Alexander Theroux answers charge of plagiarism in Primary Colors

Hateful, hurtful and hellish

I received the alarming telephone call early one morning in Coronado, where I was living at the time and writing some articles for the San Diego Reader, that the New York Times was ready to release the story the very next day.
  • I received the alarming telephone call early one morning in Coronado, where I was living at the time and writing some articles for the San Diego Reader, that the New York Times was ready to release the story the very next day.

I was accused of plagiarism in an article in the New York Times on March 3, 1995. It was an ignominious moment in my life, to be sure, although the accusation, which was literally true but morally not — since intention was not involved — had a dirty provenance, to my mind, not only because it was a nonstory (it was given a “kicker” on the front page of that august paper!) but because I have had ongoing problems for several years with that newspaper, more specifically a particular person there, a former editor of the Times Book Review by the name of Rebecca Sinkler, more about whom anon. My accuser, a woman from Connecticut named Cynthia Kiss, is, with her husband, a so-called Friend of Yale, a college where I taught literature from 1987 to 1990 and which institution for various real and worthwhile reasons I lampooned in several poems in my book. The Lollipop Trollops, in 1993.

Mar. 3 story in the N.Y. Times, where a reader claimed “a chill went down [her] spine.”

Mar. 3 story in the N.Y. Times, where a reader claimed “a chill went down [her] spine.”

As Mrs. Kiss read my book, The Primary Colors, and found as she turned the pages several sentences, unattributed quotations, from another book she had also been reading at the time, Guy Murchie’s Song of the Sky (1954), a book on flight and aviation, she claimed “a chill went down [her] spine.” (It makes me wonder what expression she would use when seeing, say, starving children in Somalia or Dacca.) She had discovered in my work of nonfiction of about 80,000 words and upwards of a thousand or more disparate quotations — from film, literature, science, religion, cooking, painting, botany, song, etc., all scrupulously attributed — fewer than 150 words that were taken only from Murchie but unacknowledged. In other words, she had found in a book that cited thousands of authors a comparative handful of words without attribution taken from one author only. What was judged a crime, a distinction that means something to me if to no one else, was in fact an inadvertence, born of haste, loose note-taking, and the passage of time.

The 150 words (out of 80,000) from Song of the Sky.

The 150 words (out of 80,000) from Song of the Sky.

I received the alarming telephone call early one morning in Coronado, where I was living at the time and writing some articles for the San Diego Reader, that the New York Times was ready to release the story the very next day and that if I wanted “to add anything” — I had not seen the story or heard the charges or viewed the offending passages or could even frankly surmise the fault — I must immediately call the newspaper. I did so and spoke with the 31-year-old woman doing the story, listened to what she had to say, and tried to put things into perspective. She was unsympathetic, typing as I spoke and clearly hoping to get a few facts straight, such as my age. It was too late to stop anything from being printed or of dissuading her of her article. She had virtually finished the story, had already called Murchie, reported the offense, and asked him if he was going to sue me (he said he was, or his brother was, or his wife was, something like that). I found out, in any case, that the story was about to break and that nothing I had to say could change that and that Murchie’s lawyer had already demanded that every single copy of The Primary Colors be recalled. May I suggest without fear of contradiction that the 88-year-old Murchie had never heard of, never mind read, The Primary Colors? The reporter at the New York Times, nevertheless, having recorded his outrage — after having set it up — had seen to it that (a) he be apprised of the fault, (b) he could sue me for it, and (c) he be quoted on public record as intending to sue me for it.

Only a fool could not see the devastating result of such charges to a writer, not only the loss of one’s reputation, which is the worst — even to such a dog as sententious Iago, who wore his ill-repute like a badge — but an almost door-slamming end to trust, credibility, reliance, never mind any negotiations born of those, and who can even deny hope? I went to Tijuana that morning and spent the day there, preoccupied and muttering and with my hands in my pockets walking the narrow streets (I was almost struck and killed by a car, twice) like a poor lost Geoffrey Firmin, Malcolm Lowry’s dipsomaniacal consul. I had explanations. But who would listen? And why? I mentally pieced out the occasion and circumstances by my mistake and badly wanted at least to try to give the context of my crime — to someone, to anyone. Without context Sergeant York was a killer and Hiroshima the heart of hell. No, I had an explanation.

But first a word about my writing life. I have rarely written a word of the eight books, five hundred articles, two or three hundred poems, and countless book reviews I’ve published over the years that has not come from snatched time. I have earned my living as a college professor. I took my Ph.D. in English at the University of Virginia in 1968 and over the next 20 years taught at Harvard, Phillips Andover, MIT, and Yale, as well as having lectured at various Massachusetts prisons. I have never had the luxury of being a best-selling or even close to best-selling author, though I believe I can make the modest claim of having loyal readers and of being a critical success with my quirky, elaborate prose style. I have to seek out and solicit my own assignments. I have never found an agent willing to send out my articles, stories, essays, or poems to magazines. Most agents refuse to do this anymore, as they claim it’s not a moneymaking proposition. So over the last two decades I have been teaching full-time, writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, book reviews, and at the same time have had personally to scare up any and all writing assignments myself. I have never once in my entire life had an agent place an article for me, secure for me a magazine assignment, or land me a book review. In my desk, manuscripts pile up. Publishers want novels, not collections of poems, not essays, not books of fables. They want identifiable genres. They want money.

What I write depends a good deal, of course, on when I write and why. I often have to drop what I am doing of a strong creative vein to do a piece of a commercial stripe, as of course most writers do, but is it irrelevant that I also have to clean my house, mow four acres of grass, fix my own car, do my own typing, cook, and constantly seek to delimit my expenses and vacations in order to save money to work, lest otherwise I have to return to teaching and find myself too tired to write?

Given a fate that, for weal or woe, has more or less determined the way (and speed with which) I write — I left teaching in 1991 — I have been almost always working on two or three book-length manuscripts at the same time, mixed genres usually, no end of articles — I also try to work on a poem every day — and to that end keep notebooks. My collected essays, more than a hundred of them, a manuscript awaiting publication, I add to almost daily, and in consequence my desk at home is filled with notebooks, sheets of thoughts, ideas, and scribbles, and multiple notes earmarked for but often still awaiting being penciled into various manuscripts. A book on Amelia Earhart, for instance, I have been writing, compiling, and researching for the last several years, and it was to this thick notebook, filled with text, notes, drawings, and observations on that pilot that I committed, sometime around 1989, several very brief passages from Murchie.

Around the same time, I was writing for the magazine Art & Antiques an article on the color blue, the popularity of which with many readers when published led me to believe that others on color should follow. My book, The Primary Colors, in fact grew out of this project. In the intervening years, while I simultaneously worked on several other manuscripts, poring over notes and books for this and that, I’m sure I noticed sometime about 1992 certain remarks on color, Murchie’s, recorded in my Earhart notes, took them for my own, and cobbled them into The Primary Colors, to which in the period before final galleys, and much to the great grief of my editor at Henry Holt, I made repeated additions and emendations, and this to a book whose uniqueness, frankly, is its pastiche and encyclopedic style.

It crossed my mind more than once not only in writing but conceiving The Primary Colors to add an index and append the many notes I had of the multiple works I had read, but I dismissed the notion first of all because in a work of literary nonfiction it seemed inartistic — “A perfect work,” as Mérimée told Delacroix, “should not require notes” — but also because it seemed more honest to cite all sources in the body of the book, incorporating them in the running text, giving credit specifically where credit was due.

There is nothing to defend — nor boast of — in inexactitude, and most certainly in a matter regarding an Ivy League professor, who, nevertheless, and if my observations and experience matter, probably falls victim to such foibles more than anyone else. The plagiarist is a thief, no question. What should be weighed is the intention, the circumstances, and the degree, and these are invariably related. I got into a mess of this kind before in the late ’80s when, three years after I wrote and submitted but never sold (so never formally finished or fully looked at) an article on Edward Hopper to an art magazine, the editor, without consulting or notifying me, or bothering to send me galleys, proceeded to publish the raw piece from which he — in the process of editing, emending, and shortening — had silently in the text removed the name of a critic, Gail Levin, whose work I had cited. The editor had pulled her name from the body of the material, relegating it with mention of her book to a sidebar, while at the same time injudiciously leaving in the more than several quotations I had used of hers. Nowhere in the text was she given credit. Despite a published apology to Ms. Levin in the magazine, run at my request, and the concomitant offer to her of my stipend ($2500), Levin immediately sued both the magazine and me. My apology meant nothing to Levin, the magazine kept the fee I had tendered to her, and, although she rejected that sum in hopes of making a larger killing, she ultimately had to settle for only $2500, whereafter to no one’s surprise, certainly not mine, she bitterly popped up again to animadvert against me in the Murchie matter. This was the occasion of a second article on me in March 1995 in the Times, three days after the first one, leading me to assert, not that I haven’t long ago given up hope for anything like fairness from that paper, that I have a legitimate reason for doing so.

It is a thorny matter, attribution. The marches of one border often touch another. What in relation to it is there of shape, style, depth? What is summation, what debt? And what of degree? Puccini’s Tosca inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber’s melody, “Where in the World Have You Been Hiding," from The Phantom of the Opera. E.Y. Harburg took his melody “Over the Rainbow” from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Paul Simon’s music for his “An American Song” was taken from a Catholic hymn. George Harrison borrowed “My Sweet Lord” from the Chiffons’ upbeat “He’s So Fine.” Bing Crosby’s theme song, “When the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day),” recorded on November 23, 1931, bears a distinct resemblance to the melody of “Tit-Willow” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, a particular song Der Bingle grew up singing. The songs “The Eyes of Texas” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” have the same melody. “The Hucklebuck” was only another version of Charlie Parker’s signature song, “Now’s the Time." “Night Train” was a straight steal from Duke Ellington’s “Happy-Go-Lucky Local.” “Why shouldn’t Porgy and Bess be grand?” Ellington once asked jazz critic Edward Murrow. “It was taken from some of the best and some of the worst. Gershwin surely didn’t discriminate. He borrowed from everyone from Liszt to Dickie Wells’s kazoo band.” He turned to the piano, began playing, and said, “Hear this? These are passages from Rhapsody in Blue. Well, here is where they came from — the Negro song, ‘Where Has My Easy Rider Gone?' "

What about Andy Warhol’s prints of Marilyn Monroe? The iconographic subject of the “Assumption” that so fascinated Renaissance painters? Or Coleridge and his use of whole pages of Kant in the Biographia Literaria? The unacknowledged sources in Edward Everett’s Gettysburg Oration? Or Maeterlinck and Marais with his insect book? Or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s use of his wife’s Zelda’s letters in his stories? Or the facile adaption in Kismet of Borodin’s Polovetzian Dances? Are these examples of influence? Plagiarism? Emulation? Borrowing? Aren’t they all different in matters of degree and kind?

When he was a grad student at Boston University, Dr. Martin Luther King, a man still internationally identified by his honorific, plagiarized virtually the whole of his doctoral dissertation, a matter for which, one would have thought, his degree should have been revoked. Who would deny it was a corrupt act? Can the same be said of Herman Melville who appropriated for Billy Budd the original idea (and very similar language) of the “Handsome Sailor” from Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (1835), which he read as a young man? I have not a doubt that it was an unconscious act, born of who knows what affection, admiration, zeal, call it what you will. There is pilfering and plagiarism, borrowing, blundering, bullshitting, and no end of using, reusing, and abusing. Madame Blavatsky was the champion. But there is no end to it Charles Olson insightfully wrote in his odd book. Call Me Ishmael, “Melville’s reading is a gauge of him, at all points of his life. He was a skald and knew how to appropriate the work of others. He read to write. Highborn stealth. Edward Dahlberg calls originality the act of a cutpurse Autolycus who makes his thefts as invisible as possible. Melville’s books batten on other men’s books.” He read to write. It is a wise observation. We teach what we learn. We pass on what we receive. We tend to spout what we suck in to savor. I know I read more than 300 books in order to write The Primary Colors and have no doubt that I looked into a couple of hundred more. It is often difficult to recall where something was read and often just as difficult later to remember whether something is or is not your own thoughts or words. Writing is battle, and there is a point in the midst of the heated agon, where, like Achilles, undaunted if a trifle mad, you swing at anything. I am a fool for the Word.

I awaken on peaks, insist on dreams coming true, and usually find every voice in me speaking all at once. I am as various in my dales as the Mississippi, working from songs in my head, memory, friends’ tips, snatched conversation, squibs, old notebooks, a lifetime of reading (sometimes three books a night, as I have insomnia), quotations of which I often can never find the source, dreams, my Encyclopedia Britannica, dictionaries, and so forth. I have quoted to myself enough passages from Dante, Othello, The Changeling, The Dunciad, Swift and Yeats, skip-rope rhymes, Lord Byron, Burma-Shave jingles, “Lycidas,” Proust, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Great Expectations to have tried to make them mine, as in a certain weird and existential sense they are. The surest sign of wonder is exaggeration. And who would deny the excesses of war — or love — are perilous?

Only the other day I was citing Guy Davenport’s mention of “green feathers” as a description of gifts given to Cortes by Montezuma as recorded in Albrecht Dürer’s diary, 27 August 1520, when he saw them in Brussels displayed by Charles V, who was then on his way to Aix-la-Chapelle to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor! I wonder if Mary Tabor, the tweenie to whom I spoke in the hopes of dissuading her from writing the damning March piece in the New York Times on The Primary Colors — and who in her rush to judgment confessed to having bothered to read exactly nothing else of mine — has any idea what in the way of difficulty goes in a writer’s life.

Speaking of Melville, he referred in a letter to his father-in-law to his novels Redburn and White-Jacket as “two jobs which I have done for money — being forced to it as other men are to sawing wood.” I know the “two job” syndrome. It was my own problem, the ludicrous, if mitigating, circumstances of taking notes on the run, driving to Yale, in my case, year after year facing a three-hour commute each way from my house on Cape Cod to the university, teaching two courses a week each semester to 70 or so students, allowing office hours, with no end of reading and grading assignments, to say nothing of being paid through a bean blower. I can’t tell you how many times I took notes by the side of the road or scribbled them on my hand, not having had the good sense in the course of my teaching career to forego the lark of writing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, a matter on academic faculties — ask a poet or novelist sometime — that almost always incurs both the wrath and envy of scholars, a group of fussy and competitive nancies who invariably choose to find creative work antithetical to scholarly. “A good writer does what is necessary to get the right word,” as R.M. Koster, author of The Dissertation, once observed, and leading my dual life I tried to cope, as on I wrote. But haste breeds imps. And glitches are usually the result. Inaccuracy rarely fails to surface in consequence, the sin for which penance, as bad as any prig at Yale, contritely has to be made.

To return to the matter of plagiarism. Ordinarily, a graceful reader who comes across such parallel texts would first contact the author for an explanation, especially when the matter is clearly an exception to the book and not the rule. Mrs. Kiss never wrote to me or called, but, with the encouragement of another writer. Burton Somebody Or Other — from Yale — who insisted she list the offending passages and send them to the New York Times Book Review, she did so. An irony intrudes. I myself had written to the very same editor of that supplement, Rebecca Sinkler, two years before on another matter, looking for work. I explained that I wanted to review books and enclosed, along with my résumé, three or four sample reviews. The reviews might have come from any of the many newspapers or magazines I have reviewed for, the Washington Post, National Review, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Review of Contemporary Fiction, the Boston Globe, Harvard Magazine. Sinkler never bothered to answer my letter. May I boastfully assert, in the light of the scorn and obloquy subsequently brought to my literary crime and the front-page notoriety given to both me and my book, that I am therefore a relatively well-known writer? It would be hard to prove in this instance. Sinkler never responded to me. She sent not a postcard. She sent — and said — nothing.

And so she ignored me?

Well, yes and no. Rebecca Sinkler, it appears, always studiously ignored me when she could help me but never failed to give me attention when it would hurt. Consider The Primary Colors. It was published on September 1, 1994, and reviewed that very same week — to raves, let me bumptiously but truthfully add — by virtually every major newspaper in the country, in most and many instances on the front page, as with the Los Angeles Times, a matter of timing that is often the sine qua non of a book’s life, never mind being crucial to its success. Despite the countless pleas (phone calls, letters) by my editor at Henry Holt to Sinkler that the book be reviewed, she lamely sat on it until Christmas week, at which time, given a brilliant review, it was nevertheless tucked inconsequentially into the bushy pages of that fat issue, four long and useless months after it could have helped, and the book sank like a stone. It should be noted on this score that in the New York Times Book Review, a book is very often reviewed, almost always helpful, before publication. So Sinkler, batting a thousand, met both my request to review and my book with glad insouciance and with Aristarchean silence.

But she wasn’t asleep. At one point during that fall of 1994 an earnest reader sent a letter to the Book Review indicating that in one essay in The Primary Colors I had given the wrong identifying wing numbers to the plane on Amelia Earhart’s 1932 flight as well as referred, mistakenly, to German flying ace Baron Von Richtofen’s triplane as a monoplane. This letter, documenting quibbles culled from a 300-page book in which there are more than forty-seven facts on any given page and yet legitimately made (and gratefully received, I want to add) — was not only immediately run on the “Letters" page of the Book Review but, to be certain it was not overlooked, boxed center-page front in a highlighted Rouault-black border, along with an accompanying derisive cartoon!

And then on April 12, 1995, after mentioning this entire mess and all my suspicions to a friend of mine, Steven Moore, an editor at Dalkey Archive Press, I received from him the following letter, which I quote entirely:

Dalkey Archive Press

Fairchild Hall ISU

Normal, Illinois 61761

“Dear Alex,

Thanks for your letter. As it happens, I was talking to someone only last week about this ridiculous affair, and he gave me some further information that you may want to use if and when you want to publish anything about this matter. (The information was given to me in confidence, so I can’t reveal my source, but you can attribute it to ‘a well-informed publishing industry insider.’)

“You’re right about Rebecca Sinkler having it in for you (though my informant didn’t know why): there’s usually very little communication between the Times Book Review and the Times news department, so when Sinkler received Kiss’s letter, it was highly unusual for her to pass it along to them, instead of merely publishing it in the Book Review's letters section (or just ignoring it — my informant says the Times Book Review gets letters like that all the time, most of which are ignored). So she handed it over to the news department, saying something like, ‘This is important and I think you should go after it.’ (This was one of her parting shots; she’s no longer there, as you probably know.) As bad luck would have it, the Times had just hired a new person to cover the publishing industry, so when Mary Tabor got the letter from Sinkler, she saw this as her big chance to show her new employers what she was made of. That’s why it was blown out of proportion, because this cub reporter wanted to make a splash for herself — not because the story itself was important.

“Regarding Sinkler’s lack of response to your offer to review for them: I remember that when you first said that you wanted to write more book reviews, I wrote to [book reviewer Michael] Dirda at the [Washington] Post and Sinkler on your behalf. Oddly enough, she acknowledged my letter, thanking me for the recommendation and saying she’d consider the matter. I wonder why me and not you. Perhaps because (I cringe to say it) I’m in the same business’ as she is, and you’re not, hence it was professional courtesy. (Though that professional courtesy certainly hasn’t translated into coverage of Dalkey’s books; that paper still ignores most everything we publish.)

“My thoughts have been with you during this whole thing. It must be an awful distraction from your work, as if you didn’t have enough distractions and problems. Two people (the informant above and an author of ours) wondered if you would commit suicide over this — seriously! — but I just laughed at them, telling them you’re made of tougher stuff than that.

Love always,

Steven [signed]”

It was, all of it, vindictive. It was petty. It was biased. It was inordinately cruel. It was picayune. It was vile. It was venal. It is the kind of thing that the prats, prancing indefinites, and lackeys at the Times Book Review would surely let happen to anyone — aren’t there errors of fact in every book that was ever published? — except their pets, who are in point of fact known to every editor in the whole publishing world and elsewhere, not only in the immediate area of New York City. I should point out that the Times story was picked up with relish by a hack reporter and parochial at the Boston Globe, one M.R. Montgomery, who had done an inept and belittling “profile” on me the previous summer, riddled with mistakes, half-truths, negative slants, and outright bias, who was on the telephone to Holt the very next morning, I was told by my editor at Holt, “lustfully ready” to spread the story. It was hateful and hurtful and a hellish thing to do in every direction. And in its scheming unkindness and lust for gossip and characteristic want of fair play it was deliberate.

Yet while all of it is hurtful to my reputation, as it stands, it will be read one day not only as a sign — a symptom — of the times but as a classic example of the exocannibalism it is and next to which my books, outliving such calumnies and gross exaggerations, will in their own right and their own lights shine. Gratuitous meanness is the spirit of the age, and plagiarism is one of the elect sins that thrills the soul of the gratuitously mean.

And so Kiss having sent her letter to Sinkler and Sinkler handing it over to Tabor and Tabor writing the article — Clotho to Lachesis to Atropos — with not a one of them in their mad boomist zeal to decorticate a reputation (to any observer a characteristic of this vile and illiterate age) ever bothering to learn or care to know how it happened — it is left for me not so much to defend as try to explain what vicissitudes in a writing life can lead to such an error. There is an interior logic to even foolishness and stupidity that should absolve what can too easily look like a deliberate fault. I only hope in the light of my explanation that I am not alone in comprehending the whys and wherefores of that fault and that by stating it I am able to some degree to save it from a guile it never had. I ask of the reader only that understanding. If I have succeeded in that, I feel it absolution enough, only adding with the Psalmist as a gentle reminder of the universal need for prayer, “O Lord, if you mark iniquities, who shall stand?”

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