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Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.2 (2005) 333-336
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High-Born Stealth and Other Readerly and Writerly Matters
Lighter's Historical Dictionary of American Slang records the word "chooser" to mean a plagiarist. If that bespeaks a terribly value-free informality, as though a plagiarist were merely a variety of anthologist, it should remind us that plagiarism is not, nor ever has been, uniformly scorned or reviled in any predictable way. Just as the definition of originality has changed over the centuries (Edward Dahlberg called it "high-born stealth" in his 1941 book Can These Bones Live), so too has the way in which plagiarism has been viewed. "Plagiarius" is first attested in Martial's epigrams in its literary sense of a deliberate thievery of text, as opposed to its more literal meaning of kidnapper or abductor. Martial's disgust at the practice is peculiarly modern; but between the first century C.E. and today, when plagiarism has metamorphosed into a constitutive element of student dishonesty (among other manifestations), a number of factors have influenced the acceptability of plagiarism: the reputation of imitation in literary theory, the advent of copyright law, etc. A key period in the history of plagiarism is that of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it is on those crucial two hundred years that Paulina Kewes's collection is focused.
Although some of the essayists in Plagiarism in Early Modern England stray briefly into adjacent territory—piracy, for example, or forgery, or the sort of lapidary citation dependence represented by Robert Burton or even Ezra Pound—mostly they explore the increasing criminalization of unacknowledged borrowing in the period from Jonson and Dryden (both of whom were accused of it), through the copyright act and its professionalization of authorship and its concretization of personal literary property, to the other Johnson (Samuel), whose opinion of plagiarism was more than a little colored by his having been taken in by a notorious accusation of it. (He contributed a preface and a postscript to William Lauder's cantankerous and ill-conceived attack on Milton's use of Latin "sources," sources which were soon shown to be taken from nothing more than a Latin translation of Paradise Lost.) Paul Baines contributes an enlightening paper on this mid-eighteenth-century part of plagiarism history, and Richard Terry helpfully extends the story through to Young, Stockdale, and John Pinkerton, who as early as 1785 was attempting to give the coup de grâce to literary imitation by dismissing it as "only a decent and allowed plagiarism." (Terry does not mention the fact that Pinkerton was himself guilty of literary forgery.) Harold Love contributes a paper on the Puritan sermon, and Lisa Richardson on Renaissance historicism. (Her essay contains a rather amusing typographical error in a sentence in which she calls John Hayward's Life and Raigne of King Henrie III"not a certo of undigested fragments." Certo is, of course, used in making homemade [End Page 333] jams, cento being the intended noun.) Christopher Ricks's British Academy paper on plagiarism provides an exploration of the word that is partly historical, partly philosophical, and partly moral; and other contributors react to and reflect on his contentions. Only Richard Steadman-Jones's paper, on two late eighteenth-century grammarians of Urdu, seems out of place here, or at least somewhat marginal.
The phrase "self-assertive appropriation" may sound like a characterization of plagiarism, but in fact it is Heather Jackson's neat shorthand description of the act of writing in books, and is meant to include the whole range of such acts, from a...