Poe and the Case of the Purloined Textbook

For the moment, I am putting Wilde aside, to focus on one of my other authors: Poe.  Yep.  Poe was accused of plagiarism in writing a textbook, and then, a few years later, he went off his rocker (according to some critics) and publically accused Longfellow and other writers of plagiarism.

My starting information on Poe’s plagiarism is sketchy.  Critics and the information I can glean online seem to disagree whether Poe really plagiarized, and if he was at all justified in accusing Longfellow.  Specific examples in most sources, even a fairly good book I’m using called Poe’s Literary Battles, are frustratingly rare, so I am off to hunt down the answers myself!  Questions to tackle include: what non-hypocritical paradigm allows for extensive plagiarism on one hand and the disparagement of it on the other?  Are there multiple types of plagiarism at play in these cases?  Or is Poe being contradictory?    How does Poe’s conception of plagiarism stand up to critics of his time?  Ours?  Did he plagiarize with a literary purpose?  A functional one?   What shape/structure/extent did his plagiarisms take?

To begin my literary investigation, I went straight to the source of the plagiarism accusations against Poe: Edgar Allen Poe’s The Conchologist’s First Book, and the Thomas Wyatt’s Manual of Conchology. Luckily, University of Delaware has both of these original printed editions in their special collections.  I couldn’t take the volumes out of special collections, so I had a very quiet day of notetaking in the library, careful to use the page weights and book wedges to avoid tearing the browned 150-year-old pages.

Before I get into my reflections, I have to give some context on this controversy.  The first question is: Conchology?  The study of shells—if you didn’t know Poe was into shells, you aren’t the only one.

I had never heard of Poe’s relationship to natural science, having taken a whole undergrad course dedicated to his writing.  But it’s not that Poe had a secret shell-collecting hobby (probably?).  According to Steven Jay Gould, a Harvard Professor of History and Biology, in his essay “Poe’s Greatest Hit” (a summary of the article can be found here) Poe’s much maligned textbook was a patchwork of sources: “basically a scam, but not so badly done. Poe didn’t need much scientific knowledge to fulfill his appointed role as part name lender, part literary man, and part plagiarist” (Gould).

Here’s what happened: Thomas Wyatt, an expert in the subject of conchology, wanted to publish a cheaper version of his 1838 expensive $8 manual, to take with him on lecture tours.  However, his publisher didn’t want a cheaper version of the same book, fearing it would reduce sales for his already-published volume.  So, Wyatt hired Poe to work with him on a new version of the text.  Since the manual would be in Poe’s name, they could pull one over on the publisher: Wyatt would get his cheaper book, and Poe would get $50 for the job.  As a bonus, the volume could trade on Poe’s good name as a writer who was growing in popularity at the time.  The new volume was published in 1839, and was so successful it went into a second edition.

This is where it gets complicated: Exactly which contributions were Poe’s and which were Wyatt’s revisions or ideas is unclear, but, according to Gould, Poe was probably responsible for translating Cuvier’s earlier work from French because Poe had extensive classical training in languages.  Also, despite being a patchwork of many sources: Wyatt’s, Cuvier’s (French), Brown’s (British), Lamark (French, but they probably used Brown’s interpretations of Lamark), the compact volume was organized in an innovative way, including not just information about the shells, but the animals inside.  This was apparently a big deal in the world of conchology, to give the mushy animals as great importance to the science of conchology as the pretty shells.  However, many modern literary critics, unfamiliar with the science/history of conchology have dismissed “Poe’s” patchwork-plagiarism text “hackwork.”  Certainly, if readers are looking for Poe’s characteristic fluid, suspenseful, rhythmic style, they won’t find it here amongst the methodical classification of mollusks.

What I saw in my comparison between these two works in the library bolsters this history.  From the title pages of the works, they were published at different publishing houses, Wyatt’s in New York and Poe’s in Philadelphia.   Throughout both of the texts there were no attributions to signal borrowed passages; however, both Wyatt and Poe’s versions included acknowledgements:

Wyatt’s title page: “according to the system laid down by Lamark, with late improvements by De Blainville”

Poe’s cites Cuvier and says that this volume is “brought up, as accurately as possible, to the present condition of the science.”  This note seems particularly interesting as a catch-all attribution, seeming to say—if I put it in here, whoever it belongs to, it’s because that material belongs to the present condition of science.  In a way, by doing this, Poe turns the insult of plagiarism into a bit of a coded compliment, saying:  Sure, I plagiarized you, but that’s because you were a major player in the field.  Poe does not mention Brown or Wyatt on his title page.  He does mention Wyatt in his introduction, but not to say he was a source for much of the book.  Instead, probably to legally hide the copyright infringement going on, but still leave some trace of attribution, he advertises Wyatt’s book, suggesting it as the next volume for interested readers.  The purpose of this book, he says in his introduction is: “To afford, at a cheap rate, a concise, yet sufficiently comprehensive, and especially a well illustrated school-book, has been the principal design” (4).

This admitted purpose brings up something that Gould didn’t go into in his essay, but that I think is a huge part of Poe’s intention here, one that I think conceivably makes plagiarism an appropriate option.  To Poe, this is a textbook, one for beginning, basic learners, a reference guide.  Poe wasn’t a scientist—everyone knew that.  Instead, Poe was a writer, a journalist, in fact.  So, number one, Poe wasn’t masquarading as an expert in shells, but lending his expertise and ethos in writing.  A key part of plagiarism is in the “taking credit”–replacing attribution with the self.  It isn’t so much the lack of attribution that makes a document plagiarized, as the explicit or implied claiming of that material’s origin.  For instance, if I wrote that I overhead a conversation on a bus and it gave me X idea, it’s probably no problem if I say I don’t know who the people were on the bus, but it’s a bit different if I say it was my idea which came to me out of thin air.   My students who plagiarize often get this part of the definition wrong–they often use Wikipedia as a way of plagiarizing “nobody” not realizing that it’s much less about what you are taking from others (that’s more in the realm of copyright), than about what you are saying about yourself.   So, I can see Poe’s thinking–how can I possibly take credit for knowing writing something that I obviously know nothing about, and have no reputation, no ethos for?

So, why/how could Poe write about something he doesn’t know about anyway?  Poe actually had quite a bit of experience in this field, because this stepping out of ones’ field of expertise to write is exactly what journalists do, and Poe was a journalist.   A professor might write with the purpose not only to communicate, but to say something about him/herself, whereas journalists can manipulate their ethos, to write not from a position of authority on a topic, but to authority on communicating effectively.  Journalists are, in a way, educators.  They write on a myriad of topics, ones they are not experts in, but it is their job to organize the information and communicate it to a popular audience.  Journalists become teachers to a popular audience. This is exactly what I saw Poe doing in this book–teaching.

Wyatt’s work digressed into the history, resemblance, or use of the shell, whereas Poe’s work divides each entry (one genus each, in the same order as Wyatt with only one scientific correction in adding the the Janthinea family) into “animal” and “shell.”  When the information was unknown, Poe’s version just had “unknown” and moved on (not why it’s unknown, which Wyatt would sometimes do), or if it was repeated from the previous entry, he had a reference to that entry, and that’s it.  By using this organization, Poe’s work was more direct, concise, but also more consistent and comprehensive than Wyatt’s.

While scanning through each version, I made a mental comparison. Wyatt’s version was like taking a class with an old professor, one with favorite anecdotes and observations to tell as he covers the material.  He even referenced a fairytale in one entry, mentioning a shipwreaked captain finding some shell; at another point he mentioned how the natives of an island used a certain type of shell.  This is a professor who can weigh the facts in the discipline and make choices based on what he sees as relevant or interesting.  Poe has no such advantage.  Poe, (if it was indeed Poe making these organizational choices) coming in as a novice to this field, constructs and categorizes the information in the most logical way to understand it for a novice, giving equal weight to each animal and each feature.  Poe writes like a novice instructor, one who is piecing together the course material and lessons from the lecturers who have taught him, organized in a catalogue-fashion.  At least, that was the way I started out as a lecturer, not plagiarizing whole lessons, but very much drawing upon writing activities that I enjoyed as a student in order to present material in an overarching course narrative/structure that was my own.

When Poe was accused of plagiarism in 1847, I find it very appropriate that he draws on the genre of the teaching-text to explain:

“I published a book with this title–The Conchologist’s First Book…. This, I presume, is the work referred to. I wrote it, in conjunction with Professor Thomas Wyatt, and Professor McMurtrie of Ph[iladelphi]a–my name being put to the work, as best known and most likely to aid its circulation. I wrote the Preface and Introduction, and translated from Cuvier, the accounts of animals etc. All schoolbooks are necessarily made in a similar way. The very title page acknowledges that the animals are given ‘according to Cuvier.’ This charge is infamous and I shall prosecute for it, as soon as I settle my accounts with the Mirror”  (letter to George W. Eveleth qtd. in Gould).

In this passage, “plagiarism” is obviously a subjective and pejorative term, dependent upon the genre of the work.  The fact that some sections are verbatim from other texts does not mean that his work is plagiarism, according to Poe, because schoolbooks necessarily draw on other texts.

Now, that isn’t to say I necessarily agree with Poe.  What he did was certainly, at least, copyright infringement against Wyatt’s publisher.  Also, in not giving credit to Brown, who took his work from Lamark, he is still not acknowledging a secondary source for large portions of phrasing, and Brown’s work could be in the same genre as his own, so could complete in the same market, basically ripping off potential sales with his own words (however, since Brown was from England and international copyright was not fixed, Poe could not get in trouble for copyright infringement…but, of course, plagiarism and copyright infringement are different animals).  Anyway, this story isn’t over yet, and there is more to investigate—back to the library!

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