September 21, 1999
Plagiarism Accusations Halt Distribution of John Paul Jones Biography
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL with SARAH LYALL
Although four of his recent biographies have been attacked as plagiarisms
and one of them was recalled and pulped, still James Mackay, a prolific
Scottish author of more than 100 books, was on the American publishing
list for fall. His new work, "I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A Life
of John Paul Jones," the first full-length biography of the Scottish-born
American naval hero in 40 years, was due for release next month by Atlantic
Monthly Press of Grove/Atlantic Inc. But the same sorts of accusations
that have recently dogged Mackay have now caused his publisher, after questions
from The New York Times, to abruptly halt the book for a check on similarities
to the last major Jones biography, published in 1959 by the eminent American
historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who died at 88 in 1976. "I am holding
back distribution and getting an independent evaluation," said Morgan Entrekin,
president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic.
Reached at home in Glasgow, Mackay (pronounced Muhk-EYE), 63, who
has written 160 books by his own count, denied copying the Morison book,
"John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography." "Obviously I read it like
I read everything else that had ever been written on the subject, but this
is my own work," he said. Asked how so many passages in the two biographies
could be so remarkably similar, he said, "There are only a certain number
of words in the English language."
The action, putting in limbo 7,500 freshly printed copies of the
$28 book, comes just a year after another publishing house recalled and
destroyed thousands of copies of one of Mackay's books over issues of copyright
infringement. Just how a prominent publisher could have proceeded
with Mackay after four of his other books had been questioned has led to
disbelief among those who know of his history. Entrekin acknowledged
that until last week he had never talked to the author he was publishing
or inquired into his checkered past. Entrekin added that Mackay's Scottish
publisher, Mainstream Publishing Co., which had released the Jones book
in 1998, had "mentioned" the earlier plagiarism allegations "but they never
told me the entire story." However, Bill Campbell, one of Mainstream's
two managing directors, said that "Atlantic Monthly knew about the allegations."
The similarities in the Jones books were first identified by W.
Jeffrey Bolster, who was assigned by The New York Times Book Review to
review the new work from bound galley proofs. A subsequent comparison of
the Morison and the Mackay texts by The Times found dozens of instances
of closely matching passages.
Morison wrote of Jones: "During his career, he visited some of the
most beautiful parts of the world -- Cape Breton, the Windward Islands,
Jamaica, Galicia, Brittany, the Hebrides, the Baltic and the Black Sea;
yet not once in his voluminous correspondence does he indicate any appreciation
of them; and in only one letter, about the great gale of October 1780,
does he mention the majesty of the sea."
Mackay wrote: "In the course of his career he visited some of the
most beautiful parts of the world -- the Caribbean islands, Nova Scotia,
Galicia, the Baltic and the Black Sea as well as the eastern seaboard of
America and the coasts of Britain -- yet nowhere in his vast correspondence
does he betray any appreciation of them. In only one letter, written in
October 1780 in the aftermath of a great storm, does he allude to the majesty
of the sea."
Mackay called any similarities "quite unintentional" and added,
"If I've done that, I assure you that it's certainly not something that
I would do deliberately." He does cite Morison in several places in the
In the interview, Mackay also rejected charges, leveled by another
author and by scholars and reported in a series of articles starting last
year in Scotland's leading newspaper, The Scotsman, that he had plagiarized
material for four of his other books since 1995. He wrote biographies of
Alexander Graham Bell, Mary Queen of Scots, Andrew Carnegie and the 13th-century
Scottish patriot Sir William Wallace, portrayed in "Braveheart," an unrelated
film starring Mel Gibson. His biography of Bell, published in the
United States by John Wiley & Sons in 1997, was withdrawn by Wiley
last year and copies were destroyed at Mackay's expense, about $40,000.
The action came after a retired Boston University professor emeritus, Robert
Bruce, documented that the book had been copied wholesale from his 1973
Bell biography, "Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude," published
by Little, Brown.
After talking to Mackay in Glasgow and to his Edinburgh publisher,
Entrekin said that copies of "I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight," which came
off the presses just last week, would not be shipped until further evaluation
by a history specialist. Entrekin said that he had known about the
Morison book, which was also published by Atlantic Monthly Press, then
an imprint of Little, Brown, and had had an editor in his office look through
it, but that no systematic comparison had been made and no alarms sounded.
Mackay is one of Scotland's busiest authors, writing many books
on stamps and coins. He is a leading biographer of Robert Burns and in
1994 received a coveted Scottish literary prize, the Saltire Award.
Bolster, the reviewer who had been assigned by The Times Book Review,
is an associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire
in Durham. He said he was startled to find Morison's words, with insignificant
changes, echoing in the Mackay book. In one passage, Morison gave
this description of Jones: "His characteristic features were a sharp, wedge-shaped
nose, high cheekbones and a strong, cleft chin. His expression showed pride,
eagerness and intellectual alertness." Mackay wrote: "His outstanding
features were a sharp, wedge-shaped nose, high cheekbones and a strong,
cleft chin. His expression showed pride, eagerness, sagacity and intellectual
Mackay called questions about the authenticity of his book "quite
outrageous" and said that with perhaps 40 books written about Jones, "there
are plenty of other books where the same observations are made."
Every historical writer "treads in the footsteps of people who
go before them," he said. "We make progress on the shoulders of giants.
That is my answer to that." Mackay acknowledged that his career had
been damaged. "It shows what happens once these journalists get their hooks
into you," he said. Was he continuing to write books? "Yes I am indeed,"