Saturday, 10 December 2011

Hart tells tales

PhotobucketSt. Martin’s Press, the publishers of The Raven’s Bride by Lenore Hart, have this week defended her blatant plagiarism of words and entire scenes from Cothburn O’Neal’s 1956 novel The Very Young Mrs. Poe by claiming that coincidences are inevitable when both writers have carried out similar “research into historical and biographical sources”.

Yet while most of the thirty-two examples of her plagiarism identified to date not only lack any historical sources whatsoever, at least one of them is a screaming historical impossibility.

O’Neal describes the Poes' arrival at their honeymoon destination like this:

The train crossed the Appomattox after sunset but pulled into the Petersburg depot before dark. Their host, Mr. Hiram Haines, publisher of the Petersburg American Constellation,was waiting with his wife. He was a cheerful, balding man

And here is Hart’s version of the same event:

We crossed the Appomattox after sunset and rolled into the Petersburg depot before full dark. As we descended from the car Eddy spotted our host, Hiram Haines, the cheerful, balding publisher of the American Constellation

The words “crossed the Appomattox after sunset” are, to say the least, problematic. And not only because the only two instances of those exact words in that exact order to appear in the entire fifteen-million-volume corpus of Google Books are — ta-dah — in Cothburn O’Neal and Lenore Hart’s respective novels about Edgar Allan Poe’s child bride. No, that's the least of it. The real problem is that back in the 1830s the train from Richmond to Petersburg didn’t cross the Appomattox at all, after sunset or at any other time of day. The line ended on the north bank of the river and travellers had to finish their journey into the town on the other side by stagecoach.[1]

But wait. It gets worse. Much worse. It turns out that the historical Poes couldn't have travelled by historical train to the historical Petersburg or anywhere near it from Richmond. How do we know this, historically? Because that line wasn’t opened until 1838, two years after they made their honeymoon trip, that's how.[2]

In short, the whole scene is a historical nonsense. And although Cothburn O’Neal, writing from deep in the heart of pre-Internet and even pre-fax Texas, can perhaps be forgiven for making such a mistake in his research, Lenore Hart certainly can’t be forgiven for replicating it, almost word for word, fifty-five years later. I’m not sure which is the more astonishing: the shamelessness of her plagiarism or her abject laziness. Confirming the non-existence of that train took me under five minutes.[3]

So what does Lenore Hart herself have to say about this? In a now-deleted (but much-screengrabbed) Facebook exchange on 21 November with the novelist Jeremy Duns, the person who's done the most to unmask her,[4] she claimed that
To go 'into the Petersburg Depot' was HISTORICALLY the only way to travel by train to that destination from Richmond at that time. But I can't say this now, because another author (writing earlier about the same characters and same events, their documented honeymoon trip to Petersburg) also did so? Even if it was the only way the Poes could have gotten there, period, at that time. Hmm. I see.
That's not merely self-serving obfuscation in the face of damning evidence of plagiarism; as we now see, it's a desperate, tell-tale lie. Hart's claim that the Poes' honeymoon is documented is only true inasmuch as they seem to have spent it as guests of Hiram Haines in Petersburg. That's it. The honeymoon trip, as described in the two virtually identical passages quoted above, is barely documented at all. Nobody knows for sure how they got there (the now-clearly-mistaken claim that it was by train originated in the 1920s, from a source whose credibility on other matters has also been called into doubt), who might have met them on arrival or where that meeting, if any, took place. For those details a novelist would have to resort to conjecture and informed guesses. And that's what Cothburn O'Neal did — but unfortunately for him, and even more unfortunately for Lenore Hart, he screwed it up royally.

Lenore Hart cribbed O'Neal's invented scene, presumably unaware that by doing so she was compounding a historical howler. Although, to be honest, I doubt that she cared all that much about whether it was historically accurate or not, confident as I'm sure she was that nobody was ever going to pick up on her raven-like picking of a dead man’s bones.



1. It would be another twenty-five years until the line was prolonged to the other side of the Appomattox. The “Petersburg depot” that both authors mention had indeed been operational for three years in 1836, but it served only the lines fanning out southwards from the town. There was no rail service from there to Richmond or anywhere else north of the river until the 1860s.

2. Source here.

3. To be precise, it took me as long as it took me to type "Richmond-Petersburg railroad" into the Wikipedia search field. I mean, come on.

4. Although Jeremy Duns has acted brilliantly as the dogged Plagefinder General in this and other recent high-profile cases, the bulk of the groundwork for the exposing of Lenore Hart was done by the Poe blogger Undine, back in March. (See also comments below.)


Undine said...

I'm still chuckling evilly about this one. Some months ago I did a blog post where I detailed what historical evidence there is for this whole honeymoon trip, and my reasons for questioning this evidence, but I blush to admit I never thought of checking whether they could have traveled by train at all. (I've added a link to your findings as a postscript:

I'll see if I can find any more examples where there is actual historical evidence disproving what Hart cribbed from O'Neal. In any case, we can certainly show that she described other incidents that only previously appeared in "The Very Young Mrs. Poe"--not any biography or "historical source."

Great work!

Undine said...

There is one minor example of Hart's shoddy research that comes to mind, although it is not as definitive as yours. O'Neal described the artist Thomas Sully as painting Poe in a "Byronic" pose, an incident that Hart copied in her book.

In the early 1900s, someone came up with a painting that he claimed was a Sully portrait of Poe in what he imagined was a "Byronic" attitude. Now, since O'Neal published his book, that portrait has been universally accepted as a fake. (I have no idea why it was ever accepted at any time by any one--it doesn't look the slightest like Poe.) At the very least, that proves Hart didn't bother to read anything that dated from after "The Very Young Mrs. Poe" was published.

Archie Valparaiso said...

Ah, yes, the Byronic pose that Hart changed to "Byronesque". Did her research take her anywhere at all beyond the pages of O'Neal's novel? Here's another example. Both writers describe Hiram Haines, honeymoon host to the stars, as "balding". Yet there are no extant photographs of him, and he was only 33 when the Poes visited him, so his pate was rather risky conjecture by O'Neal, which yet again Hart took as gospel, without checking.

Another honeymoon detail. In O'Neal's novel, the connection between the couples is solely the friendship between two men of letters. Since O'Neal, though, it has been discovered that Haines's wife, Mary Ann, was a playmate of Poe's when they were children. Hart - at least in the parts of the Petersburg section that I've read - makes no mention of this. Again, it took me five minutes' "research" to learn about this. And, again, we're forced to conclude that the only "historical source" that she used was The Very Young Mrs. Poe.

Undine said...

Yes, I noted that little detail about Haines' real age early on--I remember discussing that with someone on a Poe discussion forum--I just didn't think to include that in my post.

Even before I caught on to the plagiarism issue, when I first read Hart's book I was struck by how curiously antiquated it seemed: I was convinced that she had not read any biography of Poe that dated later than the 1920s or so, and couldn't understand how that could be the case. (If you're doing research for a historical novel, you would logically rely on the most recent sources.) It wasn't until I re-read O'Neal that I realized it was because she almost totally relied on his book for information.

I'll try and think of more examples, but most of what O'Neal concocted falls under the category of "impossible to prove or disprove." In other words, while he obviously invented some of these incidents--considering we know next to nothing about Virginia Poe's life, that's not surprising--there is little in the historical record that explicitly proves they could not have happened. Hope I explained that in a way that makes sense.

Thingumbobesquire said...

As I have heretofore opined twould seem that Hart has been hoisted on her own Poetard!

Archie Valparaiso said...

It's just occurred to me that perhaps we're going about this the wrong way. Rather than finding examples of details for which there is no historical support, it might save time to focus on the very few for which there is. In other words, our assumption should probably be that all the "colour" material - the descriptions of people's appearance and personalities, places, buildings and rooms - stemmed only from Cothburn O'Neal's imagination.

Everything we check seems to either prove O'Neal - and by extension Hart - wrong or be unconfirmed and probably unconfirmable now, nearly two centuries down the line.

I'm starting to doubt that any of the thirty-two "similarities" (St. Martin's Press dixit) in colour details between the two novels that we've pinpointed so far can be backed up by the historical record at all.

What research did Lenore Hart actually do? In her acknowledgments, for instance, she makes no mention of Jeff Abugel, the man who bought and restored Hiram Haines's property in Petersburg and opened it as a "literary coffee house" last year. Did she contact him at all, even though he'd published an easy-to-Google article on the restoration project, the Haines's and the honeymoon in 2009, i.e. with perfect timing to coincide with Hart's "research" period? It seems rather unlikely, given that Mr. Abugel was pretty much the first person after Undine to cry plagiarism after Hart's book was published, in this Amazon review.

Archie Valparaiso said...

Oh, Lenore, Lenore, Lenore.

This just in from Jeremy Duns via Twitter (@jeremyduns). Of all the writers you might expect not to fall into the trap of having a historical character arriving somewhere on a railway line that wouldn't be built until years later, you'd think it'd be one who'd been taken to task for committing the exact same error in an earlier book.

But that's exactly what Lenore Hart has done. A review of her previous novel, Becky (a spinoff of a Mark Twain character, notes how her protagonist magically manages to travel to "Hannibal aboard a train from St. Louis around the year 1849 [...], but the real town's first railroad did not begin operating until 1859, and its St. Louis line opened even later."

Undine said...

This is starting to go into "I don't know whether to laugh or cry" territory.

Ah, forget about it. I'm laughing like crazy.

Undine said...

I've just been reminded of one small point: While it's obviously impossible that the newlywed Poes could have traveled from Richmond to Petersburg by train, O'Neal didn't himself invent that detail.

As I explained in my blog post that I linked to above, the whole story of this honeymoon trip originated with J.H. Whitty, in the 1920s. His account--which was quoted in Mary E. Phillips' 1926 biography, claimed that after the wedding, the guests saw Edgar and Virginia off to the Petersburg Railroad Station.

As you have established, this was a fallacy, but the original fabulist was Whitty, not O'Neal. Just thought I'd better clarify that.

Archie Valparaiso said...

Thanks for that, Undine. I've tweaked the post accordingly.