Getting Inside the Mind of a Plagiarist
Kevin Young Goes Deep Into the World of American Hoaxes
I have said plagiarism is about class, but it’s really race disguised as class. This is true of Viswanathan—not to mention Opal Mehta—who to some may come to represent the fast track that Harvard, or getting into it, has come to mean. When I was in school there, the saying went that the hardest thing about Harvard was getting in; if at all true then, getting in has become only tougher, with just over 2000 students accepted from a pool of more than 34,000 applicants for the class of 2016.
Such pressure is the focus of Conning Harvard, a book by an editor at the Harvard Crimson about Adam Wheeler, who conned, copied, and inflated his way into several of the nation’s nest schools. As Conning Harvard details, Wheeler started in 2005 with small but selective Bowdoin College, whose college application he completed almost entirely with plagiarized material; after two years, just as he was about to be exposed, he transferred to Harvard (while pretending to be transferring from MIT). At Harvard, he plagiarized papers and poems to obtain further grants and prizes. Only in 2009 did his bluff get called when he boldly applied for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford, and was on the verge of being named to the short list as well as being put up for the equally noteworthy Marshall Fellowship without having actually applied. A savvy professor recognized in Wheeler’s application his colleague and best-selling Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt’s work.
Wheeler had in essence a four-year span of plagiarizing—he presumably could’ve graduated from somewhere legitimately by then. After withdrawing from Harvard the next spring while the university decided his fate, Wheeler continued his wheeling and wheedling, applying everywhere from Yale to Stanford—and getting in the latter—with false résumés, forged documents, and more plagiarized essays. In May 2010, Wheeler was arrested and indicted on 20 counts, from larceny to identity theft. Wheeler’s is one of the few cases I know of plagiarism being prosecuted—he was considered, between grants, prizes, and financial aid, to have stiffed Harvard out of 45,000 dollars. (In contrast, Viswanathan would go on, like Stephen Glass did, to Georgetown University Law Center, which appears to have a fellowship for hoaxers.) If this is a drop in the bucket to Harvard, the richest university in the land, it might not be to another student whose place Wheeler was taking. His crimes go beyond plagiarism to include forgery of transcripts (a perfect SAT score, natch) and falsifying information such as his birthdate and his publishing record—in other words, outright fraud.
There’s always, in these cases of Ivy League pretenders such as Clark Rockefeller, more than a mere financial wish—rather, there’s a desire for the cultural capital such a school provides. Noted impostors like faker James Hogue, as detailed in David Samuels’s The Runner, actually earned good grades after getting into Princeton under false pretenses; his desire seemed to be both to run track and to run from his past. Julie Zauzmer’s Conning Harvard gives little insight into Wheeler’s motives, though it is well versed on his methods. This may stem from Wheeler’s being a cipher in that word’s contradictory senses (though not its “fly” hip-hop ones): he’s both without a center yet is a key essential to understanding our current culture of unaccountability. Not to mention cheating. His actions do seem particularly symbolic of the financial crash that was happening around this time, the kinds of bad mortgages and housing bubbles that made lenders and those who profited from them coconspirators at worse. Wheeler may be paying for all of our unoriginal sins—if so, 45 large sounds cheap.
After denying the charges at first, Wheeler eventually pled out; the judge gave him probation with the understanding that he never represent himself as having attended any of the schools he was kicked out of, but Wheeler continued to apply for things using a fake résumé, including for an internship at the New Republic of all places. If any résumé is a display of puffery, Wheeler’s is a remarkable dissertation on deceit: he claims to have been invited as an undergraduate to lecture at the National Association of Armenian Studies and to have given lectures at McGill University in Montreal titled “Cartography, Location, and Invention in The Tempest,” which never happened either. He claimed to be working on two more books with one already under review at Harvard University Press; he also declared he had four volumes “coauthored” with Marc Shell—an actual professor of his—forthcoming or under review. In reality these books Shell alone had written. Wheeler would not so much compare literature as conscript it to his purposes.
While all writers fall in love with different books and writers who influence them, few are faithful; great writers tend to go beyond a singular influence in that strange alchemy of many influences that creates originality. Plagiarists tend to be monogamous. They return to one or two texts to craft their plagiarisms. To get into Bowdoin, Wheeler plagiarized from a book of sample college essays compiled by Crimson editors that he would regularly return to; for his junior paper that won him a Hoopes Prize, Wheeler turned to a PhD thesis by a now-professor whose advanced ideas show up as if Wheeler’s own. Wheeler also regular used Rock Hard Apps—in an ironic twist, the very book written by the same woman hired by Viswanathan’s parents to help get her into Harvard.
If Wheeler was faithful to anything, or anyone, it was to Stephen Greenblatt. Wheeler had already won poetry contests undetected with a poem by Pulitzer Prize–winner Paul Muldoon (his terrific “Hay”)—there’s always a fake poem in there somewhere—and plagiarized Harvard professors like Helen Vendler and even Harvard’s president, Drew Faust. But again and again, he pillaged Greenblatt’s works—not his best-selling writings on Shakespeare but an in-house Harvard publication that proved Wheeler’s go-to bible.
Shakespeare of course regularly, almost religiously, borrowed— especially plots—but his example only reinforces the difficulty of invention and reinvention, the difference between an idea and its elegant expression. (Generally speaking, it is only exact expression, not any shared idea, that gets called plagiarism.) Yet despite his use of The Tempest in one claim, Wheeler doesn’t use his master’s voice to curse with—merely to accumulate honors. Why would Wheeler dare steal from the very writers he was trying to impress? Why not fish further from home? is question comes up quite often with plagiarists, who tend not to go far afield when they steal. One reason may be because plagiarists crave being known to those they know; another is that plagiarism, like the hoax more generally, preys on and pretends to intimacy.
If a thief, Shakespeare was a thief of the highest order—though the fact that a writer who took many of his cues from others managed to perfect the English language still produces great anxiety. This continued anxiety over Shakespeare’s quality can be traced to the 18th century, when Shakespeare’s name went from meaning just another good writer to the height of Western culture. This was also when the idea of originality as fundamental to literature took hold and was exactly when the West’s notion of plagiarism took its modern form. “Originality—not just innocence of plagiarism but the making of something really and truly new—set itself down as a cardinal literary virtue sometime in the middle of the 18th century and has never since gotten up,” Thomas Mallon writes. Yet despite its emphasis on originality and attribution, the 18th century was an age not just of rampant hoaxes but also of plagiarism; in fact, it is exactly because of such a newfound need for originality that plagiarism and other hoaxes proliferated, providing an anxious expression.
Notorious William-Henry Ireland’s “discovery” in 1794 of Shakespeare manuscripts emblematizes and takes advantage of Shakespeare’s rediscovery by the 18th century as a whole—and the very kinds of anxious acquisition that would plague Wheeler. As his forgeries earned him not just acclaim but praise from an otherwise withholding father—he was literally named after another brother and feared he may not actually be his father’s son—Ireland ls continued forging ever more boldly, including a full-length play, Vortigern and Rowena, which he claimed to have found before having written a word of it. The play was only the latest discovery from a trunk like something clowns might climb out of, its unlikely trove including Shakespeare Folios; letters to Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway (one contained a lock of the poet’s hair); and “an early edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, the historical tales from which Shakespeare had cribbed so many of his plots—this one with marginalia in the playwright’s own hand.” In other words, the very copy of the book Shakespeare would copy from. Though he publicly admitted his forgery in 1796 with a small pamphlet, An Authentic Account of the Shakspearean Manuscripts, Ireland had to state again and again that he had hoaxed alone—and that his father, who stood to financially benefit, wasn’t in on it. You can’t get more anxious about originality than having to prove even your hoaxes are your own.
Our time is no different—again. Our Age of Euphemism’s steady stream of plagiarism and increased attacks on Shakespeare’s origins—not to mention our desire to get near him, or to say he wasn’t who he said he was, with over 77 people posited as him since the 1850s—reflect another anxious era. Certainly the main through-line of the Shakespeare deniers, like other issues of plagiarism, centers on class. The thinking goes, how could Shakespeare not be learned in the most conventional sense? I reckon our Will must’ve been an Oxford man. All these debates about Shakespearean authorship, Shakespeare scholar and Harvard professor Marjorie Garber notes, are in many ways about ownership. Anxieties about Shakespeare’s identity always reflect larger questions of who we are. It is not so much that scholars find ciphers in the plays and poems; rather Shakespeare proves a cipher for those people, and eras, who question him. Garber takes particular glee in noting how many of these earlier suppositions about Shakespeare come from scholars from Harvard.
Just as he uses Shakespeare, Wheeler returns over and over to Harvard publications put out by the university or edited by the Crimson to reinforce his Harvardness—stealing Harvard in order to reflect it back. There’s this impostor syndrome found at Harvard that Wheeler taps into, through his writing and his case—a feeling of not being worthy of being there. I feel like a phony, like I’m the only one who got in accidentally, was an attitude I heard expressed more than once, the neat companion of Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield calling whatever and whomever he hates “phony.” It is a feeling familiar to modern life—one that plagiarism particularly embodies. The Elizabethans got the Bard; we get Adam Wheeler plagiarizing papers about him.
How to extend tradition and not be overwhelmed by it? How to belong though you feel you don’t? You can make the feeling of not belonging into a way of belonging; this is one definition of the writer. The plagiarist is more about belongings—about ownership and possession, which some euphemize isn’t theft. is euphemism provides one more of plagiarism’s clues and confessions.
Incredibly intimate, “plagiarism is a fraternal crime,” as Mallon notes; “writers can steal only from other writers.” Along with what Mallon calls “a death wish,” that notable, peculiar wish to be caught, plagiarists so want to belong to the company of other writers that they mistreat others’ work. Why else would Wheeler steal from professors on the very same campus he doesn’t quite share?
Within a year, Wheeler had violated parole and found himself sentenced to jail. There is little glee in the story really, though many have taken it a sign of Harvard’s own bubble, delighting in its going pop. But unlike in some other famous cases—like William Street, depicted in the cult film Chameleon Street, who conned his way into Yale and later pretended to be a doctor, apparently even performing open heart surgery successfully—Wheeler never did do the work.
Wheeler wasn’t just kicked out of Harvard; he was expunged. Anyone can get expelled, and any school can suspend you, but it takes real talent to get yourself expunged—this means not just being asked to leave or kept from graduating, but that the university destroys any record of the student having attended there. Such purges are rare enough that the only other one I know of is William Randolph Hearst, the model for Citizen Kane and the founder of yellow journalism. The reason: during exams, Hearst sent chamber pots to his professors with their names at the bottom; apparently not all were empty. His name only appears on campus at the Harvard Lampoon Building, where it’s etched in the stained glass he helped pay for. The gap between prank and hoax, yellow journalism and far yellower plagiarism, is slim but sure.
As today’s plagiarists reveal, the hoax has gone from Neverland to Hack Heaven, from flights of imagination and humor to a further version of hell. Dante’s Inferno would place frauds and liars in the second-to-lowest circle, with falsifiers in the lowest portion of that, forced to forever scratch their skin. A hoaxer’s skin is usually rather thin.
In the end, plagiarists and pilferers, “Opal Mehta” and Adam Wheeler and “Clark Rockefeller” don’t just steal another’s words or money or opportunities; they also steal experiences. (In contrast, professional ghostwriters who write college papers for a paper mill would seem to steal experience from the very people who paid the ghostwriters to have their experiences for them.) As Thomas Mallon puts it, “Anyone is relieved to come home and find that the burglar has taken the wallet and left the photo album. When a plagiarist enters the writer’s study it’s the latter—the stuff of ‘sentimental value’—that he’s after.” Both the subject and the strategy of plagiarism are sentimental, attached not just to the past but also to unearned emotion, which, rather than realize, the plagiarist copies verbatim.
The plagiarist would rather thank a stranger than cite one. The crime here is vast, and personal: Wheeler went so far as to copy another writer’s personal acknowledgments.
From Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. Courtesy of Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2018 by Kevin Young.