Is it unfair to draw attention to a case of (innocent) plagiarism ninety years after the fact? Our World War I holdings include a collection of letters (Vertical File Manuscript 1832) written by different soldiers to the Nutter family in Minneapolis. Most are addressed to Edith, the oldest daughter, who had likely volunteered as a penpal to lonely soldiers who enlisted or trained in the Twin Cities.
One of her correspondents was Harvey A. Jensen, a truck driver with the 109th Ammunition Train who was stationed near Bordeaux, France, in the months after the Armistice. In their tone, Jensen’s nine letters typify the spirit of his generation–breezy, confident, without pretension–as when he writes to Edith about some “bum town” his unit visited, or teases her about all the girls he meets in France. So it seemed a little odd when in the midst of the page shown above, nine lines down to be exact, he abruptly switched to a new narrative style, describing the geography from Bordeaux to Paris in terms of the historical, architectural, and social details to be observed along the way.
Thanks to the miracle of search engines and electronic books, the explanation was not hard to find. Jensen had copied into his letter an excerpt from an 1888 travelogue titled “Foot-Prints of Travel,” written by an American, Maturin M. Ballou. Click on the link below to find the passage he copied, spanning pages 162-63 of the 1889 edition, beginning “Bordeaux is reckoned the third city in France,” and concluding with “neat outlying buildings.”
Harvey ends his borrowed travelogue as abruptly as he began it, switching to his own style to describe the roads as “so crooked that they would make a rattlesnake blush.” We don’t have Edith’s half of the correspondence, so we don’t know whether she suspected anything. Nor is it possible to trace what happened to either Harvey or Edith after the war. Still, Harvey’s attitude offers a tempting symbol for the brash advance of his countrymen onto the world stage in a new century. So what if he cheated a little? Surely he would have laughed it off as he hopped back into his truck, leaving the persnickety archivist to choke on his dust.