William Wells Brown plagiarized. Fully 23 percent of his most widely read novel, Clotel (1853), was taken from the work of other writers. By the end of his career, Brown had plagiarized eighty-seven thousand words from 282 separate texts and 265 different authors. Yet simply describing the scope of his plagiarism fails to do justice to the vaudevillian, exuberant style of his copying. After Frederick Douglass published an article noting Brown’s down-the-rabbit-hole style of literary theft (Brown had plagiarized from a speech of Benjamin Disraeli, who had been caught for plagiarizing the same speech from Adolphe Thiers), Brown followed up by plagiarizing from Douglass’s former newspaper, the North Star. Afterward, in the January 1863 issue of Douglass’s Monthly, Douglass wryly notes that Brown “seems to have read and remembered nearly everything” available, but he does not explicitly note the borrowing...

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