The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 14, Number 4
Jul 1990


Mallon, Thomas. Stolen words: Forays into the origins and Ravages of Plagiarism. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989. 300 pp. $18.95

Reviewed by Cathy Atwood,
Paper Conservator, Nebraska State Historical Society

While the title of this book mentions stolen words, it actually discusses a larger subject. Mallon does concentrate on literature, rather than the theft of scientific or art works. Yet he shows that plagiarism has included the expropriation of ideas and the organization of ideas, as well as the exact copying of another's words. Mallon also presents the tangential subjects of: an author plagiarizing from himself/herself; plagiarism and forgery; false charges of plagiarism; term-paper mills; plagiarism and copyright; and the possible effects of new technology on plagiarism.

Mallon begins with a history of "stolen words," including how the topic was viewed by authors and critics through the centuries. He offers examples of "plagiaristic practices," primarily from the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. Mallon shows that plagiarism has legal, financial, emotional, and moral aspects.

The author delves into earlier literary plagiarism with an exposition of Laurence Sterne and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Both of these men were plagiarists, yet they were able to excuse themselves from any wrongdoing. Moreover, they had "apologists"--scholars and critics who defended their "borrowing" from other authors. Mallon shows that scholars and critics are not unlike the general public, which exhibits a range of reactions to plagiarism. We can be aghast at the theft, or we can wonder what the hoopla is about.

Mallon's chapters on more recent cases include:

--Jacob Epstein, whose first novel borrowed liberally from a book by Martin Amis; Epstein has more recently been the executive story editor of L.A. Law

--Jayme Aaron Sokolow, who plagiarized in his dissertation (which was also published in book form) and in a series of articles; Mallon finds that after Sokolow was forced to leave a teaching position at Texas Tech, he was employed by the National Endowment for the Humanities

--the court battle over the source of inspiration for the TV series Falcon Crest; Earl Hammer did not use Anita Clay Kornfeld's book Vintage when writing the pilot for Falcon Crest.

When Mallon writes about plagiarism cases from the past twenty years, he tries to document the psychology of the original writer and of the plagiarist. In addition, the story of "stolen words" can include those individuals who come to know about the theft, but who do not act on that knowledge (for a variety of reasons).

Mallon's book is a fascinating study, which combines history, crime, literature, and psychoanalysis. His style of writing is a bit convoluted and repetitious. However, his wordplay and digressions can be amusing and informative, so the defects are incidental.

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