Plagiarism

It was the poor dwarf’s birthday.
—Edgar Allan Poe

1.

I’m a thief, a word thief and a story thief. I understand that now, what it means to be a plagiarist, but I denied it for years. It’s not like no one pointed it out to me. Every four or five years some educator corkscrewed an enormous institutional face at me, held up a sheaf of pages, and said, This isn’t yours.

The last time was in grad school at Winthrop College in Boston. This was the early ’90s, when Winthrop was home to that high-powered cadre of American literature scholars associated with the journal American Stylus. Jay Edwards was big daddy of the group, a scholar of national reputation, old-school but massively productive. In forty years of scholarship, he’d published seven major works, edited five anthologies of American literature, and scattered half a hundred articles through the scholarly journals. His massive 1959 study of Puritan influences on Moby-Dick remains a landmark in the field. The man was an institution. Beginning students of literature pored over his books; whole literature programs were structured around his anthologies; and at Winthrop in 1993, if you were a PhD candidate in American literature and wanted your diploma to be worth its printing fee, you had to have the overbearing ass on your committee.

Every literature department has a few faculty members who think they’re God’s last lonely soldiers for literature. Edwards was one of these, an old Formalist who’d modeled himself on the Fugitive School of the 1920s, cultivated southerners who yearned for a simpler time of caste privilege and chattel slavery. Like his forebears, Edwards combined a rigorous critical vocation with, at least in the early years, a steady production of rarefied poetry. One night I tracked down a disused volume of his poems in the Winthrop library—Thoughts in a Dead Season (1962). I read through a few before returning the faded green chapbook to its place on the shelves. They were chiseled lyrics, characterized by a severity of form and an arid complexity of idea—real achievements of their type, a type perhaps outmoded, perhaps entirely audience-less now, but still stunning for their quiet rigor and certainty of purpose, the poems ringing within those strange sepulchres of lost time, forgotten books of poetry.

Though nearly seventy, Edwards was still physically a giant, over six feet tall, with a broad-shouldered, lumbering way of moving, lugging the black bag, big as a suitcase, stocked with manuscripts, class notes, and, one guessed, the two-hundred-plus volumes of the Library of America series. His face was broad, half-scowling, pitched aggressively forward, and surrounded by a lion’s mane of white hair. Perhaps to account for his enormous size, there was a rumor around the department that, before turning to literature, he’d pitched in the minors. You could picture him as an oversize grump on the mound, eyeing his batter, arms hanging from his sleeves as he groped the ball for a changeup.

I trudged up the stairs to his fourth-floor office one last time on a dark rainy morning one week after turning in the final chapter of my dissertation. Edwards’s office was an anomaly in the department, not the standard fluorescent-lit box, linoleum floored, with steel desk, shelves, and swivel chair, but a dark den of oaken furniture lit by a single linen-shaded desk lamp. When your eyes had adjusted to the light, you noticed that the shelves were arranged by category, and within each category by alphabet. His most cherished critics—Warren, Ransom, and Tate—had a special shelf to themselves within arm’s reach of his chair. On the desk were fresh copies, arranged with dentist-office tidiness, of journals where Edwards’s work was featured.

At the time of that meeting, I was a successful PhD candidate on the verge of graduation. My dissertation was done. I had to prep for my orals and bang out the fifty-page summation of studies Winthrop required, but that was pro forma stuff. The only thing that worried me that morning was what had happened to Alexandra. She’d vanished from the program three days before, after passing her orals but before turning in her summation. When I’d received Edwards’s urgent request for a meeting, late the previous night, I assumed he was worried about her too.

I found him hovering in the shadows between his office window and his bookshelves, peering out and down through the trickled pane, like he’d lost something in the gray maze of campus walkways. He sat down behind the desk. But instead of speaking, he just stared at me, a kind of constipated sarcasm spreading across his features.

Where’d you get it? he asked.

Sorry?

He nodded grimly. Your final chapter, it isn’t yours. Don’t worry, I’ll find it. I know the kinds of journals to look in. It’s hard to separate the sources with you, McCarthy—one day Freud, then Marx, then Nietzsche—but not this time. I was reading it yesterday afternoon, thinking, this has style, real grace, an absence of the wild polemical clamor we hear so much of these days. It actually calmed me to read it. I thought, this voice hasn’t been heard in criticism for forty years. And then it hit me. It isn’t yours.

Whose is it? I asked politely.

Are you a liberal humanist? He twisted a tortured grimace at me. Because if you’re not, you wouldn’t write that way. And you know what? You’re not.

You called me in to accuse me of humanism?

Not just accuse you. I’m going to prosecute and hang you. I’ll find the source myself. But first I’m giving you a chance to do the honorable thing. Tell me the source, and excuse yourself from the program. Otherwise I’ll crucify you at the orals.

For a long moment I said nothing, just stared down, frankly speechless, at a copy of American Imagination on Edwards’s desk—a new issue, with Edwards’s article blazoned across the cover, “Melville’s Outcasts and Castaways,” by J. W. Edwards. Then something came to me. All the tension, all the loss and confusion and worry of the last twenty-four hours drained away.

It’s yours, I said.

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