authorship." The courts hold that phone books-or, at least, the white pages-do not imply a creator; a translation does. An idea is one thing, the law maintains, and the expression of it is another-and on and on, building legal castles on what literary theory warns is the quicksand of language. But the World Wide Web is likely to prove more of a threat to conventional notions of property than any pedigreed theorist. Who will police property in cyberspace, with words going who knows where and coming from who knows where, folding in on themselves, lawless and rootless?

Even educators may be learning how not just to punish but to employ plagiarism, or something very like it. Studying the ways in which languages are acquired and the ways in which we are develop facility within a language system, many literacy experts are rediscovering the power of copying. Copying, or imitatiing, they say is vital to gaining initial entry into a discourse. The report that your fifth grader lifted from the encyclopedia, then, should not cause you such anguish. Nor should I worry overmuch that some of this very essay came from encyclopedia like sources. At any rate, you will need a good plagiarism machine to locate them, as I was not born last Thanksgiving.

What all of this suggests is that we might try to entertain the idea that plgiarism, and even originality, are relative concepts. Plagiarism is best understood not as a sharply defined operation, like beheading, but as a whole range of activities, more like cooking, which varies from deliberate poisoning to the school cafeteria to mother's own.

"The problem is originality and the difficulty of saying anything new," Bowers concedes. "To a great extent, all of us who write are simply repeating those who have written before us and, occasionally, duplicating one another." Nor is Bowers an exception. He tells us about wincing when he encountered a poem, by Mary Oliver, that seemed uncannily similar to one that he himself later published:

I did not have a conscious thought about Mary Oliver or her work while drafting the poem. The claim is difficult to substantiate outside my own recollection, however, and if some literary detective should allege I cribbed most of my poem from Oliver, how could I possibly defend myself? Freshman composition students have been skewered with flimsier evidence.

Most of us will cede that absolutely pure "originality' is an over- the-rainbow idea; none of us invent the language we employ, our education, our culture, or our history. Most people would also agree that Shakespeare, though he copied now and then, is original anyway, compared with David Sumner or my student. lf we can acknowledge that originality is relative, existing on a scale, then we may even grudgingly admit that plagiarism must also be. That would put us on the road to releasing some of our personal anxieties about getting caught with our fingers softly around someone else's pen.

The plagiarism proctor, after all, doesn't have it so good. He lives in a nightmare world filled with thieves or, worse, abductors. All his neighbors lie in wait to snatch and misuse, pollute and defile his words. Wash them as he win, they can never be clean again. He is sickened by the idea that he might invite other voices in, that his words might be a chorus, that writing might be a party of quotation, allusion, pastiche. His vision often seems to reach no further than secured tidiness: a padlocked library, with every word in its place, dusted and correctly filed.

If we loosen our grim clutch on purist ideas of originality, we may actually locate more clearly what kinds of copying do in fact offend and how we milrht deal with them. As it is, we not only do little to help those who, like Neal Bowers, really are wounded but get ourselves in a tizzy worrying about harmless acts, standard practice, unavoidable short trips into the common ground of language and thought. The authorities can take care of the few who cause pain. As for the David Joneses of the world, I say lock 'em up. As for the rest, who cares? I wouldn't want to be marooned on a desert island with a term-paper-company C.E.O. But Shakespeare would be agreeable, or Coleridge, or Count Smorltork.