Thursday, January 25, 2007

Of Politics and Plagiarism

The death earlier this week of 88-year-old Watergate burglar and spy novelist E. Howard Hunt continues to generate headlines as well as less prominent insights.

Former Washington Post investigative reporter Carl Bernstein sat for an online chat at the Post Web site on Wednesday, answering readers’ questions about everything from Hunt’s theory that George H.W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson were complicit in President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination (“I would judge it preposterous and not worth further examination”) to the “lying and mendacity” practiced by the current White House occupant (“As a [Republican] bumper-sticker of the day proclaimed, ‘Nobody died at Watergate.’ If only we could say that about the era of George W. Bush ...”) to Hunt’s “distinguished” pre-Watergate career (“He had a certain erudition, he could write [spy novels] he liked to see himself in a heroic, Cold War tradition ... but his accomplishments were meager ...”). Especially for people who aren’t old enough to have lived through the nightmare of Watergate, it’s interesting to hear what Bernstein has to say about Hunt’s role in that scandal.

Also intriguing is a post that author Mark Coggins (Candy from Strangers) put up on his blog yesterday. It recalls how Hunt “once corresponded” with Raymond Chandler. Explains Coggins:
In 1952, Chandler wrote a two page letter in response to--of all things--charges from Hunt of ethical violations of “self-plagiarism.” Hunt had written to complain that several of Chandler’s 1930s Black Mask short stories, anthologized in the 1952 collection The Simple Art of Murder, had been the cannibalized to provide the plot lines for his first four novels.
Coggins goes on to quote the full text of Chandler’s response, as lifted from editor Frank MacShane’s Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (1981). While it seems remarkable that the creator of Philip Marlowe should have bothered to respond to any such accusations from a then-unknown such as Hunt, what makes Chandler’s missive worth reading is the bitterness he shows toward other fictionists who would imitate him:
I have a further remark. As you may know, writers like Dashiell Hammett and myself have been widely and ruthlessly imitated, so closely as to amount to a moral plagiarism, even though the law does not recognize anything but the substantial taking of a plot. I have had stories taken scene by scene and just lightly changed here and there. I have had lines of dialogue taken intact, bits of description also word for word. I have no recourse. The law doesn’t call it plagiarism. Against this background you must pardon me if I find it just a little ludicrous that you should object to my using what is mine in the way that seems to me most suitable and most convenient. If my early stories had been published in a magazine of prestige and significance, the situation would have been rather different, and I would have been much more reluctant to do what you complain of. But as it is, I wish I had carried the process much further and used more of my old novelettes as material instead of republishing them with all their crudities, some of which crudities I know find almost unbearable.
Read all of Coggins’ post here.

READ MORE:His Name Was Conspiracy,” by John Nadler (Contemporary Nomad); “Shy Spy,” by Daniel Greenberg (The New Republic); “Bill Pronzini on the Early E. Howard Hunt,” by Steve Lewis (Mystery*File); Paperback 79: Stranger in Town/Howard Hunt,” by Rex Parker (Pop Sensation).

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