Commentary Magazine

Plagiarism High and Low

Oscar Wilde to James McNeill Whistler: “I wish I’d said that, Jimmy.”

Whistler: “Don’t worry, Oscar, you will.”

As flippancies go, this is one you are not likely to hear any time soon. Offering in print, as your own, words another person has said or published is “something you never, never do,” declares James Fallows in the Atlantic Monthly. “Every line of work needs clear rules. If you’re a soldier, you don’t desert. If you’re a writer, you don’t steal anyone’s prose. It should be the one [cause for] automatic firing.”

If passions seem to be running high lately on the subject of plagiarism, the cause is not far to seek, what with the fracas surrounding Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Hannah Crafts—three recent and much-publicized cases that the media have treated extensively. But to anyone who has ever looked into the centuries-long debate about literary imitation, appropriation, and originality, Fallows’s “never, never” cannot be the end but only the beginning of wisdom. Things are more interesting, and less clear-cut, than that.

First, though, the year’s three notorious plagiarists. Ambrose is the military historian and author of some two dozen books who was nailed by the Weekly Standard. As it turns out, his lax mimicking in The Wild Blue (2001)—“Up, up, up he went, until he got above the clouds. No amount of practice could have prepared the pilot and crew for what they encountered: B-24s, glittering like mica”—of Thomas Childers’s Wings of Morning (1995)—“Up, up, up, groping through the clouds, no amount of practice could have prepared them for what they encountered: B-24s, glittering like mica”—is only one of many threads borrowed from others’ spools and knotted over the years into the Ambrosian carpet.

Goodwin’s embarrassment stems from her having to admit that, for The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (1987), she borrowed without acknowledgment passages, too banal to quote here, from Lynne McTaggert’s Kathleen Kennedy (1983). In a private settlement in the late 80’s, she paid McTaggert an undisclosed amount, and there the matter would have rested had it not been for the assiduity once again of the Weekly Standard, which turned up cabbagings from other sources. An added, pot-and-kettle irony is that Goodwin once complained that another author, Joe McGinniss, had plagiarized her for his The Last Brother (1993), a study of Edward Kennedy.

Ambrose has defended himself with the bluster of one of his military heroes (he likes to take on the persona of the Custer or Eisenhower whose story he is telling). Refusing to call his borrowings plagiarism, he says that “If I am writing up a passage, [and] part of it is from other people’s writing, I just type it up that way and put in a footnote. I wish I had put the quotation marks in.” The main thing is that “I tell stories; I am not writing a Ph.D. dissertation”—though when he did write such a dissertation in 1963, published the next year by Louisiana State University Press, he also neglected (as has discovered) to insert the necessary quotation marks.

Goodwin’s explanation boils down to sloppy handwritten notes—failures to distinguish between direct quotation and paraphrase. These days, she claims, her computer helps her avoid this problem by making it easier to keep her own stuff in one file and others’ stuff in another. But the computer, like any machine, can also be misused or misunderstood, and several plagiarists in recent years have, in a digital “Twinkle defense,” blamed it for their difficulties. Either screen A gets conflated with screen B or, as in umpteen cases a day in schools or even newsrooms, material cut from the Internet and pasted into “notes” loses quotation marks and attributions alike.

In a rather different category is the third recent case. Hannah Crafts was “a Fugitive Slave, Recently Escaped from North Carolina,” whose novel, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, written between 1855 and 1861, was bought in manuscript at auction by the Harvard celebrity academic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and then sold by him to Warner Books. It was published last April after being excerpted in the New Yorker. The opening of chapter 13 comes pretty much straight from the famous “fog everywhere” opening of chapter 1 of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-53), a fact that Professor Gates oddly did not notice but that was pointed out in a phone call to the New Yorker by Hollis Robbins, a graduate student at Princeton.

Gates’s response in a letter to the magazine was unapologetic: Crafts had not plagiarized, he wrote, she had sought “a relation to a canonical tradition, finding in Dickens a language and rhetoric that she sometimes assimilated and sometimes simply appropriated.” On the New Yorker‘s website, Gates added the brazen hypothesis that Crafts had not assimilated, appropriated, or even echoed, but “emptied out a rhetorical template and filled it with particulars of her own.” Indeed, fill it she did: as Robbins’s further researches have found, these “particulars” derive from more than a dozen writers ranging from Horace Walpole to Harriet Beecher Stowe, plus veins “creatively plundered,” to use Gates’s phrase, from Scientific American.

But still Gates has defended her, happy “that the republic of letters has always transcended the bounds of identity.” He has even called to witness a famous passage from the black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963):

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas. . . . From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.

Quite (floridly) right. Du Bois, however, was referring only to the accessibility of one literary tradition to another, and to the universality of culture. Gates does to him what, in principle, Crafts was learning to do to Dickens: namely, appropriate him for his own purpose. But—and here we begin to touch on the complexities of the subject—what may be (barely) defensible in an imaginative mode like fiction is indefensible in an expository mode like literary criticism, where a writer is obliged not only to acknowledge his source but to stipulate that his own purpose is, or may be, different. Besides, although Dickens was always eager for an audience, and would surely have “come all graciously” along with Aristotle and Aurelius, no Victorian novelist was a greater stickler for copyright, and he would have looked on Crafts’s transpositions as an occasion for, if not a lawsuit, then a writing lesson.

Let us see if we can sort these matters out.



If we can imagine Homer building on the oral tradition that preceded him, and later bards building on the one that succeeded him, then we can understand that for the ancient Greeks and Romans—and certainly for more than a millennium-and-a-half of the Europeans who followed them—learning to compose literature was like learning to make or do anything. It was a matter of imitation.

And “naturally” so, given Aristotle’s definition of man as the imitative animal. In The Art of Poetry, the Latin poet Horace in effect directed writers to follow the masters, not in a slavish, xeroxing sort of way but according to the rules of whatever genre they wished to practice. Such imitation remained a cardinal injunction well into the 18th century. When, for instance, Dante and Milton wanted to depict a journey to the underworld, they looked to Homer and Virgil not just for a map but also for incidents and metaphors.

So it was, too, with children learning to write their first compositions. One of the more interesting passages in Ben Franklin’s Autobiography concerns his apprenticing himself to the literary art by studying past masters. He would copy out, say, a paragraph of Joseph Addison in order to set it to memory; he would break it up, scattering its sentences, and then see if he could put it properly back together—sometimes, he fancied, in an order better than Addison’s. Finally, he would use its structure as a scaffolding for an “original” composition of his own.

But Franklin was also living at a time when the literary rules were changing. His was an age marked by a drive toward originality, a prominent feature of the Romanticism that, beginning in the mid-18th century, is tailing off with us. It was more important, the early Romantics felt, to express oneself as an individual than as part of a group—a revolutionary theme in aesthetics that plainly mirrored the contemporaneous political belief that the state exists for the sake of the citizen, not vice versa. The poet should not write “Of man’s first disobedience” and “the ways of God“: Milton had done all that. Instead, as Wordsworth proposed, he should write about the “Mind of man,” capable of making its own imaginative paradise. We can understand the rise of the realistic novel, too, as a bid for originality and individualism: stories about common people and ordinary life, as against stories about nobles and far-away adventures.

Adding force to the Romantic call for originality was economic logic. The invention of movable type made literature easily reproducible, and the earliest copyright claims in 16th-century England had been entered by printers, who did not want their goods devalued by cheap imitations. Making money by producing texts was a new achievement; by the late 17th century, writers, recognizing that readers wanted the rare, original book just as they wanted the rare, original painting or tulip, were asserting what we now call intellectual-property rights. To violate such rights—to steal someone’s paragraph or someone’s patent—was actionable, or at least cause for public exposure and disgrace. Sentiment as well as money was involved, as the word plagiarism suggests: it derives from plagiarius, the Latin for manstealer or kidnapper, and by extension literary thief. To steal another’s text is analogous to stealing his slave or, more tenderly, his child.

Samuel Johnson (1709-84) is instructively pivotal in his equanimity on the problem of plagiarism. His Dictionary defines it as “Theft; literary adoption of the thoughts or works of another.” But this, by itself, is too ambiguous, since the terms “adoption,” “thoughts,” and “works” are like so many flies, waiting for deconstructive spiders to tear them apart. In practice, Johnson himself hustled both sides of the street: on the one hand, he did not mind ghosting letters, lectures, and sermons for friends; on the other hand, he argued publicly about the importance of correct attribution, and helped shape the emerging Romantic idea of authorship.



To disambiguate Johnson’s dictionary definition and his practice—to discover his equanimity—one can turn to his Rambler No. 143, a locus classicus of nonpanicky common sense. Here he really thinks things through, beginning with a warning: “This accusation [of plagiarism] is dangerous, because, even when it is false, it may be sometimes urged with probability.” That is, a passage might look plagiarized when it really is not, simply because there is nothing new under the sun. “We are come into the world too late to produce anything new,” Johnson aptly says, and

whoever attempts any common topic will find unexpected coincidences of his thoughts with those of other writers; nor can the nicest judgment always distinguish accidental similitude from artful imitation. There is likewise a common stock of images, a settled mode of arrangement, and a beaten track of transition, which all authors suppose themselves at liberty to use, and which produce the resemblance generally observable among contemporaries.

In short, writing as others have written is not only to a great extent unavoidable, it is also a way of making yourself intelligible. Imitate, imitate—but if you want to be any good, do it artfully.

For Johnson, it was nonsense to accuse a Shakespeare or a Dryden of plagiarism on the grounds that he deployed an idea or a metaphor traceable to Plutarch or Virgil, just as it would be nonsense to accuse a contemporary architect of being “a mean copier of [Michel]Angelo or [Christopher] Wren because he digs his marble from the same quarry, squares his stones by the same art, and unites them in columns of the same orders.” The “flowers of fiction” left by the ancients along the literary wayside are so profuse that writers may freely “pluck them without injuring their colors or their fragrance.” Johnson then brilliantly concludes:

The adoption of a noble sentiment, or the insertion of a borrowed ornament may sometimes display so much judgment as will almost compensate for invention; and an inferior genius may without any imputation of servility pursue the path of the ancients, provided he declines to tread in their footsteps.

If the “inferior genius” does tread in his predecessors’ footsteps—i.e., if he meanly copies them word for word, and does so repeatedly and, perhaps especially, at length—then he may justly be accused of plagiarism.

This reasoning jibes with that of Alexander Pope, whose famous couplet, “True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,/What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest” sums up what would become the essence of copyright law. What has legal standing are not those oft-thought plots, settings, character types, or ideas (it is difficult to prove that writer X, working on similar material, could not independently arrive at a notion claimed by writer Y), but “particularized expression” (Y might be able to argue that X could not have arrived fortuitously at his exact wording). Therefore, an updated Johnson’s Dictionary might clarify the definition of plagiarism as (inelegantly) follows: distinguished from imitation, it is the habitual “theft” of another’s “works” in the sense of exact words. “Thoughts” may be too aerial for ownership.

As far as the law is concerned, in any event, the key point about X and Y is that they are contemporaries: dead writers cannot sue the living. They can, however, feed them, just as their forebears fed them. Again the mid-18th century worked it out, as evidenced by Henry Fielding in Tom Jones:

The Ancients may be considered as the rich common, where every person who hath the smallest tenement in Parnassus hath a free right to fatten his muse. Or, to place it in a clearer light, we Moderns are to the Ancients what the poor are to the rich.

Honor among thieves, though. While poor modern writers can poach whatever they need from squires Homer, Virgil & Co., they should not steal from one another: “for this may be strictly styled defrauding the poor (sometimes perhaps those who are poorer than ourselves) or, to see it under the most opprobrious colors, robbing the spittal”—i.e., the hospital where one’s penurious fellow moderns are laid up.



The Romantic period that succeeded the Age of Johnson could not of course entirely eschew the humanly natural tendency toward imitation: John Keats takes after Edmund Spenser and Shakespeare, and then Alfred Tennyson takes after Keats. Still, the emphasis was on the sui generis, and the resulting texts could seem so subjective, and so anti-traditional, that by the beginning of the 20th century T. S. Eliot thought it time to recall the wisdom of the 18th. Literary tradition was something not to escape from, Eliot averred, but to appropriate and make one’s own.

Appropriation. In his essay on the playwright Philip Massinger (1583-1640), Eliot writes as follows:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.

Massinger, in Eliot’s judgment, was a bad poet for only half-heartedly appropriating stuff from his immediate precursor, Shakespeare: all he could manage was “an echo, rather than an imitation or a plagiarism—the basest, because least conscious form of borrowing.”

Note that Eliot’s terms are Johnson’s, only inverted and tightened. The lowest level of borrowing is the echo (bad, because mere parroting). Next comes imitation (between okay and good, but only a stage along the way); then plagiarism (better, in the sense of knowing what one needs—though I much prefer Johnson’s more exigent use of the term); and finally, by implication, originality (best, since one mixes the “stolen” and the invented according to a recipe of one’s own). The appropriations in Eliot’s own The Waste Land, only some of them acknowledged in the endnotes, are “mature” or, as the critic Harold Bloom would say, “strong” acts of transformative improvement, drawing on the tradition’s treasures as he adds to them, and placing the present in relation to the past as he looks toward the future (“I took from them, now you take from me”). And so with James Joyce in Ulysses, which is structured after Homer’s Odyssey, or Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which owes so much to prior versions of the legend, including Goethe’s.

Eliot speaks loosely of appropriation or plagiarism, Johnson of imitation: the terms, however colored, may slip and slide, but the meaning is workably clear. The later writer borrows from, builds upon, endeavors to surpass, and finally, even in his original inspirations, affirms his family resemblance to those who came before him. Great writers do offer something new, but their materials (plots, characters, ideas) and their medium (words) are in large part something old and inherited. The modern evolves out of, and amplifies, the tradition.



Some later 20th-century critics, notably such French theorists as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault, were much taken by the idea that the literature of the present, or indeed individual words themselves, are so interpenetrated with the past that there is no such thing as originality. Indeed, they held, there is no such thing as an author. To this one can briefly reply: don’t go there. Authors may be nowhere without language, but language is nowhere without authors, each truly superior one endeavoring to find a voice of his own.

And that is what Hannah Crafts, to return to her, was at least trying to do in the late 1850’s. Wanting to tell her story in the form of a novel, Crafts not surprisingly looked to masters like Dickens to see how to do it. She started by imitating him, just as (though she almost certainly had no way of knowing this) authorities from Horace to Johnson might have urged her to do. Only, instead of pursuing a parallel path, she stepped directly into his footprints. Instead of strongly appropriating and transforming Dickensian elements into something palpably her own, she weakly and naively fudged. What might have been an imitation salutary for an autodidact—remember Franklin’s method of learning to write—collapses, understandably at this stage, into plagiarism.

By saying it is understandable, I mean that it is also, in this case, forgivable, since what Crafts was producing was obviously a draft, and she an utter novice. But not everyone would agree with me here. I am not sure, for example, that Thomas Mallon, whose Stolen Words (1989) is the best-written book on the subject of plagiarism, would let Crafts off the hook, though given her special circumstances he might. In general he takes Fallows’s “automatic firing” position, and relentlessly hunts famous plagiarizers of the past like Laurence Sterne, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Reade, as well as those of more recent time—small game like Jacob Epstein, who in his novel Wild Oats (1979) cribbed several dozen unscintillating bits from Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers (1974), and still smaller game among academic historians.

Mallon adopts the view of the late Peter Shaw, namely, that plagiarists are mentally disordered the way kleptomaniacs are. They steal not because they need to—old Sterne or young Epstein could find the workaday words better than most of us can—but because of a compulsion, one to which any writer can feel an uncanny susceptibility, and because, guiltily, they at bottom wish to be found out. Hence the unmissable clues they leave. Coleridge’s translating and transposing of whole pages of German philosophers into his Biographia Literaria was so self-incriminatingly evident that (moving beyond the allegations against him of his contemporary fellow-plagiarist Thomas De Quincey) a talented undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Anna Augusta Helmholtz, could systematically expose them in a bachelor’s thesis back in 1907.

Neither Shaw nor Mallon has patience with latter-day defenders of Sterne and Coleridge’s plagiarisms—defenders who say that such liftings are merely akin to Eliot’s appropriative procedure in The Waste Land or Joyce’s in Ulysses, with the reader’s pleasure arising from recognition of the allusions, the juxtapositions of home-cooked and takeout language, the buzz of “intertextuality.” For hardliners, the fact remains that Sterne, Coleridge (and Jacob Epstein) madly regarded themselves as above the Eighth Commandment, which forbids stealing.

I confess I am not so sure. To explain why, I want to turn to a class of writers I happen to know well—undergraduate students who wonder whether they are plagiarizing, and if so, when and how they will be caught, and what will happen next.



In her useful book, Stolen Language? (2000), Shelley Angélil-Carter notes R. M. Howard’s division of the act of plagiarism into three forms: cheating (deliberate fraud), non-attribution (usually out of ignorance of the conventions for referencing), and patchwriting (the stitching-together of one’s own words with a too-closely-paraphrased source, attributed or not). Then she distinguishes, as I did earlier, between novelists (and by implication poets) on the one hand and, on the other, expository writers, whether high-school students or professional journalists or academic historians. The latter are properly expected to mark their indebtedness for information and ideas. The former, by contrast, typically need not provide references to such sources, though they ought, in formal acknowledgments if nowhere else, to indicate writers they have quoted, and to what extent. Hannah Crafts, as a nascent novelist, with Dickens, Stowe, Charlotte Brontë, and other sources open beside her, was having a problem with the patchwriting variety of plagiarism, and was clueless about how to acknowledge what she owed to those other texts.

That is where a mentor might have intervened. School administrators and faculty never seem quite sure who their students are: members of the community of scholars hanging out with Socrates in the Greek agora, or hoods with Cliffs Notes trying to get their degrees with the least possible effort. As Neil Hertz has punned, “The student might be Alcibiades, but then again he might be Al Capone.” Alcibiades, who is Socrates’ frequent interlocutor in Plato’s dialogues, is the fellow addressed in brochures and mission statements; Al Capone is the kid addressed in the catalogue or the freshman-English handbook where he is told that if he plagiarizes—and nowadays the offense is usually described fairly and thoroughly—he is toast.

The language in the catalogue and handbook is up on moral stilts. Not only will students fail the course in which they have been academically dishonest, or be suspended or dismissed from school after repeated dishonesties; they will also be plagued, especially if their dishonesties go undetected, by a guilty conscience. There is no “getting away with it”: a scarlet letter “P” will burn within and, who knows?, manifest itself in some outward, facial sign. One need not be as Freudian as Hertz to recognize the rhetorical similarity between administrative warnings against plagiarism today and headmasterly or pastoral warnings against self-abuse some generations ago.

In fact, the similarity leads Hertz to an ingenious conclusion:

[J]ust as the masturbation of children can serve to focus the anxieties of their elders about sexuality in general, so the plagiarizing of students can focus their teachers’ anxieties about writing in general, more particularly about the kind of “writing” involved in teaching—the inscription of a culture’s heritage on the minds of its young.

Thanks to Foucault and Derrida, the anxiety that Hertz refers to has been a very fashionable one among literary academics: is there, at this late date, anything “original” to say? Some would go still farther: since the irretrievably distant and troglodytic invention of language, has there ever been anything not “like” originality but simply “original”?

Well, as Johnson refuted Bishop Berkeley’s idealist conundrum—is an object “really there” if no one is present to perceive it?—by kicking a stone, so, as in Rambler No. 143 cited above, he might commonsensically have allayed an academic’s anxieties about originality. There is something annoyingly unoriginal about harping on the impossibility of originality. And it is gratifying to report that, since Hertz wrote “An Extravagant Teaching” (1982), the academic understanding of “how truths are arrived at” has taken some pressure off writing in general. The thrust of Angélil-Carter’s book is to apply that understanding to teaching, on the tacit assumption that very few students are Al Capone, and most are tolerably open to the suggestion that they might become an Alcibiades.

Most research and thought in the social sciences and even in the humanities depends on collective effort. Therefore it is becoming common classroom practice to teach writing as a collaborative act. (1) Sarah’s draft gets criticized by James and Andrew before revisions are suggested by the instructor; (2) Sarah is assured that it is perfectly acceptable—indeed, inevitable—that she borrow many of her data and ideas from scholars in the field; (3) she is coached how to refer to those scholars; and (4) she is freed to leave “common knowledge” (e.g. that Hamlet is a play set in Denmark) or “deep sources” (bits of information and ideas gotten from she-knows-not-where in her own experience) un-footnoted.

The aim of all this pedagogic reassurance, and the patience with which enlightened instructors deal with the vast majority of plagiarism cases that arise from uncertainty about (2) and (3), is not to dissolve students’ writing in a river of joint discourse. It is to enable them first to feel at home in whatever field they are writing about (sociology, say), and then to hear their own voice taking part in the conversation that experts in that field are having. To make, in short, an original contribution.



Anyway, this is the aim, however small the number of students who grow up to offer anything that sticklers would call original. It is quite enough if most students learn to “say things for themselves.” But students’ papers and journalists’ articles are not literature. The literary writer can be Johnson’s “inferior genius,” good at artfully imitating—borrowing and rearranging materials from—trailblazers. And then there is the superior and far rarer genius, the trailblazer himself, who, besides synthesizing and advancing what the tradition has accrued before him, also says something for himself.

Ambrose, Goodwin, and Crafts are not even close to producing literature in either the inferior or the superior mode. When confronted with their plagiarisms, we expect them (or in Crafts’s case her editor, Gates) to explain, apologize, withdraw current printings, provide attributions or acknowledgments in future ones, and—when it is an instance of one living author lifting from another—perhaps pay monetarily for the stolen intellectual property, though the potatoes in most such cases are pitiably tiny.

What do we say, then, about literary writers of real stature? How Sterne welded bits of Robert Burton and others into Tristram Shandy, making a new something out of old somethings; how Coleridge fitted transposed pages of August Schlegel or Friedrich Schelling into the self-born reminiscences and insights of the Biographia, a prose work that can stand beside “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or “Kubla Khan”: these are akin to how Shakespeare took a passage from Plutarch describing Cleopatra’s barge and “made it new” in Enobarbus’ speech in Antony and Cleopatra: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, / Burned on the water,” etc.

This does not mean that literary writers work under an ethical dispensation different from the rest of us, or that, today at least, they are under no obligation to respect their living or still-copyright-protected competitors and find a stylistically graceful way to acknowledge their borrowings. But insofar as literary writers are up to something big, the energy of metamorphosis in their borrowings may be seen to derive from, and to produce, that ineffable quality we call creative originality—the imaginative power that, as Eliot would say, makes a creator’s filchings “mature” and finally classic. When, as with Sterne, the author is a simple copycat, then, on condition that the work itself is something great, we just have to acknowledge ourselves in the presence of a masterpiece fashioned by a morally spotted human being—not an unusual circumstance.

Up close, it is notoriously difficult to distinguish superior from inferior literary genius, morally spotted as either may be. But time, the only medium in which taste can unfold, will sort out the large fish from the little satisfactorily enough. Looking back at the large ones congregated in our libraries, like Dante’s heathen heroes in Limbo, we may notice that there is a lot of arguing going on, but very little possession-crazed casting of stones. In the meantime, for the lesser fry, there is always the law, and the letter “P.”


About the Author

Thomas L. Jeffers is the editor of The Norman Podhoretz Reader, to be published by the Free Press this month.

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