Sunday, 5 August 2012

Oh No, Poe - low blow you know

                             Captain Thomas Brown became interested in the study of natural history when his regiment was quartered in Manchester, and after a failed business venture in a flax mill (which burned down before Brown had insured it), he began to write books on nature to earn a living, before returning to Manchester where he became curator of the Manchester Museum. Other than his published works, little is known about Brown – 
“It is curious how rarely any contemporary reference is found to these books. The same remark applies to their author. Captain Brown's history is so imperfectly known that it would be difficult to string together any running story. He is not referred to in the Dictionary of National Biography, and this not merely by oversight.” 
The Conchological Writings Of Captain Thomas Brown’ - C D Sherborn, in Proceedings Of The Malacological Society Of London, Vol. VI. 1904—1905. p.360. 

Thomas Brown The Conchologist's Text-Book 1833

In 1833, Brown published The Conchologist’s Text-Book, a work which, as Brown acknowledges on his title-page, is ‘embracing’ the arrangements of Lamarck and Linnaeus. That term ‘embracing’ is a nicety, meaning, in effect, ‘borrowing without asking’, or more bluntly, ‘stealing’. In what little information about Brown is available, even his most sympathetic biographers describe his ornithological works as ‘piracy’

Thomas Wyatt A Manual of Conchology 1838

Which is ironic, as in 1838 Thomas Wyatt published an American book A Manual of Conchology, which is a blatant paraphrasing of Brown’s book. Consider these two entries, taken at random. Brown described the Prickly Ranella thus: - 
Ovate, depressed, with acute, short, distinct, muricated tubercles; fawn-coloured; varices lateral, with elongated spines; beak sulcated ; outer lip internally crenated. Two inches and an eighth long. Inhabits the Indian ocean.”  
Brown The Prickly Ranella - Ibid. 1833

Wyatt describes the same species thus: - 
Species of which the varices have elongated spines; beak sulcated; outer lip internally crenated ; acute, short, distinct muricated tubercles; fawn coloured.” 
Wyatt The Prickly Ranella Ibid. 1838

The same words in a different order – a copypasta job, as we would call it today. To be fair to Wyatt, he does include descriptions of the soft parts of the creatures, and not just the shells, which makes this a work on malacology rather than conchology. 

But the skull-duggery doesn’t end there. The following year, Wyatt ‘wrote’ another book about shells, but in order to circumvent the copyright held by his original publishers (Harper and Brothers), his new publishers (Haswell, Barrington, and Haswell) brought in a literary celebrity to write the introduction and to translate the French passages from Cuvier. The book was not published under Wyatt’s name, but used the name of this celeb – Edgar Allan Poe. That’s right, the same Edgar Allan Poe who wrote The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Murders in the Rue Morgue

The eminent conchologist Edgar Allan Poe 

Now, the ‘official version’ is that Poe’s name was used to popularise the work The Conchologist’s First Book, which was a cheaper ‘school’ version selling for $1.50, as opposed to the $8 price of Wyatt’s larger volume. 

It was an ‘edited’ and ‘condensed’ version, written for a wider readership. What that readership wasn’t told was that quite a lot of this ‘new’ edition was not just Brown paraphrased, it was Brown copied word for word. Here are two examples from the Parts of Shells sections in both books, the first is from Brown and the second is from ‘Poe’. 

Brown - Operculum Ibid.
Poe - Operculum Ibid.

Can you see the difference? No, neither can I. Take a look at the ‘Glossary’ presented in the three books. The first is Brown’s, the second is from ‘Wyatt’, the third from ‘Poe’. 

Brown - Glossary - Ibid.
Wyatt - Glossary - Ibid.
Poe - Glossary - Ibid.

Not convinced? Here is a plate from Brown, and one from Poe. 

Brown - Plate One - Ibid.
Poe - Plate One - Ibid.

Edgar Allan Poe was paid a flat fee of $50 for his ‘work’ on the book, which sold out within two weeks and is the only book by him to go into a second edition during his lifetime, (another reprint, in 1845, did not feature Poe’s name). When word did get out, Poe came over all litigious. He had written ‘in conjunction with’ Wyatt and Professor McMurtrie (another conchologist, and friend of Poe), 
“…my name being put to the work, as best known and most likely to aid its circulation. I wrote the Preface and Introduction, and translated from Cuvier, the accounts of the animals, etc. All School-books are necessarily made in a similar way … This charge is infamous, and I shall prosecute for it, as soon as I settle my accounts with the 'Mirror.”
Poe 'lawyers up'.

Stephen Jay Gould wrote an excellent essay Poe’s Greatest Hit, in which he defended Poe, arguing that Poe’s editing improved Wyatt’s rather technical text, added some necessary taxonomic distinctions and was responsible for popularising science for an American audience. Much as I respect the late Professor Gould, I’d say that this is polishing the proverbial, and leave the last word to Wilson Mizner, “If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism. If you steal from many, it's research.

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