bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Dickens, Dostoevsky and the Harvey Affair

Posted in Practices of Scholarship, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 5 May, 2013

Last month, the Times Literary Supplement gave an uncharacteristic expanse of print space to an extended Commentary article. It was by a Russianist, Eric Naiman, whose interested had been peaked by the description of an encounter between two giants of nineteenth-century novel-writing, Feodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens. The description of their conversation — or, rather, a self-revealing monologue by Dickens, as recorded by Dostoevsky — has excited public attention in recent years, and Naiman began his piece by puncturing that interest, pointing out the incident’s inherent improbability. Tracing the source of the description to an article by Stephanie Harvey in The Dickensian just over a decade ago, he began to uncover a web of published authors, who are mutually supportive to the point of replicating each other’s work. So, Stephanie Harvey had previously praised a novel by Leo Bellingham, published in 1981, which was re-issued, in revised form, in 2012 as the work of A. D. Harvey. Indeed, at the centre of Naiman’s story appeared to be the protean polymath, Arnold Harvey, who, it is implied, is probably also Leo, Stephanie and a few others besides.

The article has quickly become a celebrated work in various quarters: it is certainly an engaging story well told and perhaps, more fundamently, it speaks to a fantasy many have of turning our academic training to this sort of detective work, on display in such a high-profile location. There is something fitting about Naiman, an expert on Nabakov, revealing the multiple identities of a single individual. When I first read (and was mesmerised by) Pale Fire in the Penguin edition, complete with introductory essay, I could only imagine that the Mary McCarthy who wrote that introduction and entered so fully into the spirit of the novel must be an alter ego of the author himself. But not so: that essay was by the American novelist and critic Mary McCarthy. It is an example of collaboration or complicity which is perhaps also there in the career of A. D. Harvey, who has had, on occasion, co-authors who are less than imaginary friends.

What, though, struck me most in Naiman’s article was the particularly unNabakovian moment when he dips his pen deep in righteous indignation. He comments how Harvey’s mystifications ‘leave an unpleasant taste’:

It is not only that the apparent practice of submitting articles under fictitious names to scholarly journals might well have a chilling effect on the ability of really existing independent scholars to place their work. Nor is it just the embarrassment caused to editors who might in an ideal world have taken more pains to check the contributions of Stephanie Harvey …, but who accepted them in good faith, partly out of a wish to make their publications as inclusive as possible. The worst thing here, if they are fictitious, is a violation of the trust that remains a constitutive element of the humanities. There is, it seems to me, a fundamental difference between posting partisan, anonymous reviews on Amazon, where there is no assumption of proper evaluative standards or impartiality, and placing similar reviews or hoaxing articles in academic journals, which are still the most hallowed sites for the development and transmission of humanistic ideas. The former is a cheap act of virtual graffiti; the latter may be the closest a secular scholar can come to desecration.

Note the phrasing of the last sentences — ‘hallowed’, ‘desecration’: are academic journals, then, sites of religious devotion? And does Harvey stand charged not just of irreverence but of sacrilege? It sounds as if this is not just about ‘good faith’ but ‘faith’ itself, a belief-system which is being underminded by one of those ‘independent scholars’ whom learned editors , in their innate generosity,want to help. Earlier in the article, Naiman dissected one of Harvey’s articles to lay bare a bitterness worthy of Jude the Obscure for not being allowed within the inner sanctum of academe. The implication — and I do not suggest that Naiman was fully conscious of this — seems to be that a proper academic would not have perpetrated such impieties.

But, of course, we know that proper academics can behave badly. Leave aside the everyday instances of sloppy scholarship revealed in footnotes, with authors citing a source at second hand, clearly not having checked the original. Such poor standards slide into plagiarism, the most heinous heresy which — quite rightly — the apparatus of academia wish to root out from contemporary practice. Not, it must be said, that the structures put in place are either sturdy or consistent. In the recent case of Martin Stone, the accusations led to inquisition and condemnation, and the offending works were branded for all to see. Look at the Wiley On-line Library and you will find an example of an offending article, stamped on every page ‘This Article is Retracted’; no explanation, however, is given, leaving the unsuspecting reader no sure way of surmising the reason for this retraction, which leaves the text no less legible than did the underlining which Spanish Inquisitors sometimes used to mark prohibited passages in the sixteenth century. What is more, type in the author’s name in that same database, and the result will be this retracted article and two others which have not been subjected to the same treatment. I know from my own research that a scholar’s act of plagiarism does not mean his other works should similarly be judged unacceptable, but how is the reader to know in this case? Surely if some works by a scholar have been found guilty of plagiarism, the others by that author need to be investigated and, where appropriate, explicitly be acquitted.

I draw this separate case into this discussion for two reasons. First, because it seems to me that what I have called the academic apparatus is so incomplete because the belief-system which underpins it is itself only half formulated. That is partly because we are talking of a cluster of assumptions and shared practices that are continually in the process of being constructed but it is also because that construction remains too often uninterrogated: it creates articles of faith rather than reasoned arguments. If we compare our practices with previous patterns of behaviour we might notice what we have lost as much as what we have gained. And this is the second point. I alluded in the previous practice to the scholars I research, the humanists of the Renaissance. There is much we pride ourselves of having rejected in their habits — they sometimes plagiarised, they were often intemperate in their criticism of enemies, and partial in their praise of friends: all practices that are not allowed to happen nowadays. They also — from the future pope Pius II to Erasmus — perpetrated fakes, creating false sources for their work, much in the manner of which A. D. Harvey is accused. They did so, though, in a spirit of serio ludere, often using their misquotations or misattributions as a way of allowing those who had ears to hear the chance to recognise that a deeper irony was at work.  The process, in other words, was a way of creating differentation within their audience, with those who got the joke being in the club. How different it is nowadays: in Naiman’s description of the Harvey affair, the culprit is an independent scholar who sits outside the club. But if the rules of the club do not allow a certain playfulness or a challenge to standards by testing their perceptiveness, then should we really want to be members?