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The Politics of Literary Attribution
Did Jim Webb commit plagiarism?


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Ramesh Ponnuru

Everywhere he goes, James Webb, the Democratic candidate for the Senate in Virginia, touts his literary credentials. When the Washington Post profiled him last week, staff writer Fredrick Kunkle opened thus: “James Webb will tell you that he is first a writer, with several best-selling novels to his name.”

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So it’s not surprising that the Allen camp has taken a close look at Webb’s oeuvre. Last week, Allen publicized passages from Webb’s novels that seemed, at least out of context, lurid, smutty, disrespectful to women, or disturbing.

Now Allen supporters have found several instances of what appears to be plagiarism, or at least near-plagiarism, in one of Webb’s successful novels: The Emperor’s General. The 1999 novel, a work of historical fiction, earned Webb a $1 million advance and $2 million for the film rights (according to Variety). Running the novel through a plagiarism detector available online makes it clear that it cribs dialogue and information from the late David Bergamini’s Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy, a popular history released in 1971. But Webb doesn’t credit Bergamini. You wouldn’t expect footnotes in a novel, but you would expect a reference to source material in an author’s note, in acknowledgments, or in suggestions for further reading. Bergamini doesn’t get a mention anywhere, in either the hardback or paperback versions of Webb’s book.

Bergamini translated Japanese documents for his book; many bits of dialogue taken from those documents would have been unavailable to Webb without Bergamini’s work.

Sometimes it’s phrases that were lifted. So, for example, Bergamini refers (paperback, p. 200) to “a buccaneers’ enclave called Karak at the tip of the Korean peninsula.” Webb (paperback, p. 346) refers to “a pirate’s enclave called Karak at the tip of the Korean peninsula.”

Sometimes the lifting is more extensive.

Here’s Bergamini (paperback, pp. 362-63):

. . . Crown Prince Hirohito was rushed on through parks along malls to the entrance of the Imperial Family Shrine in the palace forest. Leaving his retinue at their limousines, he walked on with two princes of the blood and two witnesses from the nobility across the frosty white pebbles of the shrine courtyard. . . . He touched first the fragile brocade bag which was supposed to hold the sacred green jewels, representing the verdant isles of Japan. . . . Next he lifted a replica of the sacred sword of power, the Excalibur plucked from the tail of a dragon by the son of the sun goddess.

Finally he held aloft a replica of the most mighty of the regalia, the bronze mirror of knowledge. . . . If one could gaze into the mirror, one could see the face of the sun goddess . . .


And here’s Webb (paperback, pp. 345-46):
Just behind the Inner Palace, in a little clearing in the palace forest next to the Fukia Gardens, was the holy of holies, the imperial family shrine. It was at this spot that Hirohito, nearly twenty years before, had stepped away from a retinue of two princes of the blood and two mere noblemen and undergone the sacred, private ritual that had made him emperor.
He had placed his hands around the brocade bag that contained the green, tear-shaped jewels that represented the verdant islands of Japan.

He had formally hefted a replica of the ancient sword of power, which the first emperor, the son of the Sun Goddess, was reputed to have pulled, Excalibur-like, from the tail of a dragon. And most solemnly, he had peered into an exact replica of the bronze mirror of knowledge, through which he reputedly was able to see the face of the Sun Goddess herself . . .


Here’s another bit from Bergamini (p. 22):

As the bloodthirsty troops closed in, General Matsui lay bedridden with a tubercular fever at his field headquarters in Suchow in the Yangtze delta. On December 2, five days earlier, Emperor Hirohito had relieved him of personal supervision of the men in the field and had moved him up to over-all command of the Central China theater.

Webb (p. 256):

The lawyer’s wooden pointer slapped the tablet at a place near Shanghai. “While his troops marched up the Yangtze, Matsui was lying in bed with a tubercular fever at his field headquarters in Suchow. . . . [O]n November twenty-seventh, the emperor relieved General Matsui of direct responsibility for combat operations, supposedly promoting him by giving him another title — command of the so-called central Chinese theater.”

Oddly enough, this is not the first time an author has been accused of ripping off Bergamini. Tim Kelly accused the late Iris Chang of plagiarizing from Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy.

Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia professor of politics, has seen 17 passages from Bergamini that resemble passages from Webb. “There are some passages that were lifted, that’s just obvious,” he says, while noting that perhaps Webb has some explanation for the similarity that hasn’t occurred to him. “It could have been taken care of with one line in the author’s note. Even in fiction you have to acknowledge an intellectual debt.”

How heavily should voters weigh this lapse on Webb’s part? Not very, I should think: It would be exceedingly odd for someone to base his vote on it. It is only a bit more relevant to the race than, say, the Jewishness of Allen’s mother or his reaction to questions about it, topics to which the press devoted a good deal of attention. But still, it is interesting. And Webb should have given Bergamini credit.



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