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Proulx's Shipping News didn't acknowledge writer

It might have been a scandal of 'novel' proportions.

But a behind the scenes agreement between Annie Proulx author of The Shipping News and the writer of a more obscure academic work kept things quiet.

The first edition of Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel contained brief tracts that clearly had been informed by "Boat Building in Winterton, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland", a master's thesis by David A. Taylor. However, Taylor was not acknowledged anywhere in the novel's extensive preface, which thanked a variety of scholarly works, including "The Dictionary of Newfoundland English".

A native of Maine, Taylor came to study at Memorial University in 1977 and stayed for about five years, during which time he researched his thesis on boat building techniques of eight residents of Winterton, Trinity Bay. It's an important work because seven of the eight interviewees are now deceased, and much of the knowledge contained in Taylor's book would otherwise be lost.

It should be made clear that this is not a case of plagiarism. Proulx did not copy Taylor's text word for word. But there can be no question that certain sections in The Shipping News describing the traditional art of boat building drew heavily from Taylor's work, which involved extensive research and contained folk knowledge that would not be available elsewhere.

Phil Hiscock, an Associate Professor in the Department of Folklore at Memorial University, came to know Taylor quite well during his years in Newfoundland. He had a front row seat to events as they unfolded, starting with a phone call several years ago from Taylor, asking if Hiscock had a copy of Proulx's book.

"I had it," Hiscock said. "He asked me to look up some things for him. We went through it page by page, looking at things and it was kind of shocking what was lifted from his (book) and in Annie Proulx's book. It was only the first edition of her book at that point and David was nowhere mentioned. She thanked a lot of people in that book but didn't thank him

"It's clear to anyone who knew David's work what she had done, and it was certainly clear to David. If you read the acknowledgements page in that book, she goes through several different sources of Newfoundland material that she's used. And I think she's used David in the same way that she used the "Dictionary of Newfoundland English". The difference is that, right from the first edition, she thanked the "Dictionary of Newfoundland English". It's like the old story of the professor who accuses someone of holding the dictionary like a pepper shaker over their paper. That's what she did."

Since that exchange, Hisock said he hasn't spoken with Taylor about Annie Proulx. "I do know that when the second edition came out he was thanked profusely and in all subsequent editions his name was acknowledged," Hiscock said. "I suspect they reached some kind of agreement and that David backed off. He certainly never brought it up again in conversations with me."

David Taylor is now a folklife specialist and head of acquisitions at the American Folklife Centre at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. I opened my interview with him by mentioning the similarities between his work and that of Annie Proulx. He acknowledged this by saying "Yes, uh huh." Then I asked if he had ever considered legal remedies, or if he had just brushed it off. Taylor's answer was a classic case of bridging' to a different place.

"I don't know if you've seen the latest edition of my book," Taylor said. "You will note that she has written a very kind foreword. And that's really the end of the story, you might say, in that regard. She did me a very nice favour I appreciate that very much and I hope that her connection with the second edition, which came out last year, published by the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, will help spread the word about the traditional culture of Newfoundland and, in particular, the great tradition of boat building."

I probed a little more, but Taylor stayed on track. "She did me a good turn there, I think My point of view was that things worked out very well in the end. Obviously there's a tale to tell in between here but I don't think that serves any purpose."

Clearly, Taylor's preference was to discuss anything but the Proulx episode, and we talked at some length about the current state of affairs in Newfoundland, a place for which he still has some affinity.

However, Phil Hiscock doesn't mind talking about the subject. "I'm glad to say it," he said. "What happened is real, it's true. I can't say anything about why she did it because I don't know. But I was a bit shocked about what happened I know that they must have come to some agreement, and whether that agreement included David never speaking a word about it again (I don't know)."

In researching this piece, I read both books. I bookmarked 17 passages in Proulx's novel that mentioned boats in any detail at all, then read Taylor's book whilst comparing these references. There were vague references, such as the following (from page 106 of the paperback edition), which reflected terms in Taylor's book but had been once removed' enough to stand on their own:

Billy Pretty: "I told you buy a nice little rodney, nice little sixteen foot rodney with a seven horsepower engine, nice little hull that holds the water, a good flare on it, not too much hollowing, a little boat that bears good under the bows..."

However, on page 259-260, there is an exchange between Quoyle, the novel's protagonist, and boat builder Alvin Yark that bears striking resemblance to pages 76-77 of Taylor's book. In fact, there are three separate references here by Proulx that appear to be based upon Taylor's work.

The first reference, interestingly enough, appears to be inspired by a photograph of boat builder Chesley Gregory on page 121 of Taylor's book. Compare Proulx's description of character Alvin Yark, from page 259 of The Shipping News, with this photograph (left) of boat builder Chesley Gregory on page 121 of Taylor's book:

"Yark was a small man with a paper face, ears the size of half-dollars, eyes like willow leaves. He spoke from lips no more than a crack between the nose and chin. ... A cap slewed sideways on his knotty head. He wore a pair of coveralls bisected by a zipper with double tabs, one dangling at his crotch, the other at his breastbone. Under the coveralls he wore a plaid shirt, and over everything a cardigan with more zippers."

On the same page, Proulx's character talks about his selection of wood in the forest:

"... If I gets out in the woods, you know, and finds the timber, it'll go along. Something by spring see, by the time the ice goes. If I goes in the woods and finds the right sticks you know, spruce, var. See, you must find good uns, your stem, you wants to bring it down with a bit of a 'ollow to it, sternpost and your knee, and deadwoods a course, and breast'ook. You has to get the right ones. Your timbers, you know."

Compare the above with this description of the source of materials used in boat construction, from page 76 of Taylor's book:

"...whenever he went into the forest to harvest trees for home heating, he also selected trees that were suitable for boat construction. He was particularly intent on finding trees - "sticks" - that contained shapes mirroring the contours of boat parts such as the stem, sternpost, apron, stern knee, breasthook, deadwoods, and timbers."

As well, there are these references on page 57 of Taylor's book note the use of the expression you know':

From boat builder Lionel Piercey: "It wasn't all going into the woods and cutting a crooked stick, you know. It had to be right, you know"

And finally, this exchange in Proulx's book, also on page 260:

"No, boy, I doesn't build with dry wood. The boat takes up the water if 'er's made out of dry wood, you know, and don't give it up again. But you build with green wood and water will never go in the wood. I never builds with dry wood."

Now, here is the reference from Taylor's work that seems to have inspired the above entry. It's a direct quote from boat builder Marcus French:

"They say that dry lumber, when it absorbs water, it never comes out of it anymore. It gets heavy. But with a green stick, when the water comes out, there's a tendency for it to be more buoy-some and then it evaporates and gets light. [Of] course it will get heavier after the years, but they say a new boat built out of green lumber will be the lightest boat you can have. But if she's built out of dry lumber, the water gets into it and it won't come out... The water gets in there it and it kind of hangs on, you know. That is what they tell me."

While there may be other references in Proulx's novel that bear similarities to Taylor's work, they were not readily apparent on the first reading of both books.

It must be emphasized again that this is not about plagiarism, and what Proulx did is not necessarily illegal. While the reference points are obvious, her text is not identical to Taylor's. However, it was certainly a mistake for an author of international renown to borrow from Taylor's unique research without so much as a footnote.

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Recent comments

  • Jon
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Mr. Meeker,

    There's nothing altogether scandalous, much less novel, in anything you've revealed here.

    I applaud your efforts (insofar as I've understood them) to encourage readers to seek out David Taylor's excellent book, but your implication that Annie Proulx deserves further reproach for an error she's already made ample amends for smacks of pettiness and philistinism.

    Whatever merits The Shipping News has (or lacks) as a work of literature, there's nothing remarkable about the fact that Proulx incorporated secondary sources into her novel. So she forgot to include Taylor's name in the acknowledgements section of the 1st edition of her book. You record that she included his name in all subsequent editions and even contributed a new foreword for his book, a generous act that undoubtedly boosted his sales at least a little--so what more, exactly, do you want from her?

    You make it seem as though Taylor didn't answer the questions you posed to him because he was being silenced, when he was obviously just being polite.

    For future reference: don't waste your readers' time cloaking a fluff story in sinister tones when all you want to do is recommend a neglected book.

    J. Adams