One of the many books in my on-deck circle is America and Americans – a collection of John Steinbeck’s nonfiction and letters. Since most of the essays and other works in this volume are very short, I often pick it up when I have a minute or two, open it to a page at random, and start to read. It’s amazing what five or ten minutes of Steinbeck can do to improve one’s day.
But yesterday – yesterday I opened America and Americans to a random page just as I was settling into bed, and on that page I found the following, which is the first paragraph of a letter to the editor of a sports magazine. Steinbeck was replying to a letter in which the editor, Ray Cave, asked Steinbeck to write for his magazine. Read it – no matter what else has happened in your day so far, this paragraph will make it better.
Dear Ray Cave:
I have your letter of August 29, and it pleased me to know
that you think of me as a sportsman, albeit perhaps an unorthodox one. As you must know, I get many requests for articles, such as, “You got to rite my termpaper for my second yer english or they wun’t leave me play on the teem.” Here is a crisis. If I don’t rite his term paper I may set sports back irreparably. On the other hand, I don’t think I am a good enough writer to rite his term paper in his stile well enough to get by his teacher. I remember one time when a professor in one of our sports-oriented colleges had in his English composition class a football player whose excellence on the playing field exhausted his capabilities, and yet a tyrannical scholasticism demanded that he write an essay. Well, he did, and the professor, who was a friend of mine, was utterly charmed by it. It was one of Emerson’s best, and such was the purity of approach on the part of the football player that he had even spelled the words correctly. And he was astounded that the professor could tell that it was not all his own work.
Now. I’ve taught in high schools and colleges for 15 years, and I’ve also been an assistant dean. I’ve known plagiarism. My soul has grown deep like the plagiarism. But this is the best plagiarism story I’ve ever heard. Imagine the cojones and/or cluelessness required to write a letter to John Fucking Steinbeck and demand that he write one’s essay in a basic composition class! I mean, I suppose that if one is going to approach an American Nobel Laureate and demand that he do one’s homework, Steinbeck is probably the most approachable choice. Hemingway would just shoot the kid in the stomach and have his head mounted on the wall; Faulkner would make the essay sound too much like the King James Bible to be taken seriously; and Eugene O’Neill would probably just get drunk and start to cry at the desk in the kid’s dorm room. But still – who does this?
A few years ago, one of my colleagues assigned his seniors to write an essay about a time in their own lives when they had suffered a loss, and one of his international students copied and pasted the Wikipedia summary of The Wizard of Oz. Up until last night, that was my favorite plagiarism story. But I think Steinbeck’s has taken the prize.