A classic, or a fraud?

Philip L. Fradkin is the author of 11 books about the American West and Alaska, including "Wallace Stegner and the American West," to be published this month.

Plagiarism is apparently so rife these days that it would not be surprising to discover that “The Little Book of Plagiarism,” by Richard A. Posner, has itself been plagiarized.

What is this modern-day phenomenon that has spread like poison ivy through the ranks of novelists, historians, academics, scientists, students and almost anyone who uses and publishes words?

Plagiarism is a species of intellectual fraud that an author claims is original but has been copied from another source without permission or acknowledgment, thus deceiving and harming the reader.

I just committed plagiarism.

The first paragraph was lifted nearly verbatim, without quotes or attribution, from a review of three books on plagiarism by Charles McGrath in the New York Times. McGrath is the former editor of that newspaper’s Sunday Book Review. Surely he knows what he is writing about, which is why I used his words. Why use someone else’s words without attributing them? Well, because it makes me look smart and original if I pretend they’re my own.

The third paragraph is a slightly altered version of the definition of plagiarism in Posner’s book. It uses some of his original wording. I assume, because he is a federal judge and teaches at a distinguished law school, that Posner knows what he is talking about. Thus, I too look learned.


These are examples of the type of borrowing, plagiarism, literary theft or copyright infringement -- take your pick -- that occur in Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose,” which received the Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

Of course, “Angle of Repose” was a work of fiction -- but that doesn’t mean it can’t have been plagiarized. As it happens, Stegner used the private letters of Mary Hallock Foote and additional portions of her unpublished memoir intact, edited or combined with invented material for the basic structure of his narrative. He included page-long passages and entire paragraphs unaltered, slightly changed or invented, and borrowed specific details of her life for his most memorable character, Susan Burling Ward.

In the process, Stegner brought Foote to the attention of a new generation of readers. Foote was a magazine writer, illustrator and author in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who wrote about the American West and lived in Colorado, Idaho and California. Stegner was responsible for a Foote boomlet by teaching her stories in his literature courses at Stanford University and including them in two anthologies of American writers before he inserted her semi-fictional character in his prize-winning novel.

Criticism of Stegner’s use of Foote’s material has circulated mainly among academics and some feminists and has gone largely unnoticed by the public, even though a magazine article in this newspaper drew attention to the issue five years ago. Whether Stegner was guilty of plagiarism and slander, as his harshest critics maintain, the complexity of the act has never been completely explored.

It’s important to remember that Stegner had permission to use the material and that he acknowledged its use, sort of. There were extenuating circumstances. As is often the case in life, it is the gray areas that predominate and are most interesting.

Just as I warped Posner’s words to fit my purposes, Stegner altered Foote’s life to fit his needs for a multidimensional novel of the American West. The book remains a classic not only as it relates to the West but as a study of East versus West, of marriage and of the relationship of the past to the present. Readers of the San Francisco Chronicle voted it the best novel about the West written by a Westerner in the last century, and it has sold nearly 600,000 copies.

The book evolved in the following manner. After hearing Stegner lecture in 1954, a graduate student asked if he thought that Foote would be a proper subject for his dissertation. She would, Stegner said. Her letters and manuscripts were obtained from a relative of Foote’s in Nevada City, Calif., and brought to the Stanford University library. The student failed to produce anything, and by mutual consent, Stegner took over the subject in 1967.

Foote had died in 1938, and her closest relatives were her grandchildren. Stegner dealt solely with one, Janet Micoleau, who he had met in Nevada City through mutual friends. When she thought it necessary, Micoleau contacted two sisters for concurrence in her dealings with Stegner.

Stegner assured Micoleau in 1967 that the book would contain no recognizable characters and “no quotations direct from the letters.” Was this all right with her? She replied that the family would “be delighted to have the MHF materials used as background.” Stegner thanked Micoleau for her “blanket approval.”

He wasn’t sure at first if the book would be a novel or a biography. He settled on a fictional account because “she just wasn’t a big enough figure for a biography to be a big book.”

Stegner’s concept of the book kept evolving. He then told Micoleau he wanted to mix fact with fiction. He was bending the characters “so you may not recognize your ancestors when I get through with them.”

At most, Stegner assured her, he was using only selected paragraphs from the letters and memoir. (Actually, the borrowed passages would be considerably longer.) Would she read a draft of the manuscript? “I’m having to throw in a domestic tragedy of an entirely fictional nature,” Stegner warned.

Micoleau declined. She was busy, and a 600-page manuscript was a lot to read. “I’m sure all concerned are content to trust your judgment,” she wrote Stegner. “We all wish you well with the undertaking and have no desire to censor or interfere with it in any way.”

What Stegner alluded to was a scene designed to give a fuller, more complex quality to the Susan Burling Ward character he was basing on Foote. In it, Ward and her husband’s younger assistant are attracted to each other. Something intimate (but vague) occurs between them on the bank of an Idaho irrigation ditch. Ward’s young daughter (who has the same first name as Foote’s real daughter) wanders off and drowns.

There was no such known liaison in Foote’s life, and Agnes, her daughter, actually died later in California of natural causes. The Foote family and others would come to see this fictional scene as an unwarranted stain on her character.

A paragraph in the front of the book thanks “J.M.” and the one sister Stegner was aware of for the “loan” of their ancestors. “Though I have used many details of their lives and characters, I have not hesitated to warp both personalities and events to fictional needs. This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives. It is in no sense a family history.”

Although Stegner knew that publication of Foote’s memoir was imminent, he was trying to preserve -- as he had promised he would -- the family’s anonymity. In the end, the novel was praised for its verisimilitude.

The offense of plagiarism, dating back to the Bible, or, for a more secular example, to Aristophanes, has never lent itself to absolute definition and consensus. (The preceding words were stolen from “Stolen Words” by Thomas Mallon, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989, pp. 2-4. The source has been credited as it should be in a work of nonfiction.)

So what is my conclusion after weighing all the available evidence? The legal counterpart of plagiarism is copyright infringement. It would take a long and costly legal suit to make a determination on this issue, and no one has chosen to go that route. The legal equivalent of slander is libel -- and you can’t libel a dead person. So there doesn’t seem to be much of a legal case.

But there is a deeper level on which to judge Stegner’s actions, although I hesitate to use the word “moral” or its opposite. To me the ultimate question is whether he hurt or fooled not just someone but a discernible group of people.

I have talked with three of Foote’s great-grandchildren. Two understood why Stegner, in his words, had to “warp” their ancestor’s life to fit the needs of fiction. One was adamant in her condemnation of the author.

And then there are the readers who may feel they were fooled or cheated out of a real work of fiction. It’s hard to know how they felt; most were probably unaware of the issue at least until it surfaced in a new introduction written by Jackson J. Benson, a previous Stegner biographer, for a 2000 edition of the paperback.

It seems to me that Stegner and the Foote family both made mistakes -- but that doesn’t ruin the book. It still remains a classic in my estimation.

This story, as the best history should, ends on the completion of a cycle. Benson submitted his introduction in manuscript form to Stegner’s widow, Mary, before the paperback came out. She asked that certain parts be deleted; Benson partly complied. And Mary Stegner, who is now in a rest home at the age of 96, has inserted a provision in her will that no movie will be made from that novel.

So there is sensitivity within both the Foote and the Stegner families on the issue of plagiarism. In my mind, the question defies a clear yes-or-no stance. Again, it is the gray areas in history that are the most intriguing.