Letters of Note: The Bulk of All Human Utterances is Plagiarism

In 1892, deafblind author Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism after a short story of hers, named “The Frost King,” was identified as being extremely similar to Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies.” An investigation followed, as did a tribunal in which she was eventually acquitted. Amazingly, Keller was just 12 years of age at the time.

A decade later, her friend, Mark Twain, learned of the episode after reading Keller’s autobiography. He then wrote her the fascinating letter of support seen below.

(Source: Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol. 2 of 2; Image: Mark Twain, via.)

St. Patrick’s Day, ’03

Dear Helen,—

I must steal half a moment from my work to say how glad I am to have your book, and how highly I value it, both for its own sake and as a remembrance of an affectionate friendship which has subsisted between us for nine years without a break, and without a single act of violence that I can call to mind. I suppose there is nothing like it in heaven; and not likely to be, until we get there and show off. I often think of it with longing, and how they’ll say, “There they come—sit down in front!” I am practicing with a tin halo. You do the same. I was at Henry Roger’s last night, and of course we talked of you. He is not at all well;—you will not like to hear that; but like you and me, he is just as lovely as ever.

I am charmed with your book—enchanted. You are a wonderful creature, the most wonderful in the world—you and your other half together—Miss Sullivan, I mean, for it took the pair of you to make a complete and perfect whole. How she stands out in her letters! her brilliancy, penetration, originality, wisdom, character, and the fine literary competencies of her pen—they are all there.

Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that “plagiarism” farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men—but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite—that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

Then why don’t we unwittingly reproduce the phrasing of a story, as well as the story itself? It can hardly happen—to the extent of fifty words except in the case of a child; its memory-tablet is not lumbered with impressions, and the actual language can have graving-room there, and preserve the language a year or two, but a grown person’s memory-tablet is a palimpsest, with hardly a bare space upon which to engrave a phrase. It must be a very rare thing that a whole page gets so sharply printed on a man’s mind, by a single reading, that it will stay long enough to turn up some time or other to be mistaken by him for his own. No doubt we are constantly littering our literature with disconnected sentences borrowed from books at some unremembered time and now imagined to be our own, but that is about the most we can do. In 1866 I read Dr. Holmes’s poems, in the Sandwich Islands. A year and a half later I stole his dedication, without knowing it, and used it to dedicate my “Innocents Abroad” with. Then years afterward I was talking with Dr. Holmes about it. He was not an ignorant ass—no, not he; he was not a collection of decayed human turnips, like your “Plagiarism Court;” and so when I said, “I know now where I stole it, but whom did you steal it from,” he said, “I don’t remember; I only know I stole it from somebody, because I have never originated anything altogether myself, nor met anyone who had.”

To think of those solemn donkeys breaking a little child’s heart with their ignorant rubbish about plagiarism! I couldn’t sleep for blaspheming about it last night. Why, their whole lives, their whole histories, all their learning, all their thoughts, all their opinions were one solid rock of plagiarism, and they didn’t know it and never suspected it. A gang of dull and hoary pirates piously setting themselves the task of disciplining and purifying a kitten that they think they’ve caught filching a chop! Oh, dam—

But you finish it, dear, I am running short of vocabulary today.

Every lovingly your friend


via Letters of Note: The bulk of all human utterances is plagiarism.


Favorite Quote(s)

I am jumping into another blog challenge, mostly for the writing prompts, but also for the incentive to continue being disciplined about writing every day (or almost every day).  For those who have been reading, the Blogging A to Z challenge was one of the most fun months I have had as a blogger, not just because I was writing every day, but because I was meeting so many other bloggers.  So here we go again…

Day Three of the 31 Day Blog Challenge…Favorite Quote(s)

Psalm 73:26…My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.  –Mark Twain

Galatians 6:17…Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.  –Mark Twain

Acts 20:24…However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.  –Mark Twain (The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It)

Flowers are red, young man;
Green leaves are green.
There’s no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen.

And the little boy said…

There are so many colors in the rainbow,
So many colors in the morning sun,
So many colors in the flowers
And I see every one.

–Harry Chapin

April 14 (M)…Mental (A)Musings from a Mad Mind (a Random Selection)

I don’t know why, but any time I think of cows, my mad mind always things “moo-cows.”  Always.  Sometimes I even say it out loud.


Not cute!

I think muumuus, in their appropriate Hawaiian setting, are perfectly fine.  They are indigenous to the locale.  However, they have been madly misappropriated as a somehow appropriate plus-sized fashion necessity.  Being of a zaftig nature myself, can I offer a resounding objection to this trend.  Comfy they may be, but outside of Hawaii, please can we just leave them in the closet??

Those who meddle really miff this mad woman.  Those with mettle do not.  I know members of both extractions…guess who I hang out with?

Mmm, Mmm, Good!  Best branding EVER for Campbell’s Soup.  Best caption for this photo (credit People of Walmart for that)?  Not so much…

Mandi…a forever friend I miss a ton.  2000 miles of US geography, kiddos, and myriad responsibilities does not make it easy to visit…or frankly, to even chat on the phone very often.  No matter, because we pick up where we left off before…every time…which is what forever friendship always is.

Speaking of myriad, how is it that this particular word gets misused so much?  Short lesson:  myriad (adj) means innumerable, multitudinous, incalculable, immeasurable, numerous.  Therefore, “a myriad of (insert plural noun of choice)” is not correct.  You wouldn’t say “a numerous of …” or “a multitudinous of …” or “an incalculable of …”  Correct usage is “myriad (insert plural noun of choice).”  Like myriad responsibilities, for instance, which keep friends from being in touch as much as they would like to be.  OK, end of lesson.  It really is the little things in life… 😀

Momentary political tangent:  Minimum wage does not help the economy, and it does not make jobs more plentiful.  It does just the opposite, because the higher the minimum wage that is required per employee, the fewer employees that can be hired. For those looking for jobs, these circumstances are inconducive to success.  The market can regulate minimum wage adequately and fairly, but it is not permitted to do so (thanks to ubiquitous government interference and regulation).  This maddens me.  End of tangent.

Does MySpace still exist?

Mangos are melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

The best and most special name I have EVER had…EVER…is Mommy!  The best and most special job I’ve ever had is Mommy!  Well, wife too, but in my case, that’s implied. 🙂

Many, many thanks to my parents for passing along the love of reading to me.  It is one of my favorite pastimes (after…or maybe equal to writing), so let me share some of my favorite M authors:  Monica McInerney (marvelously fun Australian author); Mark Twain (no list is complete without him); Pamela Morsi (fun Southern author); Marina Lewycka (of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian fame…funny little book), Cormac McCarthy (just read his stuff!); Mary Alice Monroe (great summer reading), Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca is perhaps the best gothic murder mystery I have ever read); Maurice Sendak (one of my very favorite children’s authors).

Making time to do the hair for my lovely friend WomanNeverSleeps‘ beautiful daughter on the day of her prom…my pleasure.  And a small example of the miraculous covenant that binds the body of Christ.  When help is needed, there is always someone to call, someone who can, someone who will.  It’s not always me, but it is today, and it is indeed my pleasure.