The Bell Curve

Culturebox’s friends at Lingua Franca, the magazine for academic insiders, have a hot scoop: They’ve learned that James Mackay, the author of an acclaimed new biography, Alexander Graham Bell: A Life (John Wiley & Sons), has been accused of plagiarizing substantial portions of his book from a 1973 biography of Bell by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Robert V. Bruce. (What does Culturebox mean by “acclaimed”? For once, that question actually has a good answer: Former American Scholar editor Joseph Epstein devoted a three-and-a-half page review to the book last April in The New Yorker. The New York Times called it “compelling.” To its credit, the Washington Post’s review hinted strongly at the possibility of plagiarism.)

Bruce, a professor emeritus at Boston University, has argued in a letter to Wiley that Mackay’s book is heavily indebted to him for much of its research, structure, and even language. Culturebox doesn’t know the first thing about plagiarism law, but she has looked through both books (cursorily, it’s true) and sees what Bruce means: Several passages, including descriptions of Bell’s birthplace, of a demonstration of Bell’s “harmonic telegraph,” and of Bell’s battles with Edward M. Gallaudet over sign language, are startlingly similar. Mackay uses the same details and quotes Bruce uses, even putting them in the same order, albeit with slight changes in language. The flow of narrative in several chapters of Mackay’s books echoes Bruce’s, without Mackay having improved Bruce’s insights much. Mackay’s book, however, is shorter (310 pages to Bruce’s 497).

But the real shocker is that in his acknowledgements, Mackay thanks the National Geographic Society for allowing him use of their vast archival holdings on Bell, in what he calls the Bell Room. In fact, as Lingua Franca’s trusty researchers have confirmed, the Bell archives were transferred to the Library of Congress more than twenty years ago, and the National Geographic Society’s Bell Room no longer exists. But Bruce looked at papers in the Bell Room at the National Geographic Society, as he makes clear in his acknowledgements, and cites them in his footnotes regularly. It’s hard not to conclude, from Mackay’s mistake, that he never actually saw those papers, except as they were written up in Bruce’s book.

Wiley has put a hold on further shipments of the book. Wiley’s director of corporate communications, Susan Spilka, points out that Wiley is not the original publisher: It licensed the book from the Edinburgh house Mainstream Publishing. But, she says, “We are encouraging James MacKay and Robert Bruce to amicably resolve the matter.” Bruce isn’t talking, but he does confirm that he’s negotiating a settlement with Wiley and tells Culturebox he’ll probably have more to say next week. Stay tuned.

Judith Shulevitz