Plagiarists I Have Known
John Kelly here, with one last dispatch in place of the vacationing Marc Fisher.
The news that conservative blogger Ben Domenech has resigned from his short-lived "Red America" blog on washingtonpost.com amid allegations of plagiarism, has me remembering an incident from my own college days. I was a freshman or sophomore and in a creative writing class. The class was filled with the sort of people you would expect, pale and soft English majors such as myself, waifish poetesses. Then there was Franco.
Franco was a big, beefy,handsome jock-type guy. I took an instant dislike to him, especially since he seemed not to take the class seriously. Even before we'd turned in a single assignment, I knew he was going to be my nemesis. But I took solace in the fact that when it came time to actually write, I'd leave him in my dust.
Instead, Franco was like a young Updike. The first few assignments were pretty simple: brief poems, an essay no longer than a paragraph or two. We made mimeographed copies (mmmm, that smell) and distributed them to the rest of the class to critique. Franco's offerings were...lovely. Crystalline. Perfectly-formed. But there was also something odd about them. Not one of them seemed like another. And none of them seemed like Franco.
The assignments got more complicated as the semester continued. We had to compose a longer poem. I can't remember mine. And I can't remember all of Franco's. But I remember one line. I think it was the last line, and it included this phrase: "...where the shadows run from themselves."
Where the shadows run from themselves....Where the shadows run from themselves. That sounded familiar. Where had I heard it? Of course! It was from "White Room," by Cream! Franco had ripped off that line from Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce. Nobody seemed to notice but me.
One of the last assignments was to write a short story. Mine was some tortured thing about a girl whom the protagonist meets in a nightclub and how she rebuffs my, I mean his, advances. (Write what you know, they say.) After I read it to the class it met with what I like to think was respectful, contemplative silence. Then Franco read his. Hilarious! A tour de force! It was about a family taking an ill-starred vacation. Oh, the scrapes they got into! An accident in the station wagon. A goofy father and no-account kids. The class roared.
I silently seethed, for I had read that same short story in National Lampoon. It was the story that became the basis for "National Lampoon's Vacation" with Chevy Chase. This was before the movie came out, though. And the story had been in an issue of the magazine from several years earlier. Plus, National Lampoon was not the sort of rag those other creative writers would have encountered. I had to find a copy myself.
I scoured every used book and magazine store around the University of Maryland. I knew the date I needed (I'd looked it up somehow) but couldn't find that issue anywhere. It was almost as if Franco had bought them all up. I'm sure he didn't, but the result was the same: I had no proof. Still, at the end of the semester I went to the teacher, who was some poor overworked graduate student. I told her that Franco had ripped off Cream and National Lampoon. She promised to look into it.
I don't know what ever happened to Franco. I hope he got expelled, or at least banned from any future English classes. Today, it's so much easier to discover plagiarism. I wish we'd had Lexis-Nexis when I was in college.
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