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Jewish World Review Jan. 22, 2002 / 9 Shevat, 5762

Roger Rosenblatt

Roger Rosenblatt
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When the hero takes a fall -- CALL me Ishtar. That's good enough, don't you think? I mean, who would call it plagiarism, given that exceptionally clever change I made? And, if they did, so what? I could always say that my stupid, sloppy researcher forgot to include quotation marks, so I thought I was only stealing from my researcher. Of course, the sentence I lifted isn't quite the original, so some fussbudget might say that I'd been trying to avoid the appearance of plagiarism. Mmmm. Call me Irresponsible?

The subject, as if you hadn't guessed, is best-selling historian Stephen Ambrose, author of, among other works, a trilogy on Nixon; Crazy Horse and Custer; The Wild Blue; and Citizen Soldiers--well, author of most of them. For the past couple of weeks, prompted by a piece in The Weekly Standard showing the similarities between The Wild Blue and a 1995 book by historian Thomas Childers, truth diggers have discovered that there are a number of plagiarized passages in these books. And there may be more to come. You can bet that right now folks are crawling through Ambrose's Nothing Like It in the World to see if there is.

Among Ambrose's defenses are that he used footnotes to indicate his pilfered passages and that he was working too hastily to get the quotation marks in. He is hardly contrite. Last week he told TIME only that from now on, he was going to "cite and have quotation marks around anything I take out of secondary works." Indeed, when you merely change a few words here and there, a suspicious person might conclude that you are trying not to get caught. If Ambrose wanted to plead accident, he should have taken the passage word for word. How shall I put it? The fault lies not within our stars, but in ourselves that we screw up.

"I tell stories," he told the New York Times. "I don't discuss my documents. It almost gets to the point where, how much is the reader going to take?" Not as much as Ambrose, evidently. If he has a point, it seems to be that his narrative momentum would have been impeded by the use of quotation marks or by a completely original text--a defense a shoplifter might use when explaining that he would have paid for his stolen items, but that would have broken his stride on the way out of the store.

If Ambrose's own attempts at exculpation are lame, there are some potential excuses for word and idea theft that one ought to mention. One is the cut-and-paste capability of computers, which can lead to a too-quick stockpiling of information, the sources of which can be mislaid. Another is the state of American publishing. Too many book editors are book acquirers, not readers, because publishers are so zealous for the bottom line, they don't pay attention to the lines above it. Ambrose told the Times he was cautioned by his own editor, Alice Mayhew, one of the best in the game: "I don't want people to think of you as somebody just pumping out cookies."

But the more plausible, if not acceptable, reason for Ambrose's heist is suggested in a photo showing him standing proudly between Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, who have mined his books for their projects. Never mind that an awaiting Hollywood checkbook makes haste and waste. The whole culture of movie-making runs counter to writing. Lifting others' material in Hollywood is de rigueur, or do I mean homage? He who steals my purse steals garbage, but my word? Whoa, Nellie.

As you have surmised, I'm not buying any explanation for taking another person's words or ideas, partly because words and ideas are what make us individuals. This is why it is mystifying when one learns of such former borrowers as John Hersey or Alex Haley. These were people who defined their lives by the words they made. What laziness or madness could possibly explain their deliberately wearing someone else's mind? Frankly, if you want to appropriate someone else's ideas, I'd prefer cloning.

For Ambrose--a professor after all--I suspect that this momentary humiliation is a lot more painful than his gruffer-than-thou remarks let on. His students will be staring at him, wondering. But it gets worse. Clearly, he is an honest man who did some dishonest things. So the hardest time for him isn't now but rather occurred when he was putting his books together, looked hard at the pages with the stolen stuff on them and knew that he had a choice. Or maybe it was harder still to look at someone else's work, recognize that it was better than what you could do but then want it so badly you would be willing to stake your soul. To be, or not to be: that is the problem.

JWR contributor Roger Rosenblatt, a columnist for TIME, he has earned a Peabody, an Emmy, a Fulbright Scholarship, two George Polk Awards, and awards from the American Bar Association and Overseas Press Club. His latest book is Rules for Aging: Resist Normal Impulses, Live Longer, Attain Perfection. Comment by clicking here.


01/08/02: The fear not specific to target

© 2002, Roger Rosenblatt