The New York Times broke the story on page one: A famous biographer was facing charges of plagiarism. A prestigious publisher would have to pulp a new biography at substantial cost and loss of reputation. And it was all triggered by the sharp eye of Jeffrey Bolster, UNH associate professor of history.
Bolster was working on a review of James Mackay's I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A Life of John Paul Jones shortly before the book's publication. As he read the galley proofs, something about the language prompted him to check the last major biography of Jones, written 40 years ago by Samuel Eliot Morison. Bolster flipped from one episode in Jones' life to another, surprised to find almost identical passages in both the new and old biographies.
A former ship's captain who left sailing for scholarship in his mid-30s, Bolster is an admirer of Morison's work. "I got suspicious about Mackay because I know Morison's style," he says. "I know how Morison thought and wrote about sailing. He was a sailor-historian, and I am, too."
Mackay is an imposing figure in British letters, having published more than 100 books. He has been celebrated for his work, but he has also repeatedly been accused of plagiarism, most notably by Boston University professor emeritus Robert V. Bruce '45. Bruce filed a complaint against Mackay when his 1997 book on Alexander Graham Bell paralleled Bruce's own 1973 work. "Out of 297 pages of text," Bruce says, "I found 285 with obvious plagiarisms."Through it all, Mackay has denied wrongdoing. When the Times asked him how so many passages could be so similar, Mackay replied, "There are only a certain number of words in the English language." The Atlantic Monthly Press could not be so cavalier. It had to throw away 7,500 copies of the $28 book. What makes the fiasco even more embarrassing is that Morison's book had been published by—yes—Atlantic Monthly Press.