At the close of my last research trip to Louisiana, I had the pleasure of flying out of New Orleans in the late afternoon. Strapped to the window seat of a little regional jet, I got a chance to stare down over the soggy marshes around lakes Maurepas and Ponchartrain as we spun north of the Crescent City. The orange gleam of golden-hour light scattered across the wetlands below and, for a moment, a blazing hub-and-spoke pattern flashed through my window. I’d caught the sun’s reflection off of hundred-year-old canals radiating from the swamp’s interior.
It was a serendipitous moment. Though I’ve flown in and out of the Big Easy many times, I’d never before seen the wetlands illuminated in just that way. And that particular research trip had been devoted to the very historical phenomenon underlying that hub-and-spoke pattern.
Between the late 1870s and the first decades of the twentieth century, logging companies throughout southeastern Louisiana extracted valuable bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) timber from the region’s swamps. With their swollen trunks and curious “knees,” bald cypress trees are an iconic bunch, especially when draped with Spanish moss.
They’re also almost exclusively found in wetland environments. In the early years of the industry, cypress companies overcame the extraction challenges presented by these waterlogged forests by excavating canals. These new watery transportation corridors allowed “pullboats” to navigate deep into the formerly trackless cypress swamps. Outfitted with steam-powered winches, the pullboats would set anchor at a canal’s terminus. Axemen would fell cypress in a radius of up to 3,000 feet from the anchored pullboat, which would in turn drag the felled logs back to the canal. There, the logs would be hammered into rafts and floated out of the swamp and onto the lakes and streams that at the time formed one of southern Louisiana’s main transportation networks. With each pull, the logs scoured ever-deeper channels into the sodden terrain, creating miniature canals of their own. By the time a “set” had been fully extracted, dozens upon dozens of watery spokes would radiate out from where the pullboat had set anchor.
Now, over one hundred years later, those sets are still visible in places like Manchac Swamp (see first image, above). Since the Mississippi River hasn’t flooded these areas in over a century, no sediments have replenished the wetlands, leaving these old drag paths etched in the landscape. These hub-and-spoke patterns present a wonderfully evocative document of a quirky, often forgotten logging practice. Watching the spokes glint in the afternoon sun from tens of thousands of feet was revelatory and I realized I’d found a lovely anecdote for a chapter introduction.
Except I hadn’t.
Although pullboat logging isn’t exactly the most well-known logging practice in the world, I’m certainly not the only person to write about it. And I suddenly had the sneaking suspicion that what I was experiencing on my flight above Manchac Swamp wasn’t actually my story. Once back in Madison I sent an email to Richard Campanella, one of the most knowledgeable and prolific Louisiana geographers I know. Surely he would know where I might have come across such imagery before.
Embarrassingly enough, Richard himself seemed to be the source. Here’s the relevant section from the preface to Campanella’s 2002 book Time and Place in New Orleans: Past Geographies in the Present Day:
Lofting through the Southern twilight on a connector flight from Dallas, I take note of passengers’ reactions to the enigmatic deltaic geography below. . . . To the west, what first appeared to be a stolid forest is suddenly intersected with orange rays of the setting sun, producing a blinding glint in the form of an enormous spoked wheel. It is the remnant cypress swamp of the Manchac wilderness; loggers a century ago extracted trees along canals radiating from a hub, creating the bizarre pattern. (Page 9)
Well. So much for that. Apparently I had just inadvertently plagiarized. It was a chilling experience and I wondered what Richard though of it all. Perhaps more significantly, I also wondered what other ideas and images I had unintentionally poached throughout the years. I tried to put the whole thing out of my mind.
But the story doesn’t end there.
While digging through some digital archives a few months later, those gleaming and glinting spokes made another appearance. A 2007 opinion piece in Loyola University’s student newspaper, The Maroon, had used the same imagery. At least I wasn’t alone. Here’s what Robert Thomas, then interim director for Loyola’s School of Mass Communication wrote:
When I fly into or out of New Orleans at dusk, I anticipate we may launch northward so I try to get a window seat on the side of the plane that faces west. If the sun is low enough to glance off the marshes and swamps along the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, I am occasionally treated to a most remarkable view – the sun-reflected form in the swamp forests of a radiating outline that looks like a wagon wheel. (March 15, 2007)
Not only did this make me feel a little better about what had seemed an uncomfortably close encounter with academe’s most reviled bugbear, it also got me thinking. Is it really plagiarism when it’s so clearly unintentional? Surely this sort of thing must happen all the time, perhaps even around such relatively obscure subject matter. Maybe Robert Thomas and I weren’t the only ones to be influenced by a few lines from the opening of Campanella’s book. I started a casual web search using keywords like “glisten,” “gleam,” and “glint” alongside “radiating,” “spokes,” and “pullboat.”
Unsurprisingly, my Googling efforts didn’t yield too many results, save for one particularly revealing hit. Photographer Julia Sims’s book about Manchac Swamp contained a crucial sentence concluding a paragraph on pullboat logging:
From the air, these watery radiants glisten like silver starbursts in the late afternoon sun. (Page 27).
What made this discovery interesting was the fact that it completely disrupted my sense of who owned that imagery. Sims’s book was published in 1996, a full six years before Campanella’s Time and Place in New Orleans.
This raised all sorts of questions.
Had Campanella read Sims at some point? Had he been subtly influenced by Sims, her words once read, but long forgotten? Possibly. The man is a voracious reader of all things Louisiana. She isn’t cited in Time and Place, but there’s also absolutely no reason she should have been.
Or is the late-afternoon aerial view of Manchac Swamp just that affecting? Had Sims and Campanella arrived at that imagery independently?
If the latter, then how much was my experience contaminated by the passage in Campanella’s book and how much was it the product of seeing that view with my own two eyes? I had read Time and Place years before and had forgotten the passage entirely until I sat down to write and had that nagging sense of familiarity. And as for Robert Thomas writing for The Maroon, well, it’s absolutely impossible to judge.
All of which reminded me of what must be the best essay I’ve ever read on this murky territory: Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.” According to Lethem, my inadvertent borrowing from Richard Campanella (if, in fact, that’s what happened) is called cryptomnesia.
He opens the essay with the surprising revelation that forty years before Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a man named Heinz von Lichberg wrote a story about a middle-aged lodger falling for his landlord’s adolescent daughter named… Lolita. Lethem, who thinks it likely that Nabokov had at least encountered the Lichberg story at some point, offers two possibilities. Was this a moment of cryptomnesia? Or had Nabokov, much like Shakespeare in retelling the story of a vengeful, melancholy prince, consciously undertaken a novel based on quotation?
From there, Lethem’s essay wanders around the complex, multilayered, and—above all—fun world of quotation, appropriation, and theft that weaves through much of the art and culture we love. From Bob Dylan to Disney, T.S. Elliott to blues and hip hop, Lethem offers a wonderful catalog of influence and adaptation that builds to a larger argument about copyright, intellectual property, and the creative commons.
The title of Lethem’s essay is, of course, an allusion to literary critic Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. But the borrowing doesn’t stop there. Remarkably, the ten-page essay is composed entirely of passages “stole[n], warped, and cobbled together” from pre-existing texts. At its conclusion, Lethem offers a thought-provoking key to the sources that formed each paragraph of his “patchwriting.”
But, turning back to the scarred landscape of Manchac Swamp, these questions actually have some slightly deeper significance for me, as I suspect they do for any graduate student finding their scholarly niche.
As I write about pullboat logging for a chapter of my dissertation, I keep being plagued by anxieties of influence. There aren’t too many people that have written extensively on the phenomenon—there’s a 1973 dissertation and then a handful of articles—but that shortage of scholarly work paradoxically makes it seem much more difficult to say something new.
Unlike a project about Abraham Lincoln, in which the key primary documents have already been pored over by the authors of thousands of monographs, pullboat logging feels just obscure enough to offer the seductive promise of discovery. After all, looking at the primary sources yields all sorts of great stuff about what is frankly a fairly odd, mostly forgotten extractive technology. Yet those discoveries get tempered by the fact that a small cadre of scholars already discovered pullboats. And when so few people have done work on a historical phenomenon, it’s easy to feel as if they also somehow own it. Ultimately, when it comes to my work, revealing the weirdness of pullboat logging and narrating the quirky history of a nineteenth-century wetland logging system just isn’t going to be enough.
Lethem’s essay, as well as some of the other pieces cited below, though, offer some reassurance here. By emphasizing the value of repurposing and the importance of seeing knowledge as a commons, rather than a system of private property, these ideas provide an antidote to the fetish of discovery.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not an apologist for plagiarism. Rather, I’ll put it this way. Even if no one had written about pullboat logging before, merely describing its history still wouldn’t be enough, at least by today’s standards of scholarship. These days, just plain discovery doesn’t count for all that much in historical research. Narrating a previously unknown aspect of the past isn’t the kind of contribution it once was. Instead, it’s the ideas, dialogues, tensions, and causalities that you create around historical phenomena that matter. It’s not so much the fact of pullboat logging, or the emancipation proclamation, or a story about a dirty old lodger and his puerile fantasies, but what you do with them.
Now just to figure that part out. . . .
Influence and Plagiarism: Further Reading and Listening
Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence” must be read alongside “On the Rights of Molotov Man,” which appeared in the very same issue of Harper’s as “Ecstasy.” Painter Joy Garnett and photographer Susan Meiselas offer their thoughts on the politics of borrowing and context in art.
Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kenneth Goldsmith explores similar territory as Lethem, but with a focus on education and creative writing, in “It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing.'”
The CBC broadcast a wonderful episode of Ideas in 2010 called “In Praise of Plagiarism” that’s very much worth a listen.
Russell Hunt of St. Thomas University has a series of variously remixed essays arguing that the era of copy/paste demands a rethinking of the academy’s assumptions around undergraduate writing assignments. He suggests that the plagiarism increasingly plaguing classrooms in the digital age is in part the product of a deep (and deepening) cultural misunderstanding.