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The New York Times, February 6, 1910

Why Mark Twain Is Charged with "Borrowing" from Steen Bilcher's Story of "The Vicar of Weilby."



By HENRY G. LEACH, Ser, Denmark.

Since the Cook episode the Danes have been keenly interested in everything American, especially American literature. Their latest examination of "records" and "proofs," however, has resulted in a no less startling charge than that Mark Twain has plagiarized one of the Danish classics.

Strange to say, Denmark is rather flattered than angered by the discovery. For American literature is quite the thing just now. None of our "classical" authors can compete in popularity with "Nick Carter," which is offered on the streets as a premium by the Copenhagen newspapers. Mr. Herrick's novels are translated within a year or two of publication. Several of Jack London's books have appeared in Danish editions. The translations of Frank Norris have a wider sale than any Danish author, and Norris is held to be the great American novelist. As for Mark Twain, everyone knows him.

Accordingly, when a Danish schoolmaster, Valdemar Thoresen by name, made the discovery of the alleged plagiarism by Mr. Clemens, the Danish illustrated monthly, Maaneds-Magasinet, grew quite excited about it. Mr. Thorensen asserts that the plot of "Tom Sawyer, Detective," was lifted bodily from Blicher's tale, "The Vicar of Weilby."

Steen Steensen Blicher was a Danish novelist who was born in 1782 and died in 1848. He spent a great part of his life as a country parson in Jutland. By nature he was as much a hunter as a poet, and neglected his clerical duties to tramp the moor in search of game. An old painting shows Blicher in a favorite attitude, gun in hand, on the moor, three gypsies at his feet. When he came to a lonely farm for the night, he gathered the traditions and stories of the ghosts of the place into a short story. His collected novella may be regarded as a saga of Jutish life. The story of "The Vicar of Weilby" is based on tradition and old documents.

Mr. Thoresen gives the following account of his discovery: "Last Summer I happened to get hold of a recently translated book by Mark Twain, called, after the leading story, 'Tom Sawyer Opdager,' ('Tom Sawyer, Detective.') This narrative did not impress me as particularly interesting. But, in one way, it quickly secured my attention. The further I got into it the more evident it became that the criminal history, which must always be the foundation for a detective narrative, was in this case a good old acquaintance, Steen Blicher's novelle, 'The Vicar of Weilby.'

"It was with a certain feeling of displeasure that I made the discovery; on the one hand I could not imagine that an author like Mark Twain, whose bold, invigorating humor had been to me a source of so much pleasure, could be a plagiarist, and, on the other hand, the way in which the old Danish novelle, with its deep, gripping tragedy, was used here for merely superficial fun, must seem to me almost a profanation.

"On what, then, do I support the assertion that Mark Twain has borrowed stuff for his narrative from 'The Vicar of Weilby'? I shall rehearse the most important agreements with the greatest brevity, so that every single detail I mention is found in both narratives.

"A man, in each instance a vicar, is unjustly accused of murder. The accuser is a rich and purse-proud man who is angry at the clergyman because he has been rejected in his suit to his daughter. He plans revenge, and uses as a tool for this purpose his brother. This brother comes into service at the pastor's, and, abetted by the disgraced wooer, does all he can to tease and irritate his master, succeeding only too well. In the end, the pastor, one day, when he has set the fellow to dig, becomes so irritated that he seizes the nearest weapon which falls into his hands (with Blicher a spade, with Mark Twain a stake) and strikes him to the earth with it. Seeing him collapse as though he were dead, the pastor is frightened and raises him up; but he proves to be no more injured than that he can jump over the fence and run into the forest.

"The vicar is imprisoned, people seek to induce him to flee, but he will not withdraw himself from the arm of justice. The prosecutor appears with witnesses; some have heard the pastor threaten his life, others standing beside some hazel bushes, saw the said weapon swung into the air and heard it fall with a dull thud. But previously, before the accusation and imprisonment, the brothers have taken the body of another person, whose features have been rendered unrecognizable by violence, put on the servant's clothes, dragged it into the pastor's grounds, and buried it there at night, on which occasion the cunning scoundrel is attired in the vicar's green jacket, (dressing gown in Blicher,) which he has stolen from the parsonage. The expedition by night is seen in the moonshine, and the easily recognized garment gives ground to believe it is the vicar. The fellow confesses at last that the brother has persuaded him by promise of a large sum to play the assigned role, thereafter to leave the neighborhood and vanish."

Mr. Thorensen concludes that such a collection of coincident details precludes any doubt that "Tom Sawyer" borrowed its plot from Blicher.

How did Mr. Clemens get the plot? No English translation is known. There is, however, a German translation, and the possibility of redactions. "We dare not flatter ourselves," says Mr. Thoresen, "that Mark Twain could read Danish. Accordingly the critic wrote to Mr. Clemens himself, and received the following reply from his secretary:


Redding, Conn., Dec. 9, 1909 [sic]

Mr. Valdemar Thoresen:

Dear Sir: Mr. Clemens directs me to write for him in reply to your letter in regard to the similarity between "Tom Sawyer, Detective," and "The Vicar of Weilby." Mr.. Clemens is not familiar with Danish and does not read German fluently, and has not read the book you mention, nor any translation or adaptation of it that he is aware of. The matter constituting "Tom Sawyer, Detective," is original with Mr. Clemens, who has never been consciously a plagiarist. You may therefore deny most authoritatively that this or any other matter that has appeared under Mr. Clemens's name is based upon the work of any other. Very truly yours,

I. V. LYON, Secr.

Mr. Thoresen expresses is astonishment over this reply, but believes it is honorably and seriously written. He reinforces the striking details employed by the two plots. "Is it conceivable that a man, when he has appropriated the story so precisely, not only the main features, but many details in themselves inconsequential - for example, that it is in digging the grave that the fatal struggle arises; that the witnesses, without being able to see the persons, see the weapon swung over the hazel bushes, which shut out from them the view, and hear the dull thud of it; that the fellow leaps over the fence and runs into the forest; that the accuser, to look like the vicar, puts on his green coat (it must, indeed be green, for it stands so in Blicher!) when he buries the body - is it psychologically possible, I say, that one who remembers the narrative so accurately and completely, to these small details, can write all this down with the thought that it is his own original stuff?"

Mr. Thorensen then seeks to excuse Mr. Clemens by suggesting that a collaborator provided him with the plot, which is for him so subservient a matter that he had forgotten where he had obtained it.

Another Danish critic, Mr. Hans Hansen, editor of the edition de luxe of Blicher, expresses himself more strongly. Blicher's story, he points out, rests upon an actual event, which has recently been documented, but Blicher's imagination quite overlaid the facts and the traditions, and Mr. Clemens agrees with Blicher against these. "That Blicher and Mark Twain should have a common source is quite inconceivable."

The matter has excited much attention in Denmark. The Danes are flattered, and prouder of their Blicher. The National Times, with a spice of the esprit Copenhague, alludes to the discovery as "a modest triumph for Denmark."

It may be remembered that this is not the first time that the charge of borrowed plots has been brought against Mr. Clemens. Prof. Van Dyke of Princeton discovered that the celebrated bullfrog story is an almost exact replica of a Greek (Boetian) tale. In the Greek tale the frog was forced to swallow stones, while the California frog, more appropriate to the century, was loaded with shot. Mr. Clemens replied with some droll observations on his acquaintance with Greek. He claimed to have the story from Calaveras County.

Whatever is the truth in this Danish affair, there is no ground to suspect Mr. Clemens of plagiarism. The story can have come to him in many ways. There has been a Blicher revival in Denmark in recent years, and I suspect Mark Twain had the story from some Danish American. He can, for instance, have smoked a cigar with that amazing story teller, Mr. Jacob Riis.

Indeed, it is not unlikely that the story was printed in America before "Tom Sawyer, Detective." Since the Danish discovery appeared, attention has been drawn to further plagiarisms of "The Vicar of Weilby." A German romance, "Der Friezenpastor," by Dietrich Theden has stolen Blicher's plot. More surprising still, a synopsis of Blicher's story appeared in the Sunday supplement of a New York newspaper recently under the title "Would You convict on Circumstantial Evidence?" It was told as a true story of a murder trial in Denmark. There was no mention of Blicher's name. But the plot was Blicher's, not the facts of the old documents. Blicher's names and geography were retained, and the whole was practically a translation of Blicher. While the story appeared too late to have been used in "Tom Sawyer, Detective," it suggests the possibility of predecessors in other Sunday magazines. A Danish-American journalist is probably responsible.

That an author can forget he has a source is quite possible psychologically. At this writing, I have in mind the case of a boy, 14 years old, who submitted a story for a prize contest two years ago at Groton School. It was an exceptionally good story, and worthy of the first prize. But it had a familiar ring. Suddenly it occurred to one of the masters that the tale was nothing more than a boyish retelling in plain English of Stevenson's "Thrawn Janet." A comparison revealed that the stories were identical in details of color. the boy was examined, and declared that he could not read Lowland Scotch, had never head of Stevenson's story, had never heard the story told. "I imagined it all." He was a strictly honest boy. The masters attributed the borrowing to the narrative of a nurse in the child's infancy. His memory had retained the story but obliterated its source.

After all, we so often forget that there is nothing new under the sun, that Shakespeare was the greatest plagiarist, and that the best story is as old as the hills.


[2nd half of the page contains the following story]

Famous Cases of Literary Borrowings and How They Are Considered.


Historic Plagiarisms that Vary from Deliberate Theft to "Taking a Hint" and the Ethical Problems They Suggest.

As a student of mental problems the literary detector (shall we so call him?) has his uses. To trace the evolution of a thought from Plato to Spencer, or the development of a plot from Terence to Shakespeare or to point out analogies between stories that belong to the folklore of widely scattered nations is to establish new facts of interest and value in the history of the human mind. But when the detector without due warrant turns detective, when he assumes that he is following in the traces of a crime, when he brands a legitimate conqueror as a pirate or a highwayman, he then comes dangerously near criminality himself.

True literary ethics are summed up in the phrase attributed to Moliere, "I take my own wherever I find it." Commentators are undecided whether Moliere meant to assert the obvious truism that he had a right to regain the goods which plagiarists had borrowed from him, or the apparent paradox that he had a right to borrow all outlying raw material which he and he only could turn into a masterpiece.

Whether the truism or the paradox was his intention, he was perfectly right - because he was Moliere.

It is for public interest that successive inventors should be granted successive patents on successive improvements of some idea whose origin, in the final sense, defies analysis. And this is as true in the world of mind as it is in the world of matter. Public policy requires only that the improvement should improve. But it requires that implicitly. Plagiarism is always a crime, except when the author betters what he takes or restores to the world a gem it had forgotten. Monarchs of mind have the right of eminent domain over the entire field of literature. Shakespeare would not have been Shakespeare, nor Milton Milton, nor Moliere Moliere had they not laid a tax upon their lesser fellows to contribute to their own splendor.

Real Ethical Test.

In short, that author is no criminal who transmutes an inferior metal into gold, but only he who debases gold by an alloy of brass.

To take the case of Mark Twain, who has just been accused of borrowing the plot of his story "Tom Sawyer, Detective," from a practically unknown foreign original - unknown, that is, to the English speaking public. His accuser says he has spoiled the story. If so, he would be guilty of plagiarism and a crime - provided he had boldly pilfered from the original. He has effectively disproved that charge by showing that he never knew of the existence of "The Vicar of Weilby," and had little or no knowledge either of Danish or of German, in which languages alone the novel has appeared.

The fact is that he must either have read or been told the outlines of a story that has been familiar to all students of criminal jurisprudence for half a century, and had appeared in one form or another in English and American periodicals some years before he wrote his own story.

His general denial of any conscious borrowing may be explained in many ways, especially that of unconscious borrowing, but it absolutely unnecessary to put detective cunning on the track of a non-offender. Mark Twain has expanded a mere hint into a story that is absolutely his own, and (with all due deference to his accuser) is an improvement on the same story as it was told by the Danish Blicher.

Source of "Tom Sawyer."

That in some minor details "Tom Sawyer, Detective," follows the novelist's version of fact instead of the fact itself shows only (what is true) that it is through fiction and not fact that the story was first made known to English readers, though in a very short synopsis of a comparatively long fiction.

Either as detector or detective, the discovered of literary coincidences - morally ranging from virtue to crime, from conquest to highway robbery - has contributed a very interesting chapter to the history of literature.

To take an early American instance, we find Benjamin Franklin running the entire plagiaristic gamut, from conquest to crime. His "Poor Richard" sayings were most of them legitimate borrowings from the proverbial literature of the world, legitimate because he often dressed them up to advantage in is own words and never passed them off as his own offspring. But it is impossible to acquit him of offense when he laid claim to a translation of Cicero's "De Senechite," really written by the Philadelphia Logan. We may laugh at that arch rogue, Laurence Sterne, when he pilfers some of his best passages verbatim from older authors, and then denounces plagiarism in words plagiarized from Burton, who had himself plagiarized them from the Latin of J. V. Andrea - viz., the phrase "Shall we forever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring out of one vessel into another?"

Although we laugh we cannot quite approve. The case presented by Owen Meredith's "Lucile" is one of the most puzzling in literature. The first book of that love idyll, and the better book of the two, is a close translation of George Sand's "Lucretia," the French prose being rendered as literally as possible into galloping English anapests. Why didn't Lytton acknowledge the source and thus acquit himself of all possibilities of blame? The theft (only a theft because it was unconfessed translation) was absolutely certain of detection in the long run.

More intelligible, because now we are dealing with an unblushing criminal, was the case of that English author who boldly published Gogol's "Dead Souls" as his own composition under that title "Home Life in Russia." This was in 1854, when the masterpieces of Russian fiction were not within reach of English readers. Hence, the fraud was not discovered for many years.

When Charles Reade was attacked for taking a French play by Alphonse Maquet and turning it without acknowledgment into an English novel under the new title of "White Lies," he replied that he had bought the idea from the original author, and was entitled to use it as he chose. Though the reply did not pacify his critics, is there not a germ at lead of good sense in it? If plagiarism is stealing, surely the translation assumes a different aspect when you purchase the property from its legal owner.

Charles Reade was less successful in defending his title to "The Picture In My Uncle's Dining Room," a short story which he published as his own in an English magazine in 1883. Two literary detective promptly pounced upon him. One discovered in some forgotten magazine a story called "The Old M'sieu's Secret," which was almost identical in plot and character with Reade's story. The other unearthed some other forgotten magazine another story, "Where Shall We Find Her?" (the title is singularly apt) which was also identical in essentials with Reade's story. Both of the forgotten stories were anonymous. Both were so like each other, and so like Reade's, that it was impossible they should have been written independently.

Three Stories From One.

At last the mystery was solved. All three, it was found, were English adaptations of an older French story, "Mademoiselle de Saint Pierre," by Madame Charles Reybauld.

Hardly had the smoke of the controversy died away in England, when the war was carried into Germany, where one A. Von Bosse published a story entitled "Das Lebende Bild" in the weekly Ueber Land und Meer, and was straightway challenged as a Teutonic invader of the same Reybauld preserves whence the three English poachers had just been ejected.

Mr. F. Anstey not very long ago had parallel experience to that which may have made Madame Reybauld turn in her grave. Happening to run across a little volume called "Le Caniche Noir" in a Parisian bookstore, he was beguiled by a certain titular coincidence into examining it. Sure enough when he opened it he found his own "Black Poodle" wagging a friendly tail under new surroundings. The scene had been transferred from England to France, and there were other unimportant variations, but the poodle was Mr. Anstey's poodle - his adventure was the same. Mr. Anstey - this is a pseudonym, you will remember - promptly wrote to the French author a French letter under his real name of Guthrie. Congratulating Monsieur on his "originalite vraiement extraordinaire," he asked permission to translate "Le Caniche Noir" into English, as one who felt that he could do the thing sympathetically. The French author answered in English and with becoming modesty. He only too humbly felt that his little book ill deserved the so liberal praise of Monsieur Guthrie. As to the question of translation, he added, "I am sorry to tell you that I am my own translator, and that the 'Caniche Noir' exists in English already."

There are some cases of literary parallelisms which cannot be explained so easily. For example, was Pinero's early play "The Squire" suggested to him by Thomas Hardy's novel "Under the Greenwood Tree"? Hardy himself thought that Pinero was guilty of blatant plagiarism, and brought suit against him for damages. Pinero defended himself by pleading that he had never read "Under the Greenwood Tree." Pinero won the suit, to be sure, but anybody familiar alike with play and novel will find it difficult to accept the dramatist's plea in the absence of any common original.

Hardy's Plagiarisms.

Yet Hardy himself has sinned in more flagrant fashion, though in smaller limits. Nor could he, nor indeed has he, ever put forward such a plea as that of Pinero. He maintained a discreet silence when some detective in, I think, the New York Critic, pointed out that an entire chapter in "The Trumpet Major" had been taken from an episode in Judge Longstreet's "Georgia Scenes," a long forgotten though once famous specimen of early American humor. The only changes made had been those necessary to suit the differences of environment. Georgia "crackers" had been altered into Devonshire yokels, but in nearly all other respects sentence had followed sentence and paragraph paragraph without any verbal change.

A few years ago Mrs. William Kingdon Clifford wrote a play called "The Likeness of the Night." Prior to its representation on the stage it was accepted by Lady Randolph Churchill for her newly established periodical, The Anglo-Saxon, and duly appeared there. Not long after, but still before Mrs. Clifford had disposed of her play to a manager, Sydney Grundy stages his comedy "A Debt of Honor." Its similarity to the Clifford play aroused heated discussion in the English papers. Mrs. Clifford wrote that her play had appeared in the Anglo-Saxon Review - "for all who run and pay a guinea to read." Mr. Grundy retorted that he did not run, that he had not paid a guinea, and that he knew no one who ever had.

Whereupon Lady Randolph genially sent him a presentation copy, and Mr. Grundy courteously acknowledged its receipts, still refusing, however, either to run or to read. To this day, therefore, he remains ignorant of how far the similarity between his play and Mrs. Clifford's subject to explanation.

In the year 1866 one John C. Fleming wrote a play entitled "Myles Aroon" and submitted it to the late actor-manager William J. Scanlan, who returned it unaccepted. In 1888 Scanlan produced in Philadelphia a play under the same title. Fleming brought suit against the actor, and his claims of priority were so far successful that the courts restrained Scanlan from any further use of the title, though they sustained the originality of the play itself.

This case is mainly memorable for a declaration made by Scanlan that the identity of title between his play and Fleming's was a mere literary coincidence, adding - as an illustration of the queer possibilities of such coincidences - that he had once composed a song of four stanzas, and afterward found it word for word in the published works of Schiller!

Well, incidents almost as strange abound in literary history. Sir Walter Scott once discovered that he had unwittingly taken a line from a poem by the valet of a friend. En revanche, in the preface to a little collection of verses from his novels, he frankly declared that he could not be certain which were of his own composition and which were not. Again, when he heard one of his songs sung, he said: "Pretty words; are they Byron's?"

An anonymous contributor to an English review tells a story in point:

"I once read," he says, "in an American paper some lines attributed to Mr.. Austin Dobson. 'Not bad for Dobson,' I said freely to a friend. But it was proved on me that the rhymes were my own!'

Applying his own experience to the case of Sir Walter Scott, he decided that a bard who forgets his own verses may be pardoned for remembering those of other people and mistaking a half-line of somebody else's for his own.

Rudyard Kipling's "Files."

It is therefore, with no courtesy that one may point out a very curious literary coincidence in Rudyard Kipling's "Files," a poem included in the volume called "Five Nations." Kipling writes:

When the Conchimarian horns
Of the reboantic Norns
Usher gentlemen and ladies
With new lights on Heaven and Hades,
Guaranteeing to eternity
All yesterday's modernity. &c.

There was a once famous poet friend of Edgar Allan Poe who was temporarily restored to public memory in the course of a recent centennial celebration. This resuscitation broke back with it a poem entitled "The Eonchs of Ruby," whose refrain strikes a note strangely like Kipling's. Here it is:

In the music of the morns,
Blown through the Conchimarian horns, horns
Down the dark vistas of the reboantic Norns,
To the Genius of Eternity,
Crying, "Come to me! Come to me!"

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