Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Art of Plagiarism, 1894 Article

The Art of Plagiarism - A Study In Originality -The Baltimore Sun 1894

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Robert Louis Stevenson has come forward with a charmingly frank acknowledgment that his fascinating story of Treasure Island was written on motives borrowed from Robinson Crusoe and from Tales of a Traveler. He feels he is also indebted to Edgar Allan Poe for the skeleton episode and for the stockade to Masterman Ready. But for that he cares nothing. "It is," he says, "my debt to Washington Irving that exercises my conscience, and justly so, for I believe that plagiarism was rarely carried farther." Mr. Stevenson may well confess his sins as a plagiarist with a show of penitence that is manifestly humorous, for he is in so numerous a company of fellow sinners that if he had not appropriated anything from other authors his right to be classified as an author at all might well be doubted. For they have all done it. Ralph Waldo Emerson says, in his essay on Quotation and Originality—itself one of the finest pieces of plagiarism in the language, it being a mosaic made up of facts and ideas from all creation— "Originals are not original. There is imitation and suggestion to the archangels, if we knew their history."

Ninety-nine out of every one hundred readers believe, no doubt, that Abraham Lincoln's famous, Gettysburg remark that "Government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth," was original with him. It was not. Daniel Webster used it in a speech in the Senate thirty-two years before. "Public office is a public trust" was an old phrase to which Mr. Cleveland gave a new vogue. Charles Sumner, in 1872, said: "The phrase, 'public office is a public trust,' has of late become common property." And Thomas Jefferson used it sixty-five years before that. Shakespeare's was an original mind, the most original that has ever clothed its conceptions in English forms of speech, according to the majority opinion. Yet the scholars who have explored Shakespeare will tell you from whom he plagiarized his plots, his dialogues, and his songs. "Conscience does make cowards of us all." Grand line, is it not? But here is Pilpay, the Brahmin, who lived at least 2,000 B. S. (before Shakespeare), saying: "Guilty conscience always makes people cowards." And Pilpay, we may be sure, was not the originator of that saying. Cain, after he had killed Abel, probably coined that Shakespearean remark. "As good luck would have it," is Shakespeare. "As ill luck would have it," is Cervantes. They were contemporaneous. Who was the originator? Neither, probably. "What the dickens," is another of Shakespeare's originalities—perhaps. Thomas Heywood also uses the expression in his play of "Edward IV.," written, it may be, before The Merry Wives of Windsor. Nick Bottom, describing his dream, says that "The eye of man hath not seen, the ear of man hath not heard," etc. But we find that from the pen of St. Paul, from whom it is undoubtedly plagiarized. (See I. Corinthians, ii. 9.) Again, we read in Hamlet that "diseases desperate grown by desperate appliance are relieved, or not at all," and feel the force of Shakespeare's great creative mind. Yet he has merely plagiarized an aphorism of Hippocrates, who said: "Extreme remedies are very appropriate for extreme diseases."

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Goethe was frank to confess himself a plagiarist. He says: "What would remain of me if this art of appropriation were derogatory to genius? Every one of my writings has been furnished to me by a thousand different persons. A thousand things, wise and foolish, have brought me, without suspecting it, the offerings of their thoughts, faculties and experience. My work is an aggregation of beings taken from the whole of nature; it bears the name of Goethe." Voltaire, commonly credited with being a highly original writer, is a self-acknowledged plagiarist, and he defends it boldly. "Of all the forms of theft," says he, "plagiarism is the least dangerous to society." Moliere took his plots and dialogues bodily from old Italian comedies. He candidly repudiated any respect for the prigs who cry plagiarist at every man who digs a good thing out of the mines of literature and gives it in a new dress as his own. "I conquer my own wherever I find it," he cries.

Disraeli (latterly called Lord Beaconsfield) was regarded as a unique and entirely original character in the English public life of his time. No more persistent plagiarist ever lived. His famous funeral oration over the Duke of Wellington was taken almost word for word from a panegyric written by the great Frenchman, Thiers, on Marshal Saint-Cyr! The London Examiner turned out this neat quatrain to commemorate the plagiarism:

In sounding great Wellington's praise,
   Dizzy's grief and his truth both appear;
For a flood of Thiers he lets fall,
Which were certainly meant for Saint-Cyr.

Plagiarism was a pet pastime of Disraeli, who, nevertheless, added new brightness to all that he stole and enriched literature with not a few coinages that so far as yet discovered were brand-new. His oftenest quoted epigram: "The critics are the men who have failed in literature and art," is, however, a most flagrant plagiarism. We find it in Lander, Balzac, Dumas, Pope, Shenstone and Dryden. Who of all these was the author, and which were the plagiarists has never been determined. Dryden was very likely the father of it when he wrote: "Ill writers are usually the sharpest censors." Shelley puts it in the most acid form: "As a bankrupt thief turns thief-taker in despair, so an unsuccessful author turns critic."

A few years ago a lord mayor of London was caught interpolating half of a sermon by Spurgeon into one of his addresses. He said he knew it, and did it as a compliment to Spurgeon's superior eloquence. His apology was accepted. The truth is, and there is no need of blushing about it, that all men whose literary output is large draw upon works of reference continually. The literary animalculae, who are always on the alert to detect a plagiarist, are of the same species of mental insect life that finds its supreme delight in shouting "Chestnuts " whenever one ventures to tell a droll story or repeat a current witticism. They want it understood that they know it all. There is no news for them. They were there on the spot when it occurred. They heard it all when they were children.

The accumulated literary riches of all the ages certainly include better, brighter, larger, nobler thoughts than any one man now living, be he preacher, poet, author, playwright, editor or any other variety of brain and pen worker, can think out for himself. By all means let them be drawn upon boldly and liberally for the pulpit, the stage and the press. Give us more fine plagiarism and less feeble originality.

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