A Brief History of the "P" Word

Julia Kamysz Lane

Public allegations of plagiarism are leveled at unsuspecting authors at least once a year, but their frequency doesn't diminish the calamitous results: bruised reputations, soured accusers, disenchanted readers, and riled media. This spectacle isn't, however, an invention of our media-saturated age. Public fascination with plagiarism is as old as our appetite for scandal.

Herein lies the problem with allegations of plagiarism: There is no single, universally accepted definition and, consequently, no effective punishment

Popular historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin are this year's targets for allegations of plagiarism. In January, half a dozen Ambrose books, including The Wild Blue (2001) and Citizen Soldiers (1975), both published by Simon & Schuster, were called into question. Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard, started the fracas when he accused Ambrose of copying phrases from Wings of Morning by Thomas Childers and inserting them in his best-seller The Wild Blue. Accusations multiplied as the national media joined the hunt. In brief print interviews, Ambrose acknowledged the missing quotation marks. He publicly apologized to Childers and, as the controversy continued, offered a general apology on his Web site, which states in part, "I am sorry for those omissions, and will make relevant changes in all future editions of my books."

Shortly thereafter, the Weekly Standard revealed a 15-year-old confidential settlement between Goodwin and British author Lynne McTaggart. In 1987 Goodwin had admitted to copying several passages from McTaggart's Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times, which was published in 1983, and publishing them as her own in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (Simon & Schuster, 1987). The publisher paid McTaggart an undisclosed sum and footnoted (but did not quote) the borrowed phrases and sentences in subsequent editions.

In late February of this year, Goodwin publicly acknowledged the secret McTaggart deal and admitted there had been other instances of her lifting passages without attribution as well. Several phrases and sentences in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys are nearly identical to those in Hank Searls's 1969 biography, The Lost Prince: Young Joe, the Forgotten Kennedy, and Rose Kennedy's 1974 autobiography, Times to Remember. And Goodwin told the New York Times that her researchers had discovered even more misappropriations, but she refused to disclose what books were involved until her own investigation was complete.

Goodwin blamed her mistakes on what Marilyn Randall terms, in her book Pragmatic Plagiarism, "note-book syndrome"—handwritten notes from various sources somehow slip into the manuscript as if they were the author's own. In January, Goodwin said that her old-fashioned note taking was the source of the problem and claimed she discontinued its use after the 1987 settlement. A month later, however, Goodwin said that she did not change her research methods until after the 1994 publication of No Ordinary Time, her Pulitzer Prize–winning book about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Goodwin took an indefinite hiatus from her regular appearances on The News Hour With Jim Lehrer and recused herself from the Pulitzer Prize board. In March the University of Delaware requested that she not deliver its commencement address as planned. At Goodwin's behest, Simon & Schuster agreed to destroy all of the remaining paperback copies of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys and to reissue a new edition.

Not every author is so affected by the negative publicity. Two years ago amateur historian Ellen Lee claimed that Susan Sontag, in her novel In America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), neglected to quote or footnote passages that appeared to be similar to those found in four previously published books about immigrant actress Helena Modjeska, the inspiration for Sontag's protagonist. "All of us who deal with real characters in history transcribe and adopt original sources in the original domain," Sontag told the New York Times in her defense. "There's a larger argument to be made that all of literature is a series of references and allusions." Sontag admitted to no wrongdoing and the matter was dropped.

Herein lies the problem with allegations of plagiarism: There is no single, universally accepted definition and, consequently, no effective punishment. "We don't develop a fund of experience or build up much history on this topic," says Thomas Mallon, author of Stolen Words: The Classic Book on Plagiarism. "Cases like [those of Ambrose and Goodwin] come out once or twice every year, and always the same fundamental questions are asked. What is plagiarism? We don't make much cultural progress on the issue." As with pornography, people think they know plagiarism when they see it. However, the definition of plagiarism changes depending on the writer's role and motivation. In his own self-defense, Oscar Wilde once stated, "What the critic calls an echo is really an achievement."

Martin Amis demonstrated 22 years ago how fine the line is between flattery and theft. He shocked the international literary community when he charged young American novelist Jacob Epstein, the son of retired Random House editorial director Jason Epstein, with plagiarism. Epstein's acclaimed 1979 debut, Wild Oats (Little, Brown), contained more than 50 phrases or sentences—some verbatim, others with minor changes—from Amis's 1974 novel, The Rachel Papers (Random House). Amis felt it was fair for authors to pay homage to their literary idols—he said that he himself was influenced by Saul Bellow, J.G. Ballard, and others—but that Epstein had clearly crossed the line, had stolen rather than imitated. Epstein later admitted to the plagiarism, and apologized.

In 1997, British novelist Graham Swift denied charges that his novel Last Orders (Knopf, 1996) had stolen the plot of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. An Australian professor of English was the first to accuse Swift, in a letter to the Australian Review of Books, which was followed up by a controversial article in a London newspaper. Many readers wrote to the paper to express their opinions, including novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who stated that Swift had merely appropriated Faulkner's premise, not his plot, and that "only a reader devoid of sophistication could mistake this for a case of plagiarism." The paper's own literary editor pointed out that "there is no copyright in form, structure, idea, concept or titles."

Authorship, or the idea of owning one's choice of words, is a relatively new concept. In Stolen Words Mallon writes, "The great critical cry of classical literature was not an Emersonian call to 'tust thyself' but a Horatian exhortation to follow others." Imitation was common, and expected. When movable type was invented in the 15th century, it literally changed the way writers viewed their words. The term plagiary—coined from the Latin plagium, which originally referred to a kidnapper—was first used in English to describe a word thief by Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson around the turn of the 17th century. Though it was in use perhaps as early as 1615, lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson offered an authoritative definition of plagiarism in his English-language dictionary in 1755, and the term's current, though increasingly ambiguous meaning was born.

Occasionally there is an open-and-shut case. Last year, St. Martin's Press conceded that Melany Neilson's novel The Persia Café included eight passages that closely resembled the prose of Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees (HarperCollins, 1988). A dismayed Neilson said she had indeed read The Bean Trees and immediately apologized. Later editions of The Persia Café contained corrections.

Mallon says one of the most appalling plagiarism cases he studied was that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose inconsistent muse seemingly compelled him to plagiarize German philosophers Immanuel Kant, Moses Mendelssohn, Friedrich von Schelling, Friedrich von Schlegel, and others. "I don't know [what's worse], Coleridge's plagiarism or the degree to which scholars tied themselves up in knots explaining it away," he says.

"It seems plagiarism is something people get off with scot-free or it's a career killer, the single thing they're known for," says Mallon. "What we need…is a certain proportionality. Something like the Ambrose case, in which somebody takes a kind of delight in an icon's being reduced to a bum in the space of a week, ought to be factored into people's reputations. It should diminish our overall estimation of him, but we should not run him out of the human race."

Julia Kamysz Lane is a freelance writer in New Orleans.