Brander Matthews.

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the Pendulum,' but in his 'Marginalia' he retailed
as his own Sheridan's joke about the phoenix and
Whitbread's poulterer's description of it.

I believe that both Ben Jonson and the elder
Dumas defended their forays into the marches of
their elders, and even of their contemporaries, by
the bold assertion that genius does not steal, it
conquers. And there is force in the plea. Genius
takes by right of eminent domain, and rectifies its
frontier by annexing outlying territory, making
fruitful that which before was but a barren waste.
In literature, that is his at last who makes best use
of it. And here is the essence of the controversy
in a nutshell : it is plagiarism for an author to take
anything from another author and reproduce it
nakedly ; but it is not necessarily plagiarism if he
reclothes it and dresses it up anew. If the second


comer can improve on the work of the first comer,
if he makes it over and makes it better, and
makes it his own, we accept the result and ask no
questions. But if he make no change, or if he
make a change for the worse, we send for the
police at once. A man may be allowed to keep
his borrowed brats, if he clothe them and feed
them and educate them, and if he make no
attempt to disguise them, and if he is not guilty
of the fatal mistake of disfiguring them " as the
gypsies do stolen children to make 'em pass for
their own." (This figure, by the way, was an
orphan of Churchill's when Sheridan came along
and adopted it.) Thus, we find it hard to forgive
Herrick for one of his thefts from Suckling, when
he took the loveliest lines of the lovely ' Ballad
upon a Wedding' :

Her feet beneath her petticoat,
Like little mice, stole in and out,
As if they feared the light,

and in his ' Hesperides ' he spoilt them to

Her pretty feet, like snails, did creep a little out.

Nothing is further from my desire than that I
should be taken either as a defender of plagiarism
or as a denier of its existence. It exists, and it is


an ugly crime. What I am seeking to show is
that it is not as frequent as many may imagine,
and more especially that much which is called
plagiarism is not criminal at all, but perfectly
legitimate. For instance, Mr. Charles Reade's in
corporation of fragments of the ' Dialogues ' of
Erasmus in the 'Cloister and the Hearth,' and of
Swift's ' Polite Conversation ' in the ' Wandering
Heir,' was a proper and even a praiseworthy use
of preexisting material. But Mr. Reade did not
always remain within his rights, and it is im
possible to doubt that his ' Portrait ' was first
hung in the private gallery of Mme. Reybaud,
and that some of his ' Hard Cash ' was filched
from the coffers of the 'Pauvres de Paris' of
MM. Brisebarre and Nus. Mme. Reybaud's pic
ture was not a Duchess of Devonshire which a
man might so fall in love with that he could
not help stealing it indeed, it is not easy to
discover why Mr. Reade wanted it ; but the
drama of MM. Brisebarre and Nus is ingeniously
pathetic, and although no one has made as skil
ful use of its fable as Mr. Reade, it has served
to suggest also Miss Braddon's ' Rupert God
win, Banker,' Mr. Sterling Coyne's 'Fraud and
its Victims,' and Mr. Dion Boucicault's ' Streets of



It is in the theatre that we hear the most accusa
tions of plagiarism. Apparently there is an un
willingness on the part of the public to believe
that a play can be original, and a dramatist
nowadays is forced not only to affirm his in
nocence, but almost to prove it. I am inclined
to think that the habit of adapting from the
French a habit now happily in its decline is
responsible for this state of things, for the laxity
of morals on the part of the author, and for the
general and ungenerous suspicion on the side of
the public.

It is the playwright's fault, one must confess, if
the playgoer is doubtful as to the paternity of every
new play. So many pieces were brought out as
"new and original," which were neither original
nor new, that the playgoer was confirmed in his
suspicions; and he finds it hard to surrender the
habit of doubt even now when a French drama in
an English or American theatre generally bears the
French author's name, and when the best work of
the best English and American dramatists is really
their own. Mr. Herman Merivale and Mr. Bronson
Howard, Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Pinero, and other of
the little band of young playmakers whose work
seems to promise a possible revival of the English
drama as a form of art and a department of litera-


ture, are quite above the meanness of taking a
foreign author's plot without authority or acknowl
edgment. Yet they suffer for the sins of their

Credit, said a great economist, is suspicion
asleep ; and the saying is as true in the playmaking
profession as it is in the trade of moneymaking.
Suspicion is suffering from an acute attack of in
somnia just now, and many dramatic critics are
quick to declare a resemblance between Macedon
and Monmouth, if there be salmons in both, and
when the dramatist is shown to have lifted a tiny
lamb they are ready to hang him for a stalwart
sheep. Now, there is no department of literature
in which similarities are as inevitable as they are in
the drama. I have tried to show already that the
elements of the drama are comparatively few, and
that the possible combinations are not many.
There are only a few themes suited for treatment
in the theatre, and many a topic which a novelist
can handle to advantage the dramatist is debarred
from attempting by the conditions of the stage. A
certain likeness there must needs be between the
new plays and the old plays in which the same
subject has been discussed by the dramatist. And
these coincidences may be as innocent as they are



I remember that when Mr. Dion Boucicault origi
nally produced the ' Shaughraun ' it was at Wai-
lack's Theatre in New- York ten or twelve years
ago there was an attempt to prove that he had
taken his plot from an earlier Irish drama by Mr.
Wybert Reeve. At first sight the similarity between
the two plays was really striking, and parallel col
umns were erected with ease. But a closer investi
gation revealed that all that was common to these
two plays was common to fifty other Irish plays,
and that all that gave value to the 'Shaughraun'
the humor, the humanity, the touches of pathos,
the quick sense of character was absent from the
other play. There is a formula for the mixing of
an Irish drama, and Mr. Reeve and Mr. Boucicault
had each prepared his piece according to this
formula, making due admixture of the Maiden-in-
Distress, the Patriot-in-danger-of-his-Life, and the
Cowardly Informer, who have furnished forth
many score plays since first the Red-Coats were
seen in the Green Isle. Both dramatists had drawn
from the common stock of types and incidents,
and there was really no reason to believe that Mr.
Boucicault was indebted to Mr. Reeve for anything,
because Mr. Reeve had little in his play which had
not been in twenty plays before, and which Mr.
Boucicault could not have put together out of his


recollections of these without any knowledge of
that. Of course there is a great difference between
the original and the commonplace, but if a man
cannot be the former it is no sin to be the latter.
Commonplace is not plagiarism. That a coat is
threadbare is no proof that it has been stolen on
the contrary.

To any one understanding the subtlety of mental
processes, and especially the movements of the
imagination, a similarity of situation is often not
only not a proof of plagiarism, but a proof that
there has been no plagiarism. This sounds like a
paradox, but I think I can make my meaning clear
and evident. When we find the same strikingly
original idea differently handled by two authors,
we may absolve the later from any charge of
literary theft if we find that his treatment of the
novel situation differs from his predecessor's. If
the treatment is different, we may assume that the
second writer was not aware of the existence of
the first writer's work. And for this reason : if
the later author were acquainted with the startlingly
novel effect of the earlier author, he could not have
treated the same subject without repeating certain
of the minor peculiarities also. He must perforce
have taken over with the theme in some measure
the treatment also. All literary workmen know



how difficult it is to disentangle the minor details
from the main idea, and to strip the idea naked,
discarding the mere detail. Had the second writer
known of the first writer's work, he could not help
being influenced by it. Thus it is that a similarity
of subject may be evidence of originality. There
is a short story by Fitzjames O'Brien, called 'What
Was It? ' in which there is a palpable but invisible
being. Since this was first published there have
been two other short stories on the same idea, one
published in the Atlantic Monthly by Mr. Charles
de Kay, and the other published anonymously in
the Cornbitt Magazine. The tale in the Cornbitt
coincides in detail as well as in idea, and it is
almost impossible to declare its anonymous author
guiltless of plagiarism. But Mr. de Kay's story
was wholly different in its elaboration, and the two
tales, although the chief figure in each was a being
palpable but invisible, were as unlike as possible.
Here there was obviously no plagiarism. The
coat to take up the figure of the last para
graph was made of the same cloth, but its cut
was not the same.

(Lately since this paper first appeared the
central figure of Fitzjames O'Brien's story has
been seen again in 'Le Horla' of M. Guy de Mau
passant, but with a treatment so personal and a


modification so striking that it seems impossible
that the French author has not happened on it in
dependently, however easy it might be to pre
pare parallel columns to prove him a plagiarist.)

Three or four years ago the Saturday Review
laid down the law of plagiarism in three clauses :

1. "In the first place, we would permit any great
modern artist to recut and to set anew the literary
gems of classic times and of the Middle Ages."

2. "Our second rule would be that all authors
have an equal right to the stock situations which
are the common store of humanity." 3. " Finally,
we presume that an author has a right to borrow
or buy an idea, if he frankly acknowledges the
transaction." In commenting on this code, I sug
gested that there might be a difficulty of interpre
tation in the first clause, for who is to declare any
modern a great artist? In the second clause the
law is clearly stated, and whether any given situa
tion is or is not common property is a question of
fact for the jury. The only difficulty in applying
the third clause is in defining precisely the degree
of frankness and fulness required in acknowledg
ing the indebtedness. But hypercriticism is out
of place in considering a suggestion as valuable, as
needful just now, and as neatly put up as this
triple law of the contributor to the Saturday



Review. A general acceptance of this code would
tend to clear the air of the vague charges of pla
giarism which hang in heavy clouds over the liter
ary journals. Before we can decide whether an
author is guilty of the offence, we must be agreed
on what constitutes the crime, what are its ele
ments, and what are the exemptions. I have
ventured to draw up the statute of exemptions in
a form slightly different from that given in the
Saturday Review, a little broader and stronger,
and perhaps a little simpler : A writer is at liberty
to use the work of his predecessors as he will,
provided always that (i) he does not take credit
(even by implication) for what he has not invented,
and (2) that he does not in any way infringe on
the pecuniary rights of the original owner.

When M. Sardou brought out the farcical com
edy ' Les Pommes du Voisin,' he was accused
of having stolen it from a tale of Charles de Ber
nard, and he retorted instantly with evidence that
he had the permission of the holders of the Ber
nard copyrights, who were to share in the profits
of the play. Here M. Sardou was innocent under
the second clause of my law, but guilty under the
first, insomuch as he had concealed his indebted
ness to Charles de Bernard and had taken credit
for an invention which was not his own. When


Mr. Charles Reade turned Mrs. Burnett's ' That
Lass o' Lowrie's' into a play called 'Joan/ without
asking the permission of the American author, he
was guilty under the second clause and innocent
under the first, for there was no concealment of
the source of the drama.

With a proper understanding of what is and
what is not plagiarism, there should go a greater
circumspection in bringing the accusation. Plagiar
ism is the worst of literary crimes. It is theft,
neither more nor less. All who desire to uphold
the honor of literature, and to see petty larceny
and highway robbery meet with their just punish
ment, are concerned that the charge shall not be
idly brought or carelessly answered. But now so
often has the amateur literary detective cried
"Wolf" that patience is exhausted, and accusa
tions of literary theft have been flung broadcast,
until they may be met with a smile of contempt.
This is not as it should be. It is contrary to public
policy that the literary conscience should become
callous. The charge of plagiarism is very serious,
and it should not be lightly brought or lightly
borne. The accusation is very easy to make and
very hard to meet; it should be a boomerang,
which, when skilfully thrown, brings down the
quarry with a single deadly blow, but which,


when carelessly cast, rebounds swiftly and breaks
the head of him who threw it. The man who
makes the charge of plagiarism should be ready
to stand to his guns, and to pay the penalty of
having opened fire. And the penalty for having
failed to prove the accusation should be heavy.
The accuser should be put under bonds, so to
speak, to make his charge good, and if he loses his
case he should be cast in damages. It is not right
to force an author either unjustly to lie under an
accusation of theft, or to undergo the annoyance
and expense of refuting vague allegations, urged
in wanton carelessness by some irresponsible per
son. Nothing is more disagreeable or thankless
than a dispute with an inferior. Years ago Dr.
Holmes declared the hydrostatic paradox of con
troversy: "Controversy equalizes fools and wise
men in the same way and the fools know it! "

If we were to hold to a strict accountability the
feeble-minded persons who delight in pointing out
alleged coincidences and similarities, if we were to
discourage the accusation of plagiarism, except on
abundant evidence, if we were to declare that
any man who fails to sustain his charge shall be
discredited, we should do much to put down
plagiarism itself. When the difficulties and the
dangers of making the accusation are increased


and it is now neither difficult nor dangerous the
number of accusations will be decreased at once,
and in time the public conscience will be quickened.
Then it would be possible to get serious attention
for the serious case of literary theft, and then the
writer who might be found with stolen wares con
cealed about his person would be visited with
swifter condemnation and with more certain pun
ishment. But now all we can do is to remember

The man who plants cabbages imitates too.




A Confidential Communication to all Makers of Books.

PPARENTLY the true theory of the Pref
ace is apprehended by very few of
those who are, by trade, makers of
books to use Carlyle's characteri
zation of his own calling. Mr. Mat
thew Arnold, indeed, master of all literary arts,
was highly skilful in the use of the Preface, which,
in his hands, served to drive home the bolt of his
argument, and to rivet it firmly on the other side.
Those who have read one of Mr. Arnold's prefaces
know what to expect, and fall to, with increased
appetite, on the book itself. But not many men
may wield the weapons of Mr. Arnold, and very
few, as I have hinted already, are skilled in the use
of the Preface. Many, ignorant of its utility,
choose to ignore it altogether. More, accepting it
as a necessary evil, acquit themselves of it in the
most perfunctory fashion. There is slight sur
vival of the tradition which made the appeal to


the Gentle Reader a fit and proper custom. But
nowadays the appeal is useless, and the Gentle
Reader oh, where is he? In the days when
there was a Gentle Reader there was no giant
critic to appal the trembling author with his
thunderous Fee-Fo-Fum. In the beginning, when
printing was a new invention, it served for the
multiplication of books alone ; newspapers lagged
long after ; and it is only in the present century
that the reading public began to allow that middle
man, the critic, to taste and try before they buy.
The Preface in forma pauperis, in which the author
confessed his sinful publication and implored for
giveness, urging as his sole excuse "hunger and
request of friends," is now as much out of date
and as antiquated in style as the fulsome dedica
tion to a noble patron. The two lived together
and died together about the time when the work
ing man of letters moved out of his lodgings in
Grub Street.

The Preface in which the writer takes a humor
ous view of his own work is a late device ; it is
capable of good results in the hands of a literary
artist like Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, who sug
gests in the pages which prepare us to enjoy his
record of ' An Inland Voyage ' that in his Preface
an author should stand afar off and look at his



book affectionately, if he will, but dispassionately.
"It is best, in such circumstances," he asserts,
"to represent a delicate shade of manner be
tween humility and superiority, as if the book
had been written by some one else, and you had
merely run over it and inserted what was good."
Clever as this is, and characteristic and delightful
as its humor is, I feel constrained to assert my be
lief that Mr. Stevenson is not standing on the solid
ground of a sound theory. Mr. Stevenson is a
writer of exceptional gifts, and he may venture on
liberties which would be fatal to the rest of us :
his example affords no safe rule for ordinary mor
tals. In the Preface a man must take himself seri
ously, for a Preface is a very serious thing. It
cannot be denied that the humorous attitude is
much wiser than the self-depreciatory and the apol
ogetic, which are, unfortunately, far more com
mon. A humorist has, at least, a wholesome belief
in himself, and he can hide his doubting sorrow
with a smile ; whereas the plaintive author, who
confesses his weakness with tears in his eyes, is a
sorry spectacle that no critic need respect.

The cause of the apologetic Preface is obvious
enough. Although printed at the beginning of
the book, the Preface is the final thing written.
When the long labor of composition is over at


last, and the intense strain is relaxed suddenly,
then it is that the author sits down to his Preface.
There is a cooling of the enthusiasm which has
carried him through his work ; there is often,
indeed, a violent reaction ; and it is at this mo
ment of depression and despondency, when the
writer is a prey to dread doubt about his book and
about himself, that the Preface has to be composed.
Just then the author sometimes wonders whether
it is not his duty to throw what he has written in
to the fire, and so rid the world of a misconceived
and misshapen abortion. Rarely is this feeling,
acute as it is, and painful, quite strong enough to
make the author actually cast his MS. into the
grate never until, like Pendennis, he has made
sure that the fire is out. But his morbidity of spirit
and his self-distrust find vent in the Preface. Not
unfrequently is the Preface worded like a last
dying speech and confession. As M. Octave Uz-
anne says in the lively Preface to his lively little
book called the 'Caprices d'un Bibliophile,' "the
Preface is the salutation to the reader, and too
often, alas ! the terrible salutation of the gladiators
to Caesar ZMorituri te salutant! "

This is rank heresy : and all such heretics should
be burnt at the stake, or at least they should have
their books burnt in the market-place by the com-



mon hangman. The Preface is not the fit time
and occasion for the author to exhale his plaints,
to make confession of his sins, and to promise to
do penance. It is perhaps not too much to say that
the Preface is the most important part of a book,
except the Index. Anybody can write a book,
such as it is, but only a gifted man, or a man
trained in the art, can write a Preface, such as it
ought to be.

In the Preface the author must put his best foot
foremost, and this is often the premier pas qui
coute. A Preface should be appetizing, alluring,
enticing. As a battle well joined is half-won, as a
work well begun is half-done, so a book with a
good Preface is half-way on the high-road to suc
cess. In the Preface the author offers his first-
fruits and pours his libation. In the Preface the
author sets a sample of his text as in a show-
window. In the Preface the author strikes the
key-note of his work. Therefore must the good
Preface set forth the supreme excellence of the
book it should precede, as a brass-band goes
before a regiment. As delicately, and yet as un
hesitatingly, as the composer knows how, the
Preface should sound triumphant paeans of exult
ant self-praise. There is no need that a Preface
should be long ; it takes a large cart to carry a


score of empty casks, almost worthless, while a
ten-thousand-dollar diamond may go snugly in a
waistcoat-pocket. But a Preface must be strong
enough to do its allotted work. Now, its allotted
work and here we are laying bare the secret of
the true theory of the Preface is to furnish to the
unwitting critic a syllabus or a skeleton of the
criticism which you wish to have him write.

The thoughtless may declare that "nobody
reads a Preface " ; but there could be no more
fatal blunder. Perhaps that impalpable entity, the
general reader, may skip it not infrequently ; but
that tangible terror, the critic, never fails to read
the Preface, even when he reads no farther. Now
and again the general reader may dispense with
the reading of the Preface, as legislative assemblies
dispense with the reading of the minutes of the
last meeting, that they may the sooner get to the
business in hand. The critic is a very different
sort of person from the general reader, and it is
meat and drink to him to read a Preface. The
author should recognize this fact ; he should ac
cept the altered conditions of the Preface. Con
sider for a moment what the Preface was, what it
is now, and what it should be. It was addressed
to the reader, who read it rarely. It is now, as
we have seen above, anything or nothing, some-


times absent, often artless, seldom apt. It should
be a private letter from the author to the critic
indicating the lines upon which he (the author)
would like him (the critic) to frame an opinion and
to declare a judgment. A good Preface is like
the trick modern magicians use, when, under pre
tence of giving us free choice, they force us to
draw the card they have already determined upon.
So if a book have a proper Preface, contrived with
due art, the critic cannot choose but write about it
as the author wishes. A master of the craft will
blow his own horn in the Preface of his book so
skilfully and so unobtrusively that only a faint
echo shall linger in the ear of the critic, iterating
and reiterating the Leit-Motiv of self-praise until
the charmed reviewer repeats it unconsciously.

Of course it is not easy for a gentleman to praise
himself publicly as he feels he deserves to be
praised. The pleasantest and most profitable
Preface for the beginner in book-making is the in
troduction by one of the acknowledged leaders of
literature. Then, by a strange reversal of custom,

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Online LibraryBrander MatthewsPen and ink; papers on subjects of more or less importance → online text (page 3 of 14)