Last Friday, Slate's editor-at-large and press critic Jack Shafer took on the case of alleged plagiarism by the novelist Ian McEwan. In a sidebar, Shafer reproduced passages from McEwan's Atonement and Lucille Andrews's No Time for Romance, and, in his column, confidently declared, "As a long-time magazine and newspaper editor, I'd have no trouble firing McEwan for writing as he did if he worked for me."
Shafer may have missed this, but in the last London Review of Books, John Barrell noticed some similarities between a book on Thomas Paine by Slate contributor Christopher Hitchens and a biography of Paine written by John Keane. Barrell makes his point by setting out paragraphs from Hitchens and Keane side-by-side, and it makes for a pretty convincing case that something went awry. (See for yourself: The relevant passage of Barrell's essay is included after the jump.)
To be fair, here is Barrell's own interpretation of the evidence:
Although Hitchens's debt to Keane is palpable in passages like this - the same selection of facts in the same order - there is of course no question of plagiarism, for Hitchens everywhere introduces little touches of fine writing that allow him to claim ownership of what he has borrowed: the inspired choice of 'heavy-footed', for example, to describe the visits of the police, or the tellingly patronising phrase 'the good bishop'[.]
It's hard to say whether Barrell is being sarcastic or not, but Shafer, who has railed against plagiarists in the past, made clear in his McEwan column that he's not much interested in how the supposed experts interpret the evidence.
Barrell goes on to note the exact attribution Hitchens actually gave to Keane: "Hitchens nowhere acknowledges the debt he owes to Keane's narrative, though he does have footnotes to Keane, eight in all, which cite him simply as the source for quotations." In other words, Hitchens nowhere acknowledges that he was "inspired by" Keane's work in the passages quoted below.
Now, whether Hitchens has actually committed plagiarism is above my paygrade, but apparently Shafer can spot the offense from a mile away. And he's firing people in his imagination for it, to boot. From what I can tell, the similarities between Hitchens and Keane aren't all that different in magnitude from the similarities between McEwan and Andrews.
Hitchens writes for Slate, and Shafer is the site's editor-at-large. Hitchens didn't write his Paine biography for Slate, of course, but I'd (honestly) like to know what Shafer thinks. When he wrote about l'affaire Domenech earlier this year, Shafer made a point of defending Washington Post Executive Editor Jim Brady on the ground that he didn't "know of any editor who, absent an inkling, conducts a plagiarism investigation before hiring a writer or assigning a piece." Is this an inkling, Jack? And if so, now what?
Right after Barrell notes some factual inaccuracies in Hitchens's work, he writes:
It is the more surprising to find these errors, as none of them occur in John Keane's biography of Paine (1995), on which Hitchens depends heavily - it must have been lying open on his desk as he was writing this book. Here for example is Keane on Watson's Apology:
Watson . . . went so far as to admit that parts of the Pentateuch were not written by Moses and that some of the psalms were not composed by David . . . Paine took particular pleasure in some of the Bishop's curious admissions. For example, The Age of Reason questioned whether God really commanded that all men and married women among the Midianites should be slaughtered and their maidens preserved. Not so, the Bishop indignantly retorted. The maidens were not preserved for immoral purposes, as Paine had wickedly suggested, but as slaves, to which Christians could not legitimately object.
And here is Hitchens: Watson, he tells us,
was willing to admit that Moses could not have written all of the Pentateuch and that David was not invariably the psalmist. But he would not give too much ground. Paine was quite out of order, wrote the good bishop, in saying that God had ordered the slaughter of all adult male and female Midianites, preserving only the daughters for rapine. On the contrary, the daughters had been preserved solely for the purpose of slavery. No hint of immorality was involved.
Or here is Keane on the problems Paine encountered in his efforts to publish Part One of Rights of Man:
Paine finished the first part of Rights of Man on his 54th birthday, 29 January 1791 . . . The next day, Paine passed the manuscript to the well-known London publisher Joseph Johnson, who set about printing it in time for the opening of Parliament and Washington's birthday on 22 February. As the unbound copies piled up in the printing shop, Johnson was visited repeatedly by government agents. Although Johnson had already published replies to Burke's Reflections by Thomas Christie, Mary Wollstonecraft and Capel Lofft, he sensed, correctly, that Paine's manuscript would attract far more attention and bitter controversy than all of them combined. Fearing the book police, and unnerved by the prospect of arrest and bankruptcy, Johnson suppressed the book on the very day of its scheduled publication.
And here is Hitchens again:
Having completed Part One on his 54th birthday, 29 January 1791, Paine made haste to take the manuscript to a printer named Joseph Johnson. The proposed publication deadline, of 22 February, was intended to coincide with the opening of Parliament and the birthday of George Washington. Mr Johnson was a man of some nerve and principle, as he had demonstrated by printing several radical replies to Burke (including the one by Mary Wollstonecraft) but he took fright after several heavy-footed visits from William Pitt's political police. On the day of publication, he announced that The Rights of Man would not appear under the imprint of his press.
(This post has been modified from an earlier posting at Penguins On The Equator.)