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National Review / December 21, 1979

The Oldest Profession

The Honest Man’s Guide to Plagiarism

by John Greenway

Stone Age cave drawings
Stone Age cave drawings / by Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay

The crepuscular activity of plagiarism is roughly half as old as civilization. There is hardly a motif in primitive myth that does not approach universality, despite the modern supposition that distances and earthly obstacles made trade and theft impossible in the Old Stone Age.

One could make a tenable case that plagiarism as we know it began as an ecclesiastical crime. The early Fathers of the Church, rejected gospellers, in fact every cleric who could put pen to parchment ignored the Eighth Commandment. Even Christianity itself took its best myths from its rival proletarian religion, Mithraism. When sermons intruded into the Mass, the first great literary trade sermon-stealing arose immediately and has thriven for nearly two thousand years without congregations being aware that their priests’ eloquence was swotted out of source books.

Plagiarism was so common in the churches by the time of King James that he had to order that at least one sermon a month be original. When, eventually, the practice was officially condemned, the practitioners merely aggravated the sin with an alloy of hypocrisy. Bishop Conyers Middleton in the eighteenth century excoriated plagiarism, though his own high reputation as a biographer of Cicero rested on what he stole from William Belleaden. At the same time, the Reverend William Innes was appointed Rector of Wrabness for writing a book on Moral Virtue out of a manuscript he borrowed from his friend the Reverend A. Campbell.

But it didn’t start with Christendom. Vergil, Demosthenes, Sophocles, Aeschines, Isocrates, and Plutarch did not let the comparative lack of source prevent them from filching the best of their predecessors. Warnings and indictments did not deter: Martial, who extended plagium (the word for slave-stealing) to cover literary theft, was plagiarized for at least 1,600 years from his contemporary Fidentinus to the expelled schoolboy Tom Brown, who was reinstated for turning Martial’s 32nd epigram into “I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.”

The Internal Revenue Service did not invent the device of bending a constitutional law to justify a theft. Milton stated a principle that obtained through hundreds of years of English writing when he said that “borrowing without beautifying is a plagiary.” In a naive True Story age when borrowings were praised and imaginings condemned, Chaucer was highly regarded as a “great translator” for his stealings. The man with the least reason to take the work of another, William Shakespeare, anticipated John Milton’s rationalization, but did not deceive the tragic Robert Greene, who in his Groatsworth of Wit made the first literary allusion to him:For there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes fac toturn, is in his own conceit the only Shakescene in a country.

Every one of Shakespeare’s plays was worked up from someone else’s genius except Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the odds are 37 to 1 that this is an exception only because the source has not yet been found.

Shakespeare has had a unique punishment: he has been suspected of being merely a front for other writers. Though one crank insisted that Shakespeare was Marlowe, and actually dug up the remains of Sir Thomas Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster (in whose employ Marlowe worked and was murdered), to prove his point, such cranks generally are lumped together as Baconians. Those who can find Shakespeare’s style in Francis Bacon were certainly intended for other things than English literature, but they are irrepressible. Their delusion was launched in that glorious pre-dawn of Women’s Liberation by a certified female nut named Delia Bacon (she died in an insane asylum), sponsored by the Boston Booby, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Every serious student of Shakespeare has been trapped at least once in his lifetime by a Baconian.

One of my professors at the University of Pennsylvania in the Forties was once deceived into attending a dinner of Baconians. Professor Black, who once spent an entire class period reciting a bibliography of books on Shakespeare all titled Shakespeare the Man, sat politely silent as the principal speaker reiterated the standard crypto-graphic argument. Asked to make a postprandial comment, Professor Black took from the table a soda cracker on which was engraved the name of the baker, meticulously broke it into neat lettered squares like Scrabble pieces, and re-arranged them thus: N A B I S C OB A C O N I S

Calling the dignitaries at the head table to gather round, he showed them that Francis Bacon was alive and well and living it up as the founder of the National Biscuit Company.

After Shakespeare, the most outrageous plagiarist was Laurence Sterne, almost as improbable a literary thief as the Bard himself. He stole from Swift, Burton, Bolingbroke, Rabelais, Montaigne, Erasmus, Scarton, and Cervantes, among others, and then sanctimoniously deplored plagiarism in the words of Burton. Scott in his biography of Sterne recalls Dr. Ferrier clearly showing “that Sterne was the most unhesitating plagiarist who ever cribbed from his predecessors in order to garnish his own pages.”

Heretics who, like me, consider the Romantic Poets egregiously overrated will be pleased to know that this mob of immoralists made a philosophy of plagiarism. While showing William Godwin a list of plays he could well steal from, Charles Lamb expressed it frankly: that from this form of “honest stealing much remains to be sucked.” Coleridge stole from Schlegel and Kant by the line, from Schelling by the page, and from Frederies Brunn by the poem. As John Livingston Lowes showed in his classic analysis The Road to Xanadu, Coleridge plagiarized even when he was asleep. Alfred George Gardiner anticipated Lowes’s conclusion when he said one could trace Keats’s reading by his verse.

Though the Romantic Poets generally observed the Decalogue as written by Arthur Hugh Clough rather than Moses, Byron was the veritable kleptomaniac among them. He was not so amateurish as to work like other plagiarists, picking a line here and a line there from a rich work; he had with a bundle of slips in one hand which he stuck between the pages of whatever he was reading to mark what he intended to plunder. He spent so much time on these villainies that one wonders how he had time for his adulteries.

Byron even went to the traditional ballads and pinched whole stanzas, but here he acted according to a long tradition. It is rare that a folklorist can collect a song from a singer without hearing the claim: “I wrote that myself.” Mark Twain commented that in his day it was a favorite indoor sport to take credit for popular songs. “Their authorship,” he said, “was claimed by most of the grown-up people who were alive at the time.”

In my own folksinging days I wrote more than a few of the songs in my repertory, stealing only a handful of tunes; and every one of my own songs was later plagiarized by singers who made intolerably more money from them than I did. One can only accept philosophically this most sincere form of flattery, but the Australian government went a bit far when in 1971 it issued a postage stamp honoring music and bearing imprinted drawings of six instruments, every one of which was taken from an ethnomusicological illustration I drew and issued in 1965. On the other hand, in 1970 the American Anthropological Association published a book entitled Current Directions in Anthropology in which Mao Tse-tung’s most famous utterance. “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a thousand schools of thought contend,” was attributed to me.

Of famous phrases and one-liners, Winston Churchill was the most blatant plagiarist since his predecessor Disraeli. His immortal “iron curtain” phrase was used before him by Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, George Washington Crile, Ethel Annakin Snowden, and Hitler’s finance minister, Count Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk. Winston’s “blood, sweat and tears” (aesthetically edited by others from the original “blood, toil, tears and sweat”) was anticipated at least four times, first by John Donne, and later by Byron, who stole it from Garibaldi, and later still by Alfred Lord Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s gay young boyfriend.

Incidentally, Douglas turned on Oscar, in the lovers’ quarrel that ended their friendship, by accusing him of plagiarizing from Whistler, Milton, Keats, Hood, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Morris, and James McNeill Whistler. One recalls the exchange recorded by L. C. Ingleby: “Wilde: ’I wish I’d said that.’ Whistler: ’You will, Oscar, you will.’” Wilde apparently used a speech of Whistler’s every time he spoke during his American tour, perhaps the heaviest hand across the sea until the English novelist Cecil Henderson republished Dashell Hammer’s The Maltese Falcon as Death in the Dark. Though his plagiarism was discovered immediately, Henderson maintained that he deserved his own large sale on the ground that while he did not in a sense write the book, he wrote it down. Moreover, he added, he had copied Hammett “for practice.”

Cotton Mather, by Peter Pelham
Cotton Mather, by Peter Pelham

Moving to this side of the English ocean, one could begin the history of American plagiarism with Cotton Mather, but the Mathers are too nasty a subject for anyone fortunate enough to live outside of Massachusetts. It would be a far better thing, then, to begin with the First Original Native Americans, the Feathered Indians, Homo phoenicopteros, who began plagiarizing as soon as they learned to read. Mark Twain immortalized their lack of imagination in his remark on the Indian’s utterances: “There is nothing figurative, or moonshiny, or sentimental about his language. It is very simple and unostentatious, and consists of plain, straightforward lies.”

Scarcely any of the eloquent remarks on white villainy in such books as Dee Brown’s execrable Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (itself accused of plagiarism) originated with the Indians. Even the title of Brown’s book can be traced to a white man with a soft spot in his head for the Red Man. The funniest capture of a Red Man with his red hand in the literary till was the discovery of the source of The Memoirs of Chief Red Fox. Some thirty years before Red Fox put together his century-old memories, a man named McGregor wrote a kind of history, The Wounded Knee Massacre. Each book has a chapter titled “The Massacre”; these chapters begin with an instructive parallel:[McGregor]: The braying of the Army mules and the fading darkness indicated that a new day was dawning and this gave Big Foot renewed hope that he might yet see his band safe with their friends at Pine Ridge, and that he would once more sit in the council with the mighty Sioux chiefs with Red Cloud at the head.[Chief Red Fox]: The braying of the Army mules and the fading stars indicated that a new day was drawing near, which gave Big Foot renewed hope that he might yet see his band safe with their friends at Pine Ridge and that he would once more sit in council with the mighty Sioux chiefs.

Indians are a peevish folk who will lift up your hair at the slightest provocation, so I will say no more of their instinct for raiding horses and other men’s writing, but turn briefly to the Catholics and Jews. At a curious affair in Modesto, California, on the 25th of December, 1976, advertised as a Midnight Mass, I, along with the other communicants, was given a guidance “Missalette” to help us through Pope John XXIII’s vernacular Mass. At the “Liturgy of the Word” we were instructed to sing: Alleluia. alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

(Copyright, 1971 by J. S. Paluch Company) The priest afterward, shaking my hand (down at St. Leroy’s you get a hand slap), told me that Mr. Paluch was a tolerant Jew. But I seem to have encountered the text of this piece before somewhere.

It may be coincidence, of course, in which phenomenon I am compulsively interested. Gathering material for a book on the subject, I wrote to several eminent editors, some of whom knew enough of the history of their houses to convey to me a few coincidences that suspicious folk might confuse with plagiarism.

Gordon Gipson, Publisher of the Caxton Printers, noted that his company’s book The Gunfighters, issued in 1971, was in collision only three years later with Time-Life’s heavily advertised book of the same title; Time-Life did it a second time in those identical years with their 1974 Snake River Country, wiping out his 1971 Snake River Country. John D. Moore, Editor-in-Chief of Columbia University Press, called my attention to two books, each titled Touching, both published in 1971. Thomas A. Stewart, Senior Editor of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, replied with a case of two books published within a few months of each other on the Mullendore Murder Case. The Editorial Director of Airline, Suzanne Griffin, recalls that a book titled Josh, written by a woman whose son had died of cancer, entered the market at the same time as a book titled Eric, also written by a woman whose son had died of cancer. Joan Kahn wrote me that she had to turn down Michael Gilbert’s The Tichborne Case when she learned that two other books on Tichborne were imminently to be published. Henry William Griffin, Senior Editor of Macmillan, was involved in a more curious coincidence when he wrote a play about Henry the Eighth and Anne of Cleves, titling it with Henry’s spontaneous epithet on seeing his intended bride, The Flanders Mare, and then going to England where he saw a play on the same subject called The King’s Mare. Condon/E. P. Dutton is publishing a book, Pat Feeley’s Best Friend, concerning a woman who trains the family dog to kill her husband, while W. W. Norton is putting out A Man’s Best Friend, about a man who trains the family dog to kill his wife. Nicholas Blake stopped the presses on his Penknife in My Heart to assure Patricia Highsmith that he had not read her Strangers on a Train or seen the movie made from it, though his hook had the same ingenious plot as hers, with characters of the same Christian names.

Considering the inordinate number of these most public crimes across the history of literature in all languages, it is strange how little has been written about plagiarism and its weird analogue of coincidental publications. Writers live in constant fear of both, yet to the rest of mankind these are trivia fit only to drift into oblivion. “How these curiosities would be quite forgott, did not such idle felowes as I putt them downe,” wrote John Aubrey three hundred years ago. For being the first archaeologist as well as a packrat of curiosities, Aubrey was thought in his time to be “magotie-headed.” But so was Sir Robert Cotton, to whose hobby of collecting “old Dutch” we owe nearly the whole of extant Anglo-Saxon literature. When Aubrey was not out on his hands and knees finding things like the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge, he was recording psychic experiences and even obscene tales which the genteel world would be willing to let die like the disgrace of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Elizabeth I, the Armada portrait
Elizabeth I, the Armada portrait

This story, excluded for most of its history from mixed company, came into Europe with the Crusades, so far as we can trace it, and was ancient in the Near East, where it still flourishes proving that a great joke is more durable than great book. In Aubrey’s telling, the Earl, making obeisance in a magnificently formal mass audience with Queen Elizabeth, loudly broke wind. Abashed, he went into voluntary exile. For seven years he lived abroad with his shame, hoping it was true that time healed all ills, even flatulence. At last he returned and sought audience with the Queen, who received him in the same grandeur as before. From the courtiers there was no smirking remembrance, and he approached his Queen and made her once again obeisance. As he rose, she said sweetly, “My Lord, I have forgott the Fart.”

Mr. Greenway, professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado, is the author of many books and magazine articles, all of them highly original.

Greenway’s scathing review of reviewers who wrote about the Australian film “Walkabout”

Also, Manfred Helfert says a folk music recording by Dr. Greenway was the inspiration for a Bob Dylan song!