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Andrew Lang’s “Literary Plagiarism”: Reading Material and the Material of Literature

  • Letitia Henville

…plus d’informations

  • Letitia Henville
    University of Toronto

In 1887, two years after the publication of his popular first novel, King Solomon’s Mines, H. Rider Haggard found himself the subject of a scandal. Haggard had been accused of plagiarizing aspects of his novels She and Jess. Editors at the Pall Mall Gazette argued that Haggard had incorporated too much of the plot of Thomas Moore’s 1827 The Epicurean into She, and noted that Haggard had included in Jess some lines of a poem that had been published in the journal Christian Union. Haggard defended himself against the charges, claiming that a late friend had sent him the verses he had included in Jess, and that he hadn’t known they had come from a journal; the Pall Mall Gazette was dissatisfied with this response, stating that Haggard’s “incorporation of some one else’s verses in his novel without any acknowledgment…seems to us a clear case of literary dishonesty” (qtd. in Cordell 430).

Spurred by the specifics of Haggard’s case—and spurred as well by decades of articles by “plagiarism hunters” who mined texts for allusions and then castigated authors for their lack of originality (Macfarlane 41)—a more general debate arose in the literary journals of the late 1880s and early 1890s about literary dishonesty and ethics, citation and acknowledgment, original form and original content: in short, a debate about plagiarism. On the one side were Haggard’s critics, who maintained a belief in original genius, in the ability to generate ideas ex nihilo; on the other were Haggard’s defenders, who claimed that all ideas are patchworks of previous ideas, that originality derives from composition rather than content, and that novels need not cite their sources like an academic essay. As in so many other spheres, one of Haggard’s defenders in this debate was Andrew Lang, whose essay Literary Plagiarism,” published in 1887 in Longman’s Magazine, is perhaps the most-cited text in twentieth- and twenty-first-century discussions of the late nineteenth-century plagiarism debate.

This paper shifts focus from Lang’s role at the foundational moments of various disciplines to the material networks of publishing and the conceptual debates structuring these networks. In “Literary Plagiarism,” Lang argues that the popular understanding of plagiarism is too broad, because “[i]f you merely use old ideas (and there are no new ideas), and so produce a fresh combination, a fresh whole, you are not a plagiarist at all” (835). Lang figures these “old ideas” as openly available to all—a stance that is shaped by a desire to sidestep any consideration of the role that networks of privilege may have played in the publishing market. If there are no charges of plagiarism, my reading suggests, there is no parallel call to investigate the processes behind the publishing market in which Lang was such a central figure.

In “Literary Plagiarism,” Lang argues that it is unreasonable to expect “originality” even out of those entirely removed from society—“lunatics” and “hermits,” let alone novelists (831). “All ideas are old” (836), Lang claims, and even the greatest literary work might be regarded as a “pastiche, a string of plagiarisms” (832, emphasis original); his argument thus seems to run counter to the myth of the artist as isolated visionary. But while the reference to pastiche and the celebration of intertextual remixing may seem to position Lang as an “open-access” critic avant la lettre, a closer look at the particulars of his argument reveals Lang’s subtle displacement of the genius-figure. This paper will argue that a significant trope in “Literary Plagiarism” is the repeated insistence on the physicality of ideas—an appropriate rhetorical device, given the importance of access in the late nineteenth-century publishing market. Lang’s position as collator and citer of all kinds of texts depends on the networks of privilege, and therefore presumes singular authority at another, displaced level. Importantly, Lang’s emphasis on the “objecthood” of immaterial ideas suggests limits to current critical assumptions that the boundaries and even definitions of “objects” are self-evident. As this essay will demonstrate, a consideration of the late nineteenth-century plagiarism debate points to a question that often goes unasked in more recent conversations about things: when and how—and by what potentially exclusionary processes—might an “idea” become an “object”?

Lang’s article was one of a number of pieces in the late 1880s that sought to reframe discussions about authorship and literary genius. While still condemning what we might now call copyright infringement, the “plagiarism apologists” argued that novelty lay not in inventing particular subject matter, but in collecting and re-presenting old ideas (Saint-Amour 37). In Original Copy: Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-Century Literature (2007), Robert Macfarlane sets up a contrast between two narratives of literary creation: on the one hand, the “Romantic” theory of “making ex nihilo” (3), and, on the other, a set of “recombinative theories” that emphasize interactions between texts (4). These recombinative theories, argues Macfarlane, tended to position literary ideas not as one individual’s property but as a set of freely-circulating concepts; Macfarlane thus follows Paul Saint-Amour’s argument in The Copywrights: Intellectual Property and the Literary Imagination, which suggests that late nineteenth-century plagiarism apologists attempted to counter the “relatively recent idea” that “writers could own, profit by, and control the disposal of their language as if it were real property” (49). “To destigmatize plagiarism, as the apologists attempted to do,” Saint-Amour argues, “was implicitly to criticize the regime of intellectual property laws” (49)—a regime that depended on a “monopoly privilege” that was based on an “original holder” whose creations “circulat[ed] … like most tangible property” (1).

Surprisingly, given that it was written in support of Haggard, “Literary Plagiarism” makes the kinds of rhetorical moves that Saint-Amour and Macfarlane associate with the copyright proponents rather than the plagiarism apologists; that is, it metaphorically renders abstract ideas as tangible objects. In “Literary Plagiarism,” abstract concepts are repeatedly described in concrete terms, as reading material is figured as literal material. The crux of Lang’s argument is that it is “[n]ot the matter, but the casting of the matter; not the stuff, but the form given to the stuff, [that] makes the novel, the novelty, and the success” (832-3). Novels are the “casting” and the “form”—the physical manifestation—not of abstract ideas but of “matter,” of “stuff” that fills physical voids. Lang repeatedly describes abstract ideas—plot lines, character types, settings, events—in terms that imply tangibility and physicality, claiming, for instance, that

nobody, as in the old story (or nobody except a piratical publisher), can “steal the brooms ready-made.” [1] The success or failure lies not in the materials, but in the making of the brooms, and no dullard can make anything, even if he steals all his materials. On the other hand, genius, or even considerable talent, can make a great deal, if it chooses, even out of stolen material—if any of the material of literature can be properly said to be stolen, and is not rather the possession of whoever likes to pick it up.


Described here as “material” four times, abstract ideas are rendered as physical objects that can be “possess[ed],” can be “pick[ed …] up.” By writing about “brooms” rather than, for instance, “stories,” Lang presents “the material of literature” as if it shares the same qualities as a stick, a cord and a brush—the physical materials that make up a broom. By integrating a reference to an “old story” that is often attributed to Walter Scott, Lang both denies authorial originality to a Romantic writer and models the kind of “genius” that he claims as key to literary success; he takes up a well-known adage and refits it to his purpose. Lang repeats this emphasis on the physical materiality of “the material of literature” throughout “Literary Plagiarism.”

Most senses of the word “material” suggest physical matter: cloth is a type of material; manufactured products are made from raw materials; concrete objects are the focus of material culture studies. The sense of “material” as suggestive of physicality was as true for the 1800s as it is for the present day; thus, in Modern Painters, John Ruskin opposes the abstract to the material, describing “ideal” art as that “which represents, not a material object, but the mental conception of a material object” (293). The Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of the word “material” outline its connotations as of “matter or substance” (def. 1a) that is “concerned with matter or the physical world” (def. 2b); “material” is “bulky, massive, solid” (def. 3). “Reading material” (def. B1c), on the other hand, is one of the few senses of the word that doesn’t suggest physicality; in this sense, “material” is “matter (not precisely characterized); that which constitutes the substance of a thing (physical or non-physical)” (def. B1a). Lang’s essay takes up this “not precisely characterized” sense of the word “material” and repeatedly characterizes it as if it has the qualities of physical matter.

Lang’s metaphors for “the material of literature” include a range of physical objects, including “goods” (834), “Zulu cows” (834), a “fountain” (838) and “stock-in-trade” (836). In Lang’s figuration of literature, lines of verse from Jonathan Swift’s The Journal of a Modern Lady (1728)—excerpted by Charles Reade in The Wandering Heir (1875)—become “a lump of such a brilliant manufactured article as a poem by Swift” (835). “Lump” suggests tangibility and physical malleability; “manufactured article” too suggests physicality, as Swift’s satirical verses are not an “article” in the generic sense—as in, for instance, an essay. Only if incidents, themes and ideas are conceived of as occupying space in the physical world can it make sense to describe Virgil as having “had his hand in the pocket of Apollonius Rhodius” (832) and Homer as having “stole[n] the Cyclops almost ready-made” (837).

The idea of authorial genius is not discarded in Lang’s model; rather, for Lang, genius simply is not linked to invention. Lang’s figuration of authorship implies that an accessible set of literary “material” exists which a writer can “choose” to make use of productively, and assumes that “whoever likes” to can “pick it up” (833). While writing in the late Victorian era was a profession that was technically open to anyone, very few authors were able to sustain themselves or their families on their income from writing; the rising prominence of literary critics and editors like Lang, along with the emergence of professional literary agents like A.P. Watt—figures whose income depended, at least in part, on the creative work of others—widened the gap between author and publisher (see Leary and Nash 199-205). Better connections with these intermediaries meant more publishing opportunities. In her discussion of the author and aesthete Mabel Wotton, Sigrid Anderson Cordell has argued that the plagiarism apologists falsely positioned literary “raw materials” as “there for everyone to share” (431); Wotton, notes Cordell, believed that artistic invention is possible, and emphasized the “parasitic” nature of literary borrowing (432) that depended on gender as well as “professional, social, and financial inequalities” (429).

Only a privileged set of authors could access Apollonius Rhodius’ pockets; Lang’s rendering of the idea-as-object circumvents the need to discuss access to publishing networks, framing the discussion instead as simply the best use of materials. Lang’s metaphors for the material of literature resonate strongly with what Saint-Amour calls “the culture of monopoly copyright,” which is characterized, he writes, by “the transformation of expression into an alienable property form that circulates like a material object, from one sole owner to the next” (16-17). Rather than directly opposing the Romantic model of the author as original genius, as Saint-Amour suggests, Lang’s “Literary Plagiarism” demonstrates the importance of access in the late nineteenth-century publishing market.

Lang’s redefinition of plagiarism excludes the outright republication of another’s literary work, the false claiming of authorship, which he describes as “perfect plagiarism”:

In a number of novels we meet the story of a man who comes into possession of a book in manuscript, perhaps the deposit of a friend, and who published the work as a performance of his own. Such a man is a plagiarius; he casts his net (plaga) over the property of another.


Lang’s piece does not defend these “piratical” appropriations (833), but it does defend the “unintentional robbery,” the “larceny,” of old ideas in original literary texts (839). Half of the dead metaphor—the “net (plaga)”—that Lang locates in the root of “plagiarism” remains metaphorical, but he consistently renders abstract ideas as physical property—“the property of another”—throughout the essay. Lang here positions “the material of literature” as something that can be “netted,” in the sense that it can be captured under a net, but also in the sense that it can be re-worked, netted together, like the threads of a cloth. Literary creation is thus literally net-work—it is the creating of connections among previously disconnected things—whereas “perfect plagiarism” is all net and no work. “Literary Plagiarism” repeats, over and over, this rhetorical slip from conceiving intellectual property as an abstraction to imagining ideas as physical objects: brooms, Zulu cows, Apollonius Rhodius’s pocket’s contents.

Among those on Haggard’s side of the debate, Lang stands out in the degree to which he insisted on this traffic between literary ideas and everyday things. Other late-1880s and early-’90s detractors of the Romantic notion of original genius used different types of comparisons. The novelist Charles Reade, for instance, wrote to The Times, unabashedly thanking its editor for “an able and eloquent [article] on private asylums” which “took root in me, and brought forth its fruit” in the novel Hard Cash (323); this is the metaphor of artistic creation as organic cultivation rather than germination. The critic and scholar Brander Matthews evoked a Biblical precedent for his pro-Haggard stance when he claimed that “it was the original owner of King Solomon’s mines who asserted that there was nothing new under the sun” (623; see Macfarlane 45 n. 90). And, in the untitled introductory poem to his second series of “Barrack-Room Ballads” in the collection The Seven Seas, Rudyard Kipling—himself heavily involved in the development of international copyright laws (see Towheed)—posits his ballad-singer as continuing a tradition of literary appropriation that stretches back to Homer:

When ’Omer smote ’is bloomin’ lyre,
 He’d ’eard men sing by land an’ sea;
An’ what he thought ’e might require,
 ’E went an’ took—the same as me!

The market-girls an’ fishermen,
 The shepherds an’ the sailors, too,
They ’eard old songs turn up again,
 But kep’ it quiet—same as you!

They knew ’e stole; ’e knew they knowed.
 They didn’t tell, nor make a fuss,
But winked at ’Omer down the road,
 An’ ’e winked back—the same as us!


Kipling follows Lang in imagining remediation as a property crime in, for example, lines three and four, when he says of Homer that “what he thought ‘e might require / ‘E went an’ took.” In line nine, of Homer’s audience, Kipling writes: “they knew ‘e stole.” But the verbs “took” and “stole” insist less forcefully than do Lang’s brooms and cows on the fact that “old songs” should be imagined as physical objects. [2] For Kipling, literary theft is excusable because it has classical precedent, [3] and because it is not really covert. Lang stands out amongst even his like-minded plagiarism apologists because of the quantity and range of metaphorically physical ideas that his essay features. For Lang, the history of literature is a literal storehouse, packed full of tools and wares that can be grabbed and remade into something new.

When Lang describes accusations of plagiarism as shrill and wrong-headed claims of petty theft, then, he is relying on a slippage between abstract idea and physical object to justify the “literary borrowing” he himself practices in virtually all of his writing—from the collated Fairy Books and his new versions of old poems, to his “At the Sign of the Ship” column, which compiled pre-existing material along with new commentary under the brand name Andrew Lang. The rhetoric in “Literary Plagiarism” follows directly from Lang’s position in the late nineteenth-century publishing market. Attention to that context helps open up a history to the debates about “thingness” that sometimes seem to have sprung up only in the past twenty years. In a 2001 article that has now become canonical, Bill Brown differentiated “objects” from “things,” and “ideas” from both. “Objects,” Brown tells us, exist in the external world; when we write a history of the pencil or the zipper, the toilet or the potato, “we look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature or culture—above all, what these disclose about us)” (4, emphasis original). “A thing,” Brown says, we cannot look through: “we begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, [have] been arrested, however momentarily” (4, emphasis original). “Ideas” Brown only touches on; they are what “give [us] a queasy feeling, nausea” (15); they are “what’s thought” rather than “what’s encountered” (5). Rather than drawing on twentieth-century theory to illuminate a nineteenth-century example—using thing theory to understand Lang—my aim here is to suggest how Lang’s thoughts on literary property open up a longer and more concrete history to recent debates about things. By seeing Lang’s metaphors as performing their own theoretical work, we also pose questions to thing theory itself, questions that have everything to do with Lang’s central concern: are ideas things too?

For Brown, following Heidegger, [4] “objects” become “things” when “their flow within the circuits of production and distribution…has been arrested, however momentarily” (Brown 4, emphasis mine). The verb “arrest,” with its connotations of law enforcement, seems especially appropriate when considering that Lang characterizes those on the other side of the plagiarism debate as “the small fry of moralists [… who cry,] ‘Stop thief’” (837). When someone “shout[s] ‘plagiarism’” (831), books don’t literally stop being made and bought, but, “however momentarily,” the machinery behind the publication industry is exposed to critical public debate, and the “material” of literature, that object-idea, becomes a thing. Lang’s argument exploits the rhetorical movement between idea and object to suggest that cries of “Stop thief” assert petty morality when a more capacious view would be appropriate; but this metaphorical slippage also opens up a window, however briefly, into the market conditions that his blithe disregard for property rights masked. Literature was material for Lang, after all, since it was a chief source of revenue that “the small fry of moralists” were challenging.

Rather than confront head-on such challenges to his domination of the late-century publishing industry—it was Lang, after all, who was positioned to benefit from literary borrowing, not his still-aspiring competitors—Lang’s essay seeks to stop people from making accusations of plagiarism. In an introductory paragraph, Lang writes: “Some one, probably Gibbon, has remarked about some crime or other, that it is ‘difficult to commit, and almost impossible to prove’” (832). Here Lang not only mocks those who demand accurate quotation and attribution, but he also models his conception of originality. Lang repurposes this old idea by bringing it into a new context—inverting it and opposing it to plagiarism, which, he claims, is “easy to prove, and almost impossible to commit” (832). What Lang means is that accusations of plagiarism are frequent, and that judgments against those accused of plagiarism are harsh, while the acts being described as plagiarism are, in fact, the very essence of literary creation. This mocking tone resounds in repeated characterizations of those who accuse others of plagiarism as “authors who have failed, or amateurs who have never had the pluck to try” (831), as “unliterary” (832), as pedants (836), as “lynx-eyed” (838), as seeking publicity but lacking merit (832) and as simply absurd (836). When he identifies as the most valuable part of literature “[n]ot the matter, but the casting of the matter; not the stuff, but the form given to the stuff” (832), Lang attempts to divert attention away from the material conditions underwriting publishing and toward the individual power of those casters of matter able most brilliantly to reform the raw material they have (justifiably) harvested. It is a position perfectly pitched both to exonerate and raise to the level of genius just such a “recasting” figure as Andrew Lang himself.

In addition to editing magazines and writing literary criticism—Blackwood’s described Lang as “a dictator of letters” (qtd. in Reid 354)—as the introduction explains above, Lang also put out collections of folklore, ballads, translations and the fairy tales that became those rainbow-colored fairy books (which contained stories that Lang selected and introduced, but which were translated by his wife and other sub-contractors). In these collections, Lang cast his own metaphorical net over the works of others. When he thus frames his argument in “Literary Plagiarism” as coming down to one author making better use of the same material than another, he negates the role of “social and professional inequities between those who have access and opportunity” in the publishing market, “and those on the margins” (Cordell 429). Lang writes as if his privileged position is available to anyone, as if anyone can make use of “the material of literature,” as if the “geniuses” who get published are published only because they “write the best,” as if factors like class and gender don’t come into the equation. It is Lang’s figuration of authorship that is pushed to the extreme in New Grub Street’s “Literary Machine”—the “automaton” that Marian Yule imagines, into which one only needs to “throw in a given number of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for to-day’s consumption” (Gissing 195).

Lang closed “Literary Plagiarism” by laying out the stakes of what he deemed the over-attention to literary scandals: “A good new book is murmured about at a few dinner parties. A wicked new action—say the purloining, real or alleged, of twenty lines—is thundered about from the house-top, and flashed along all the network of electric wires from London to San Francisco” (840). While Lang may have been the consummate networker of the fin de siècle, his intervention in the late-century plagiarism debate reveals that his networking did not always involve establishing connections; Lang also sought to exclude certain topics from popular literary conversation, and to shut down unprofitable types of criticism. Saint-Amour’s figuration of the plagiarism apologists describes their stance as a network in which “individuals were not divisible into readers and writers, consumers and producers, but instead were nodes in an unceasing circulation of ideas and language” (50); Lang’s take, however, appears not as advocating “unceasing circulation”—you can only “drive the Zulu cows” if you can get at them (Lang 834)—but rather as limiting the type and volume of literary circulation to the advantage of those in positions to benefit from it.

Parties annexes