Mark Twain and “Unconscious Plagiarism”

Over the past couple of months I have been reading Mark Twain’s Autobiography in parts.  The work lends itself to being picked up and put down in intervals, considering the work itself was written in that very manner–dictated in various countries, at different times, and in pieces.  Besides being thoroughly entertaining, the book also contains some very insightful thoughts on different philosophical topics.  Twain’s perspectives are at times abrasively honest, always riddled with humor, but also tinged with the jaded hopelessness of an atheist who is reaching the end of his perceived existence.

Though his godless worldview saddens me, I often find myself identifying with the ideas he communicates.  Below is a quote concerning a quite embarrassing instance when Twain discovered he had accidentally included a poem written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. in his dedication of Innocents Abroad without citing Dr. Holmes.  He was convinced that the poem had originated in his own mind until a friend pointed out the obvious plagiarism while in a book store!  After writing a letter to Dr. Holmes filled with profuse apology, he recorded the gist of Holmes’ response:

Dr. Holmes laughed the kindest and healingest laugh over the whole matter, and at considerable length and in happy phrase assured me that there was no crime in unconscious plagiarism; that I committed it every day, that he committed it every day, that every man alive who writes or speaks commits it every day and not merely once or twice but every time he opens his mouth; that all our phrasings are spiritualized shadows cast multitudinously from our readings; that no happy phrase of ours is ever quite original with us, there is nothing of our own in it except some slight change born of our temperament, character, environment, teachings and manner of saying it, stamps it with our special style, and makes it our own for the time being; all the rest of it being old, moldy, antique, and smelling of the breath of a thousand generations of them that have passed it over their teeth before!

-Mark Twain (dictated 1904) taken from Autobiography of Mark Twain (Lexington: Seven Treasures, 2010), 150-1.

Holmes_with_signature_croppedNow, notice Twain dictated these details in 1904 concerning a letter written long before that.  However, Holmes’ perspective sounds quite post-modern, speaking about how we are shaped by our readings, and how we only merely stamp our own style on ideas plagiarized from others.  We might say Holmes and Twain were men ahead of their philosophical time.

I believe the ideas Holmes wrote to Twain, and Twain re-appropriated for his own autobiography (oh, how ironic), are truer than we Christians like to admit.  If there is anything we learn from reading the Gospels, for instance, it is the fact that they are desperately shaped by the years they spent listening to readings from the Torah.  As Christians, we find our speech slowly shaped and changed by the Word.  We are “people of the Book”, aren’t we?  Preachers: Aren’t we meant to be mere messengers of the Gospel?  We have nothing new to communicate, only what was passed down to us through the prophets and apostles.  Christians make it their goal to be shaped in life and in speech by our reading of the Word.

When we read the Gospels, and any other parts of Scripture for that matter, we see men who set an example of what it means to be shaped by God’s Word.  They breathed in the text, they ate the text for breakfast, they snuck it as a late night snack, and they used it as the pillow they slept on each night.  When you meditate on any text, you will find it mysteriously begin to weave itself into your life, thoughts, and speech.

If this way of speaking makes you uncomfortable, I want you to think about why you, Christian, hold so staunchly to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture.  It’s because you value the text of the Bible, every single word, every letter, as communication from the Almighty God.  It’s in those very words that we find the Word of God: Jesus Christ.  He has chosen to relate to us through that Book.  When we spend time in the Scriptures, allowing them to mold and shape our reality, our hearts, and our minds, we are actually building our relationship with Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit who has given us eyes to see and ears to hear.

(photo credit; photo credit)

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC