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.
*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?