Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist

Neal Bowers, Author
Neal Bowers, Author W. W. Norton & Company $17 (128p) ISBN 978-0-393-04007-4
Paperback - 161 pages - 978-0-8093-2786-7
Hardcover - 165 pages - 978-1-4416-0667-9
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In 1991 Bowers, an obscure poet, discovers that someone is stealing his work from the pages of Poetry magazine and republishing it in smaller journals across the country. Terrified that posterity will confuse him with the thief, he writes letters to dozens of poetry journal editors, retains a lawyer, even hires a private eye. After a long search, the detective identifies the plagiarist, an ex-con and one-time school teacher from Oregon, who strikes up a correspondence with the poet, even writes a letter to Bowers's wife. Bowers finds himself lifted out of obscurity, when the New York Times reprints his American Scholar essay on the ordeal. By the finale of this book he's famous--because of a plagiarist he never met and a few stolen poems that few will likely ever read. Imagine Pale Fire as written by Kinbote, or The Trial written by K., and you'll have a sense of Bowers's weakness as a narrator: he's too aggrieved to see his story's irony. And he never explains why he is bitter at what others consider a kooky kind of flattery. Bowers's tendency to cast himself as the guardian of the Text seems misguided. In the end it's the sheer bathos of the narrator's obsession--not his (quite competent) poems or (less competent) reflections on the state of American scholarship--that lends the book its chief interest and charm. (Jan.)
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