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Creative Plagiary*

I took a creative writing class once. Long ago when I was an English Major at a windswept Midwestern university. The professor was Lucky Strike…Really. Well, that’s what we called Lucien Stryk, behind his back at least. He has gone on to become a well known writer of more than two dozen volumes of poetry, collections, and translations of Chinese and Japanese Zen poetry. In fact there is even an award for the translation of Asian or Buddhist poetry named after him that is given annually by the American Literary Translators Association.

Translation brings me to an interesting subject. What is it that translators do? They take someone else’s work and bring it over into their own words. Isn’t it a kind of authorized plagiarism?

I bring up the question for a reason. It is not exactly guilt, I don’t think. But perhaps learning about the career of Professor Stryk as a translator has eased a burden. He took other people’s writing and put it into his own words.

Stryk had given an assignment. It was due the next day. I went back to the room I was sharing off campus with three other guys. But I couldn’t think of a thing to write. So I did what I often do when I don’t know what to do. I took a nap.

Suddenly, I woke up in a sweat. A story had come to me in a dream. I yelled to one of my roommates: “Quick! A pen!! Paper!!”

I wrote it down feverishly. I could barely keep up with the ideas. I turned in the story and waited for the teacher to comment. A week went by. He called me into his office. He looked troubled.

“I would never have figgered you to be a plagiarist,” he said.

I was stunned. “The story you wrote,” he said. “It bears a remarkable resemblance to a chapter in Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son.

“It can’t be,” I protested. “I have never read the book.” And I thought I was telling the truth.

He reached up to his shelf and handed me a worn paperback copy of Wright’s great book. I read in amazement.
Oh, I had missed many of the details and there were significant differences. My story was about white kids in a neighborhood of tenements in Chicago, like one I had lived in on the north side when I was in elementary school. Not black kids on the south side many years earlier.

And my story didn’t have anything to do with race. It focused on the frustration these inner city kids had growing up within view of the city’s affluent high rises.

They daydream and fantasize being wealthy businessmen — even the president. But there is an underlying resentment at the world they feel trapped in. One has a possible job offer. But it feels servile and beneath his dignity. Somehow they come up with the idea of robbing a local store. It will feel good and they will have some cash in their pockets. But the main character has second thoughts and comes up with a way of forcing the whole thing off without admitting his fears even though it causes a permanent break with the other guys. He commits an act of bravado and walks out of the store alone, very much alone, but with a strange sensation of relief. “He started to laugh,” I had written. “He felt something warm run down his cheek. ‘Jesus,’ he said to himself. ‘I laughed so hard I cried.'”

I looked at Stryk’s worn copy of Native Son.

There on the page in black and white were the almost the exact same words: “‘Jesus,'” he breathed. ‘I laughed so hard I cried.'”

I was stunned. I protested and explained how the story had come to me. That I had never heard of Richard Wright. I didn’t even know enough to be ashamed of that. Somehow I must have been believed because I wasn’t punished. But, for over thirty years I puzzled about that.

Then a few years ago I came across a copy of a collection of short stories and essays called This is Chicago .** It was a book my father had been given when he was in the hospital in the early 50s. Right about the time we lived in that horrible place.

I turned the pages, remembering stories I had read so long ago. And in among the stories I remembered was one I had completely forgotten: “South Side Boy” by Richard Wright. I looked closer – at a footnote to the title. The story was a chapter from Native Son, copyright credit right there on the page. I laughed quietly to myself as my eyes moistened.

Notes:

*My wife chuckled and challenged the use of the word “plagiary” in the title. But I found the wonderful website Plagiary.org and decided to keep it.
** An essay I wrote a dozen years ago relates how I found the book and includes a very short version of this story. See How the Web Brought Back my Childhood, Explained a Mystery, and Made an Honest Man of My Cousin Can one plagiarize from one’s own work?

Closing the Circle

On New Years Eve, I will retire from the Labor Department after nearly 31 years in the Office of the Solicitor. My interest in workers’ rights began in my childhood as I heard stories of workers compensation cases my father litigated in the 1930s and 40s. He told stories of meat packers with frozen fingers and other such tales but the most legendary was the Case of the Living Dead Women, the story of the radium dial painters of Ottawa, Illinois. The dramatic story (which has now been turned into a wonderful play, These Shining Lives) is captured in a website I have created from hundreds of original newspaper reports on this groundbreaking litigation, establishing the right of workers to seek relief years after the onset of illnesses of which they were not aware. The website is at http://lgrossman.com/pics/radium/. There is also a new novel, Radium Halos, by Shelley Stout which explores the plight of the radium girls and goes beyond it.

It was a winding trail from my father’s death when I was an adolescent, through ten years of teaching in Chicago’s inner city and a few months with an insurance defense law firm, but then a few months before my daughter was born in 1979, I was hired by the Chicago Office of the Solicitor in the waning months of the Carter administration. (An especially timely reminder this week is that the FEHB did not consider my wife’s pregnancy a pre-existing condition and in effect, as I have often joked, I joined Labor in time to pay for the labor.)

It has been my privilege to work in a field that has allowed me to follow in my father’s footsteps, not only as a lawyer but in the field of workers rights. There have been a few dramatic moments and many contrasts, such as the day I picked up a check for more than six million dollars, resolving an early ERISA case involving mob related healthcare and pension plans. On the same day I found in the mail a $300 check resolving a MSPA case (or perhaps it was still FLCRA).

Every lawyer, if he or she is lucky enough, may have the opportunity to place one brick in the wall of justice. For me it was the Lauritzen case in the mid 80s, establishing that migrant workers were employees, not independent contractors. I am especially grateful to the latitude given me by my office to work not only with Wage and Hour in both Wisconsin and Texas, but also Legal Action of Wisconsin and Texas Rural Legal Aid, in litigating this Fair Labor Standards Act, which also included Child Labor issues. I also must thank Paula Coleman, now retired from the FLS division, for being willing to work so closely with a young staff attorney from Chicago on the appeal to the Seventh Circuit.

Over the years I have been able to work in almost every area litigated by the SOL, from MSPA to MSHA, from OFCCP to OSHA. I am especially proud of some of the work with regard to union democracy under the LMRDA. In the right hands, enforcing the right of union members to fair elections is, I strongly believe, a pro-union activity.

I have been privileged to work with wonderful investigators and management from so many agencies, Wage and Hour, EBSA, OSHA, OFCCP. I have come to recognize the dedication and sometimes zeal on the front lines and the role lawyers can take in harnessing that energy in ways that lead to effective enforcement.

When I came to this office it was still under the leadership of one of the pioneers in our field, Herman Grant, who was Regional Attorney before there were regional solicitors. Carin Clauss was the Solicitor of Labor. She continued the fight in amicus briefs filed when administrations changed and began to reverse positions carefully developed by the pioneers in this Department. The values they instilled informed my view of the role of this Agency. The lawyers of the Chicago Office continue in that tradition.