Today, an act of plagiarism is not quite what it
seems to be. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
It's a constant irritation
how easily my literary friends forget the technical
and scientific work of writers like Thoreau, Thomas Paine, Goethe, Nevil Shute and Lewis Carroll. Who remembers that
Oliver Goldsmith was known in his day as a
Now paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, himself a
fine essayist, adds a new, if tarnished, name to
that list. It is Edgar Allan
Poe . Of all Poe's books, only one made it into
a second edition. The title was The
Conchologist's First Book. It's about
mollusk shells, and it carries the formidable
subtitle A System of Testaceous Malacology,
arranged Expressly for the Use of Schools.
Now, you may wonder, what's so tarnished about
Poe's great name? The alcoholic Poe, always short
of money, was given the chance to make a buck in
1839. His friend Thomas Wyatt had written a fancy
book on mollusk shells the year before. It went for
the extravagant price of $8, and no one bought it.
Wyatt figured a trimmed-down version might do
better. So he hired Poe as a coauthor and arranged
for Poe's name to appear alone on the title page.
At $1.75, the new book was a great hit. Yet this
was worse than simple ghostwriting.
Poe and Wyatt had lifted chunks of their book from
an English naturalist, Thomas Brown. Following
Gould's lead, I went to a far corner of my library
with "many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten
lore" about Poe. His biographers all hate his
venture into science. They mutter an embarrassed
apology for Poe's shady side-track -- then hurry
back to talk about The Raven.
Now Gould says, wait a minute. Yes, Poe
plagiarized. But Poe, fluent in French, went back
to read Georges Cuvier, the great French
naturalist. Then he changed the organization of
Wyatt's original book. Wyatt had arranged creatures
by the shapes of their shells. But Poe said,
"There's more to a creature than that." He made a
much broader classification system. One biographer
complains that Poe is "boring, pedantic, and
hair-splitting." But Poe was actually taking pains
to construct a better system. In his preface, he
talks about the meaning of the word conchology,
The Greek conchylion from which it is
derived, he says, embraces both the animal
and [its] shell.
Poe's excursion into natural philosophy was an
embarrassment to people who are embarrassed by
science in the first place. But for Gould, it
contains a delicious surprise. In return for the
pittance Wyatt had paid him, Poe patched together a
genuinely useful insight into biological taxonomy.
And I think of a cynical remark that playwright
Wilson Mizner once made:
If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism.
If you steal from many, it's research.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds