“The Ungentlemanly Art” of plagiarism

This summer, I am supposed to read a bunch of books in preparation for writing a comprehensive exam on them in the fall semester.  The list of books is still under development, but my plan is to include funny or interesting excerpts from things that I read, because my research inevitably cracks me up and it seems a shame to keep all of these great historical faux pas a secret.

Let’s begin with The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons by Stephen Hess and Milton Kaplan (1968).  My copy cost one penny on Amazon and appears to have been stolen from the San Marino Public Library in California.

Thanks, Internet!

This book is a fascinating precursor to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics since it says much of the same stuff but in a different way for cartoons rather than comics.  (The debate about the distinction between the two and even the use of such terminology is something for later discussion.)  It’s also totally awesome because it’s kind of the American equivalent of the Great Canadian Political Cartoons books compiled by Charles Hou and Cynthia Hou.  These are the types of things I look at / work with, for various educational and pedagogical purposes.

One of the coolest things I have learned so far from The Ungentlemanly Art is that Paul Revere was (possibly) a big old plagiarist.  Paul Revere (of “one if by land, two if by sea” fame) supposedly engraved a famous image of the Boston Massacre of 1770.  Wikipedia confirms Hess & Kaplan’s argument that the image was actually drawn by a guy named Henry Pelham.

Hess & Kaplan supply the text of Pelham’s letter to Revere (on page 55 of their book):

March 29, 1770


When I heard that you were cutting a plate of the late Murder, I thought it impossible as I knew you was not capable of doing it unless you copied it from mine and as I thought I had entrusted it in the hands of a person who had more regard to the dictates of Honour and Justice than to take the undue advantage you have done of the confidence and Trust I reposed in you.

But I find I was mistaken and after being at great Trouble and Expence of making a design, paying for paper, printing &c, find myself in the most ungenerous Manner deprived not only of any proposed Advantage but even of the expense I have been at as truly as if you had plundered me on the highway.

If you are insensible of the Dishonour you have brought on yourself by this Act, the World will not be so. However, I leave you to reflect and consider one of the most dishonourable Actions you could well be guilty of.

H. Pelham

I think this event could make a great discussion point when dealing with plagiarism in a classroom setting.  Hess & Kaplan let Revere off the hook with the following excuses: “Revere simply was following the eighteenth-century engravers’ custom of copying anything they wished, without credit or acknowledgement…  [I]n the faraway American colonies engravers were less scrupulous [than in England] and it was seldom considered illegal or improper to copy another man’s work.”

Copyright (particularly as it pertains to music) remains an interesting issue, but what I find most fascinating is the repeated defense of Paul Revere in the book as well as some of the links (above).  Poor Henry Pelham – you were robbed, and your Wikipedia entry is way shorter than Paul Revere’s!  William Dawes, too, as Helen F. Moor reminds us with her 1896 poem:

‘Tis all very well for the children to hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere;
But why should my name be quite forgot,
Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?
Why should I ask? The reason is clear—
My name was Dawes and his Revere.

History is a cold mistress.

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One Response to “The Ungentlemanly Art” of plagiarism

  1. Pingback: Swipes File #18: Mirror Mirror | This dissertation is going to be fun, like dessert

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