Jacob Epstein

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Darryl Pinckney

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When Wild Oats by Jacob Epstein appeared in 1979, I read it with pleasure. It seemed to me a typical first novel, very much in the American grain. Divorced parents, college, disastrous first love, comic ineptitude in sex; dread of acne, of unfinished term papers, of drunk and sermonizing adults; unease with the blankness of the future—one of those books in the tradition of Catcher in the Rye….

The New York Times of October 21 prominently displayed a news story from England, telling of an article published in The Observer and written by Martin Amis … whose novel of 1973, The Rachel Papers, he believes supplied Epstein with a number of lines, lifted with a few changes, and "chunks."…

I have just read a library copy of The Rachel Papers and my faith in Wild Oats is restored. Both of these novels are very good and they are scarcely alike. They differ in style and construction, in the atmosphere of class and country, in the lived and recorded experience of the two authors. Although both books have the plot of young men coming of age, they are far apart in tone and mood. Wild Oats is a sort of pastoral; it is funny, gentle, graceful, sad, benign. The Rachel Papers is intense, complicated, rapid, worldly, bristling with a cutting edge, scurrilous in its humor. The kindest word in it is "besotted."…

Wild Oats, the protagonist Billy Williams, in the third person; Charles Highway of The Rachel Papers in command like Clausewitz of the first person—to read the two together is to move indeed from the innocent swimming holes of A Separate Peace to the chic trenches of Vile Bodies. Preppy angst, its longing nose against frosted window panes, can no more plagiarize the smashing conceits of Oxford "cool Keatsian symmetry" than, as they used to say down home, a sow can be Chinese Ambassador. Jacob Epstein has written his own book, a genuine work out of those progressive high schools, out of weary, neurotic New York, on to a joke college….

The appeal of Wild Oats does not lie in the cleverness of the young man but in the literary skill with which the third-person narration elicits the reader's affection and concern for Billy. It is a suffering, kind book….

So what is the trouble with Wild Oats? The trouble is serious. Martin Amis has accused Epstein of not only the influence, but the plagiarism of a number of lines and "chunks." Epstein has admitted that these lines exist in the book. And his statement of how they got in is that during a year when he was living in England and writing the first draft of his book, before he graduated from Yale, he read with great admiration—and why not?—The Rachel Papers and copied certain lines in notebooks, along with the copyings from the masters we all do throughout life. It is his contention that somehow these "chaotic" notebooks were displaced and that in revising his book several times over a period of a few years, the lines somehow got into the book as his own….

In reading the two books—Epstein's first edition—I would confirm Amis' charge of 53 lines or phrases that echo, sometimes with changes, sometimes not, The Rachel Papers …. Most of the "lifted" lines are casual descriptions, what one would call dead lines, not always striking, and in that sense a wonder. Some are more noticeable and often have to do with the arcane teenage rituals of making it with girls, as if Billy Williams had consulted Charles Highway's...

(This entire section contains 873 words.)

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notes as a manual for seduction, but not for literature. For myself I did not notice so many "chunks," just scattered phrases, often changed….

What about what Amis calls the "chunks"? From my tedious comparison, perhaps Amis is thinking of a situational matter, expressed here and there in similar language. Exhibit A: The rivals to the heroes, Amis's American DeForest in pursuit of Rachel, and Epstein's Cuban Francisco in pursuit of Zizi, both have romantic breakdowns and crash their super cars—bang—after being rejected by the Rachels and the Zizis, the sirens of teenage novels. So they both crack up but, perhaps, in the end what is more damning to Epstein than the twin "chunks" is the very predictability in both books of the triangle of teenage love. (p. 47)

These confessed lines are one thing, the two books are quite another. I cannot excuse the lines—they are too foolish and unhelpful to the composition. But I do not believe this is a case of plagiarism, any more than Truman Capote's best work, Breakfast at Tiffany's, is a ripoff of Christopher Isherwood's brilliant Goodbye to Berlin, though Holly Golightly reminds me very much of Sally Bowles. Kinship is not thievery. I do believe that Jacob Epstein, a very young and good writer, with not only his reputation but perhaps his future at stake, has been accused far in excess of the provocation. He is not a criminal, he is a writer. He wrote Wild Oats. It is his. (p. 49)

Darryl Pinckney, "Spooking Plagiarism" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXV, No. 46, November 12-18, 1980, pp. 47, 49.∗


Stephen Fender