Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Accidental Mountweazels: Lenore Hart is a proven plagiarist

If you've read my last post, and are following me on Facebook or Twitter, you will know by now that St Martin's Press has finally issued a statement about Lenore Hart, claiming that she is not guilty of plagiarism:
'In April 2011, when these allegations first came to our attention, Ms. Hart supplied a detailed response, which cited her research into biographical and historical sources, and explained why her novel and Cothburn O’Neal’s “The Very Young Mrs. Poe” contain certain details of place, description and incident. As Ms. Hart explained in her response, of course two novels about the same historical figure necessarily reliant on the same limited historical record will have similarities. We have reviewed that response and remain satisfied with Ms. Hart’s explanation.'
I have a copy of Lenore Hart's defence, and while it is extremely long (around 18,000 words), it does not explain any such thing. Saying something doesn't make it so. The Raven's Bride is not just plagiarized from Cothburn O'Neal's novel The Very Young Mrs Poe, but blatantly so. It's not a borderline case, or in any way debatable. As indicated already by The World of Edgar Allan Poe and revealed in greater detail by Archie Valparaiso on his blog, it's not that Hart worked from the same sources as Cothburn O'Neal, using the same historical facts. The historical record for many of the events in both novels is very limited indeed, and O'Neal therefore had to surmise a great deal. In doing so, he got several extremely specific facts wrong. And Lenore Hart repeated them.

From The Very Young Mrs Poe:
'The train crossed the Appomattox after sunset but pulled into the Petersburg depot before dark. Their host, Mr. Hiram Haines, publisher of the Petersburg American Constellation, was waiting with his wife. He was a cheerful, balding man...'
From The Raven's Bride:
'We crossed the Appomattox after sunset and rolled into the Petersburg depot before full dark. As we descended from the car Eddy spotted our host, Hiram Haines, the cheerful, balding publisher of the American Constellation...'
This is obviously plagiarism simply from the extraordinary number of similarities between the sentences. Of the 37 words in O'Neal's two sentences, Hart repeats 21 of them: crossed, the, Appomattox, after, sunset, into, the, Petersburg, depot, before, dark, host, Hiram, Haines, publisher, of, the, American, Constellation, cheerful, balding... If you plug the phrase "crossed the Appomattox after sunset" into Google Books - and note that the phrase is not about Edgar Allan Poe or his wife - of the 15 million books scanned by Google it only comes up with one result: The Very Young Mrs Poe.

But even more damningly, and totally contradicting Lenore Hart and St Martin's Press's defences, Cothburn O'Neal invented several details of this scene. Very little is known about Edgar and Virginia Poe's honeymoon other than that it took place in 1836 in Petersburg and that they stayed with Hiram Haines. O'Neal invented his account of their journey there.

In April, Lenore Hart defended the similarities between these scenes thus:
'I'd like to point out first that Eddie and Virginia have no choice but to "take a train" to Petersburg because that - aside from riding horseback - was how you GOT from Richmond to Petersburg in 1835.'
Actually, no it wasn't. St Martin's Press has taken Hart's word on this, and much else. But they should have looked closer. Because unfortunately for Lenore Hart, Cothburn O'Neal got this wrong - he took the detail that they went by train from Mary Phillips' 1926 biography of Poe and invented an account of the journey from whole cloth. But it was in fact impossible to take a train from Richmond to Petersburg then, because the line wasn't completed until 1838.

Cothburn O'Neal also speculated in his novel that Hiram Haines was cheerful and balding, neither of which can be found in any historical source.

Once we get onto this train, which did not exist historically, there's a near-identical scene in which the conductor recognizes that the couple are newlyweds and takes them to the ladies' coach, where they can sit together. Here's the scene in O'Neal's novel:
'He asked permission of the half-dozen lady passengers to bring them aboard. "If you ladies don't object," he said, "I will close my eyes to company rules and allow the groom to sit in the ladies' coach with his lovely bride." 
"We would be delighted to have them with us," a self-appointed spokesman assured him. All the others agreed and subjected Sissy to as thorough a scrutiny as she had ever stood before. She felt that she passed inspection. At least there were no audible tongue-cluckings or obvious stares of disapproval. It was difficult to determine the age of a young lady, especially if she were reasonably well filled out and modestly veiled. 
"I must ask you not to smoke, Mr. Poe" the conductor warned in parting. "Smoking is restricted to the gentlemen's car on the rear."
"Thank you," Eddie said. "I seldom smoke."'
And here it is in Hart's novel:
'"Going to flout company rules, folks, and seat you all in the second coach." He grinned at Eddie. "Already cleared it with the ladies aboard."  
When we climbed up no one looked askance or asked how old I was. Of course, if a female is veiled and reasonably well filled out it's hard to tell her exact age anyhow. The conductor left after admonishing the groom, "Smoking is restricted to the gentlemens' car at the rear, sir." 
And Eddie, who had just been withdrawing one from the fistful of huge Cuban segars Tom Cleland had presented him with after the ceremony, sheepishly slid it back into his coat pocket. "Thank you for the information," he said. "In any case, I seldom smoke."'
This is very obvious plagiarism, but the real smoking gun is Virginia Poe's clothing. That she's veiled might be expected. But Hart also used precisely the same unusual phrase as Cothburn O'Neal to describe her: 'reasonably well filled out'. Not well filled out, or reasonably filled out, or quite well filled out, or even some entirely other choice of words: had some flesh on her bones, was fully grown, was reasonably mature-looking for her 13 years, or any of hundreds of possibilities. No, it's word for word the same as in O'Neal's wholly invented scene, 'reasonably well filled out'. 

Here's how Lenore Hart explained this remarkable set of coincidences in her defence in April:
'It’s clear here both O’Neal and I did the same research into rules and customs of southern railroad travel circa 1839.   The “second coach” was usually designated the “Ladies’ Car”, and the conductor, to comport himself as a gentleman, would have to ask the ladies’ permission to invade their space. But also this was often the First Class car.  The “rule” my conductor is talking about is that the young married couple only had second-class tickets, not first class -- very expensive.  But he will let it slide. Smoking cars had just been introduced (via Europe) so it’s unlikely Poe would know this – a minor embarrassment to him before his new bride.  The custom of giving wedding cigars to new grooms should not require citation, I think -- and like any guy, he just wanted to smoke them.  Again, we have a passage of commonplace social interaction in a 19th-century mode of transportation, where you can almost predict in any book, film, or TV series, what the characters will talk about.  A honeymoon trip on a train with people joshing the newlyweds.  The usual.  Take out what’s different about the two passages, and what’s left is clich├ęs.'
Well, no. The scenes are both taking place in 1836, not 1839, on a train line that did not exist then, with a very precise set of events happening in the same order, using many of the same words. In some cases, the exact same words:
'reasonably well filled out'
'reasonably well filled out' 
'"Smoking is restricted to the gentlemen's car on the rear."'
'"Smoking is restricted to the gentlemens' car at the rear, sir."'
'"In any case, I seldom smoke."'
'"Thank you," Eddie said. "I seldom smoke."'
There are many other examples of such undeniable and precise similarities in Hart's novel. In The Very Young Mrs Poe, O'Neal describes the following scene on this impossible train journey to Petersburg:
'As the train pulled out of the depot and onto the bridge across the James River, Eddy pointed out Gamble’s Hill rising to the right above the State Armory and the ironworks situated on the banks of the canal.  He shouted the names into her ear.  But when the train stopped for a few minutes outside Manchester, just across the river, they were both mute again.'
And in The Raven's Bride, again on this same impossible journey on a non-existent train, Lenore Hart has the following: 
'As we chugged away from the confines of Richmond, Eddie leaned over and shouted the names of landmarks into my ear: “Gamble’s Hill.  The State Armory, there.  Oh – and the Tredegar Iron Works.”  By the time we stopped briefly at Manchester, on the opposite side of the James River, he’d fallen silent again, either out of names or out of breath.'
There's no debate here. These aren't coincidences, and it's not about working from 'the same limited historical record'. That's just bluff from a liar who has been caught, accepted by a publisher neglecting its duty. This is open and shut plagiarism, and it is shameless, blatant, extensive and proven. By insisting that black is white, Lenore Hart is compounding what she has done: the decent thing now would be to admit frankly that she plagiarized this novel, admit to whatever other plagiarism she is guilty of if that is the case, apologize whole-heartedly, and resign from her creative writing teaching role at Wilkes University.

St Martin's Press is in no way to blame for the fact that Lenore Hart is a plagiarist, but by denying what is clear to anyone who can read they are behaving irresponsibly and arrogantly and doing their brand untold damage. It's time to stop supporting Lenore Hart, who is a liar and a fraud, and to do the right thing by their readers and the estate of the writer she stole from: withdraw The Raven's Bride and issue a statement condemning Lenore Hart's plagiarism. The longer this goes on, the worse it gets.

14 comments:

  1. "The worse it gets", indeed.

    And worse. Not only was that train non-existent in 1836, so was the division of its carriages into the "ladies car" and the "smoking car", which would not happen until the early 1840s.

    And even worse. Even if a not-yet-instituted ladies car had been available on that not-yet-built train, men who were accompanying women were permitted to use it without any need to seek the acquiescence of an understanding conductor to "break" [O'Neal] or "flout [Hart] the rules". It was simply the norm.

    Again, Cothburn O'Neal made it up, screwed it up, and Lenore Hart swallowed it all up whole.

    Oops and re-oops.

    (O'Neal, writing in the mid-Fifties, had no option but to recreate the past without the benefit of Google, but Lenore Hart didn't have that excuse. Again, this tell-tale factlet took me under five minutes to find.)

    Source:
    Barbara Young Welke: Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law and the Railroad Revolution, 1865-1920. The relevant page here.

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  2. Just to clarify one minor issue: When I wrote about the whole "honeymoon" story on my blog a few months ago, I noted that our only source for the tale is a Poe specialist named JH Whitty, writing in the 1920s (he claimed to have been told details of the wedding from an alleged witness to the ceremony.)

    Mary Phillips, in her 1926 bio of Poe, quoted Whitty as stating that the guests "went with the bride and groom to Petersburg Railroad Station to see them off on their few days' honeymoon."

    So, just to be fair, it should be noted that O'Neal did not invent that impossible detail about them traveling by train; Whitty did. It still doesn't affect the important issue; that Hart not only plagiarized, but plagiarized in a very slipshod manner.

    (I wanted to note this sooner, but I don't own a copy of Phillips' book, so it took time to get it through interlibrary loan so I could double-check this quote.)

    Incidentally, that business about the "ladies car" is the perfect coda to this topic. I can see why Hart has stopped talking.

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  3. Thanks very much for both these comments. I've slightly edited the post to reflect Undine's comments. I think I'll leave Archie's here rather than putting those into the article as well, but it is breathtaking that she has continued to brazenly assert that she did not plagiarize - and that St Martin's continue to support her, and sell her book.

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  4. Stunning, damning, and seemingly indefensible.

    Note: You've a typo in that last salvo, calling O'Neal's "The Very Young Mrs. Bride", but we're riding with you all the way.

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  5. So I have! Thanks - have changed that. And thanks for the comment.

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  6. This just makes me fume. She's getting away with this. I don't know who to be angrier with, Ms. Hart or the publisher with blinders on.

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  7. Oh my word. Her publishers should be freaking out over this, one wonders why that isn't the case?

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  8. Another day, another plagiarised passage found in The Raven's Bride. (This makes 33 now, by my reckoning.

    O'Neal:
    Two stevedores appeared to check the markings on the Poe baggage and hoist it aboard. A few minutes later the purser took his place at the top of the gangplank; and at a signal from the ship's bell, the passengers began to go aboard.

    Hart:
    Stevedores came to check the markings on our trunks, then hoisted them aboard.

    "There's the purser," said Eddy, pointing at a uniformed man at the top of the gangplank [...].

    At last the bell sounded and we assembled to board.

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  9. Did I say 33? Sorry, it’s 34 now.

    O’Neal:
    There was a plaster bust of Mozart on a pedestal near the garden window. A single picture of Haydn hung in the panel over the large Chickering grand piano. A music cabinet, the harp, a flute and a violin lying on a practice table, and some hand-carved music stands were all the room contained besides chairs which players or listeners might arrange to suit their convenience.

    Hart:
    A plaster Mozart brooded from a pedestal between the tall windows which overlooked a formal garden. [...] A Chickering grand piano draped with a tapestry held a silver candelabra […]
    On a practice table flanked by music stands waited a small harp, two violins with bows, a flute, a conductor’s baton, a metronome and a stack of sheet music. […] The only other furnishings were a dozen straight-backed chairs with upholstered seats, which players and audience could arrange as they wished.
    _____

    "Plaster", "Mozart", "pedestal", "garden", "Chickering grand piano", "flute", "practice table", "music stands", "chairs", "players", "arrange".... What are the chances of those same eleven words and compounds appearing by chance in exactly the same order in two allegedly discrete descriptions of a music room? Is there a statistician in the house?

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  10. Archie:

    Finding these things becomes almost addictive after a while, doesn't it? When I was compiling examples to put up on my blog, before long I actually had to force myself to stop looking, because I was starting to get vertigo from it all. Not to mention writer's cramp.

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  11. I don't really have time to get very involved in the Hart debacle. That's one reason these things can be killed; deny and delay usually works. I put a ton of time into a very detailed PDF file of the Markham/Rowan plagiarism. Seeing these things through is too demanding, even crowd-sourced.

    I have been following it however. I found a nice copy of "The Very Young Mrs. Poe". I've posted a couple of polite, but pointed, comments with St. Martin's Facebook page. Both deleted within minutes. I've sent a couple of detailed emails to specific individuals within the company. Ignored. Better than lying to me or otherwise ignoring the truth in a response I suppose. Hart is the plagiarist, but at this point I blame St. Martin's the most. Their (non)actions are significantly worse sins.

    D_Blackwell

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  12. Yeah, it does seem like a lot of lines were lifted from O'Neal's novel here, but isn't this a little overblown? I mean, do we need to go on this witch-hunt? For example: In Sunlight in a Beautiful Garden by Kathleen Cambor lifts quite a few lines from a variety of sources--almost verbatim--one being the film they show at the Johnstown Museum. Nobody made a stink about that novel. And many of a favorite writers are just as guilty. Just look at Joyce: "I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man for that seems to me a harsh but not unjust description." Seriously though: RELAX.

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  13. I researched the Poe Family for twenty years at the same university (and others, and other sources, of course), and one description on which I disagree is the appearance of Sissie. She was very immature, amost childlike, and chubby. I wish I could give you the source, but all my materials are located elsewhere. Although women married earlier then, they matured later. Poe's mother had to go from Norfolk where she became ill, upriver, to die in Richmond.
    Myreen Moore Nicholson

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  14. "Unknown": I suppose this is a bit off-topic, but that description of Virginia stems from Susan Talley Weiss, whom all reputable Poe scholars admit is a very unreliable source--to put it plainly, the woman lied like a rug repeatedly. (And she never even met Virginia!)

    And I can't help but wonder if Vitagulla would have the same response if it was his/her book that had been nicked.

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