Author Societies: Watchdog Groups?

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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

If journalists have been traditionally viewed as “the watchdog of government,” should an author society consider itself the protector of truth about its writer? Should society members be the barking dogs to point out “untruths” we see being spread on social media?

As often is the case, yesterday, Washington Irving made the “quote of the day” on various feeds, which is a good thing. It’s nice to see the world abuzz about “an old, dead white guy” I study. But tweeters failed to give the textual source for the quote.

I was reminded of my “lecture series” which students get on rudeness in writing. Whenever I talk about plagiarism with entry-level writing classes, I often make a forceful comment, which goes something like this: “It may not be plagiarism, but it might be rude.”

For instance, mechanical engineers may consider something common knowledge in their sphere, but if they’re trying to write a document for a general audience, not providing additional information and/or some citation could be very rude.

I remind students to be kind to their readers. Let them know where they can go for further information. If you didn’t “borrow” the information, then it’s not plagiarism, but please tell readers where they can go to find out more.

If I can’t easily figure out the source of a quote, it drives me batty! And if I don’t readily recognize an Irving quote, then certainly a general audience, the recipient for such “quotes of the day,” would have no idea.

Here’s the quote which ran all over the place yesterday, Tuesday, February 19, 2019:

“Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune, but great minds rise above it.”

As you might imagine, all kinds of self-help, business-minded folks used the quote as motivational material, and I suppose that’s why the quote made the cut.

After some digging around, I found the source of the quote: “Philip of Pokanoket” from The Sketch Book. The passage sets up the death of the Wampanoag chief. Though Irving paints the Native-American leader as “a patriot attached to his native soil—a prince true to his subjects and indignant of their wrongs,” in the “quote of the day,” Philip arouses his “great mind” to kill.

Here are the lines which follow “the quote of the day”:

“The very idea of submission awakened the fury of Philip, and he smote to death one of his followers who proposed an expedient of peace. The brother of the victim made his escape, and in revenge betrayed the retreat of his chieftain. A body of white men and Indians were immediately despatched to the swamp where Philip lay crouched, glaring with fury and despair. Before he was aware of their approach, they had begun to surround him. In a little while he saw five of his trustiest followers laid dead at his feet; all resistance was vain; he rushed forth from his covert and made a headlong attempt to escape, but was shot through the heart by a renegade Indian of his own nation.”

Typically, I try not to correct people on Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere else. People generally don’t want to be corrected. The context for this quote, though, seemed worthwhile enough to share. I also thought it might introduce some people to Irving’s concerns about Native-Americans in the early republic.

I posted the following:

“ ‘Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune, but great minds rise above it’ deals with Native-American conflict and comes from Irving’s ‘Philip of Pokanoket.’ Context is important. Full text at”

In scholarly publications, we attempt to straighten out the facts, context, and more about texts and writers, but should we feel at all obligated to correct misinformation spread about our writers in social media?

People will probably always use “Romeo and Juliet” references to describe couples in love, even though the pair committed suicide. Edgar Allan Poe fans will probably continue to circulate all sorts of nonsense about his death, though no autopsy was performed.

Instead of being bothered by lack of context or “fake news,” should I instead be content knowing countless people are still quoting from The Sketch Book in 2019—200 years after it was published?

Until next week, please feel free to add to the conversation wherever you like: Twitter, Facebook, on this page. Comments are very much welcomed. Also feel free to message me at I try to respond to all correspondence on Wednesdays, and also update the WIS page.

By the way, I haven’t forgotten about Tales of a Traveller. I’ll get back to it, but wanted to address this issue while it’s still fresh on my mind.



Published in: on February 21, 2019 at 2:17 am  Leave a Comment  

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