Artful Apes

01.25.2006 | George Zucker | Cultural Affairs, Media Affairs | 5 Comments


Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.

“Every man is a borrower,” Emerson said. “Life is theatrical and literature a quotation.”

But to borrow a couplet from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism, the experience of former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle shows dipping lightly into our modern-day Pierian Spring called the Internet can also be a dangerous thing – even to borrow some jokes. We’ve all been spammed by friends passing along knee-slappers without a hint of their source. So with all this borrowing, it’s no surprise that sometimes authorship is lost in the retelling, as Barnicle, the popular Boston scribe, learned in 1998 when a competing newspaper revealed that some jokes in one of his columns appeared to be borrowed from a book by comedian George Carlin. Barnicle resigned two weeks later after sourcing questions were raised about another column.

In his essay, “The Sedulous Ape,” Robert Louis Stevenson tells how writers imitate admired authors while trying to evolve their own styles. “I have thus played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Baudelaire and to Obermann,” Stevenson confessed. Hal Boyle, the late columnist for The Associated Press, knew the sedulous ape well. “I suppose that most of us in newspaper writing follow the example of Stevenson,” Boyle wrote in 1971.

In his 1982 book, And More by Andy Rooney (Atheneum), the CBS essayist included this anecdote about his old AP friend, Hal Boyle: “I was standing in a group with him one day and a woman said, ‘You must meet a lot of interesting people in your business.’ Hal had met every important person who had lived in the world between 1934 and 1974. He looked at the woman with a little smile on his face and said, ‘I do … and most of them are other newspapermen.’”

A good story, but Boyle borrowed it from the 1943 book, Such Interesting People, by Robert J. Casey. The book, no longer in print, was a hilarious account of newspaper high jinks in the 1920s and 1930s in Chicago. The forward began: “There once was a newspaperman – he has had a thousand names in as many chronicles of the incident – who by odd chance was invited to sip tea in the home of a wealthy gadget manufacturer on the right side of the tracks. His hostess looked at him wide-eyed as she tried to make him feel at ease.

“And she said, after the fashion of hostesses to newspapermen since the invention of movable type: ‘It must be fascinating to be a journalist. You meet such interesting people.’ And the reporter answered mechanically: ‘You certainly do, and they’re all in the newspaper business.’”

Casey attributed the story to Walter Winchell.

The writers who serve up these rehashed bons mots are more readily remembered than those who speak them first. Red Smith, the late sportswriter for The New York Times, told an interviewer once that good writing is difficult: “I just sit at the typewriter until droplets of blood appear on my forehead.” Smith’s wry observation was a twist on an earlier witticism by Gene Fowler, who said: “Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at the blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Sometimes the unwitting ape errs in not sedulously following Stevenson’s advice to “drink deeply from the Pierian Spring,” the fount of all knowledge where anciently the Muses were said to gather. In testimony before Congress, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop got it wrong when he warned: “The ugly American will become current in a decade or two when the developing countries of today realize what we did to them.” Dr. Koop thus helped promote the misuse of a popular cliché for America’s errant ways. For in the book, The Ugly American, the title character was actually the good guy, a hero who just happened to be homely. The 1958 bestseller by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick examined international hypocrisy. For decades now, the “ugly American” epithet has been misapplied to rude tourists, arrogant ambassadors and anyone else who casts America in a bad light overseas.

Homer Atkins, the book’s ugly American, was none of that. He was an American engineer fighting the U.S., French and Vietnamese “princes of bureaucracy” who wanted to build dams and highways in the jungle. “Have any of you birds been out in the boondocks?” Atkins asked. “You don’t need dams and roads.” What the Vietnamese people needed, he argued, were farming and irrigation help, and small factories they could build and operate themselves. The blunt engineer – actually a minor character in the book – became a sort of Vietnamese folk hero known as “the ugly American,” an affectionate reference to his lack of good looks.

Mr. Blackwell also needed a deeper draught from that famous spring the year he put Shirley Temple Black on his famed worst-dressed list, saying: “She looks like she went from the Good Ship Lollipop to the Titanic.” Many people – Mr. Blackwell and countless editorial cartoonists among them – don’t know the 1934 Shirley Temple movie, Bright Eyes, which featured “The Good Ship Lollipop.” If they did, they would not miscast it so often as a maritime metaphor. “The Good Ship Lollipop” was an airplane, not a boat. Older film buffs may recall that the 6-year-old Miss Temple sang the song in-flight, skipping up and down the narrow passenger aisle of an early airliner.

Shirley Temple Black was radiant in a bare-midriff muumuu when I met her in 1969 at a governor’s reception in Honolulu. I was the AP bureau chief there and broke the story on her appointment by President Richard M. Nixon as a delegate to the United Nations. Mrs. Black, 41, told me I was one of the few reporters she ever met who knew “The Good Ship Lollipop” was an airplane, and was so impressed she gave me the first interview on her UN appointment.

George Barnard Shaw hit upon a good way to stay out of trouble: He plumbed his own Pierian Spring, taking the art of literary aping to its highest form. “I often quote myself,” Shaw said. “It adds spice to my conversation.” And lest my name be tied to that apt adage on originality at the top of this piece, I hasten to add it was borrowed from Voltaire.

Where he got it from, I don’t know.

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