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We stole his corpse, now the
Scottish are stealing his book

2 JPJs

Reprinted with permission from Foster's Online.
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Foster's Daily Democrat Staff Writer

DURHAM — For two years, W. Jeffrey Bolster has been reviewing books for the New York Times.

Mckay Book

But recently Bolster, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire, discovered the John Paul Jones biography he was reading for review, written by Scottish author James Mackay, shared an uncanny likeness to an older book by a celebrated American historian.

Bolster did not know at the time that Mackay had been accused of plagiarism on four different occasions, one of which resulted in a publisher’s recall and pulping of his book.

Bolster copied selections of Mackay’s book and the 1959 work of the late Samuel Eliot Morison, "John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography," and sent it to his editor at the New York Times. The editor quashed the review and instead assigned one of his reporters to write a news story on the issue.

"The only way he could have done this is, literally, to have Morison’s book open on the desk (as he wrote)," Bolster said. "The commas are in the same place."

Mackay’s "I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A Life of John Paul Jones" about the Scottish-born American naval hero whose travels brought him to the Seacoast was due for release next month by Atlantic Monthly Press of Grove/Atlantic Inc. It was one of more than 100 books Mackay has authored.

Jones was one of the founders of the U.S. Navy. He joined the rebels against the British during the American Revolution and commanded several warships. It was during a heated battle between his warship Bon Homme Richard and the English HMS Serapis off the coast of England that Jones issued his immortal response to the English commander, asking for his surrender. Jones said: "I have not begun to fight!" before pummeling the Serapis into surrender.

He visited the Seacoast twice, first in 1777 to pick up the warship Ranger and crew, which carried the new 13-star American flag when it sailed into battle against the British and captured the HMS Drake. He returned to Portsmouth four years later as a celebrated naval hero after taking the Serapis, and he spent his time in the Seacoast socializing and awaiting the completion of his ship, the America.

Bolster’s interest was piqued when he received the assignment from The Times Book Review. He wondered what Mackay’s writing style would be like in comparison to Morison’s style, which reflected his conservative politics.

"Morison, for all his accomplishments, had a reputation for being a cold warrior," Bolster said.

As he began to read, the UNH professor noticed startling similarities between both works, to the point where passages were nearly identical. He said there was a "brazenness" about the Scot’s work.

The most telling indicator that Mackay may have stolen material from Morison, Bolster said, was a passage in which he wrote that Jones only mentioned "the majesty of the sea" in one letter throughout his many travels. The professor knew of Morison’s strong seafaring background.

Morison wrote of Jones: "During his career, he visited some of the most beautiful parts of the world — Cape Breton, the Windward Islands, Jamaica, Galicia, Brittany, the Hebrides, the Baltic and the Black Sea; yet not once in his voluminous correspondence does he indicate any appreciation of them; and in only one letter, about the great gale of October 1780, does he mention the majesty of the sea."

Compare that to what Mackay wrote: "In the course of his career he visited some of the most beautiful parts of the world — the Caribbean islands, Nova Scotia, Galicia, the Baltic and the Black Sea as well as the eastern seaboard of America and the coasts of Britain — yet nowhere in his vast correspondence does he betray any appreciation of them. In only one letter, written in October 1780 in the aftermath of a great storm, does he allude to the majesty of the sea."

After about an hour of reading, Bolster contacted his editor.

Mackay’s publisher has since pulled the book to check whether the plagiarism claims are correct. Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal reached Mackay in Glasgow and asked him how so many passages in the two biographies could be so similar. Mackay responded, "There are only a certain number of words in the English language."

In 1997, Mackay was accused of plagiarizing a biography on Alexander Graham Bell, written by retired Boston University professor emeritus Robert Bruce. Ironically, the American Historical Association, of which Bolster is a member, stepped in to intervene and shred the book. However, Bolster was unaware of the action and of newspaper reports about the allegations.

Since reading the Bell biography, Bolster said, "Damn if he didn’t copy every page."

One reason why Mackay may be able to continue to publish stolen work, Bolster said, is because there is less oversight of publications. He said the Internet and huge popular bookstore chains are making it harder to do so.

While historians rely on the scholarship that has gone before them, Bolster said "Mr. Mackay has abrogated the ethics that govern the enterprise by lifting wholesale."

The Associated Press and contributed to this report.


© 1999 Geo. J. Foster Co.

Image at top of page from 18th century engraving of John Paul Jones aboard the Serapis from the collection of

Read an in-depth interview with Jeff Bolster
about his own sailing book "Black Jacks"

For much more on John Paul Jones

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