Sunday, January 25, 2015

Confession – Slipping Off The Path To Immortality, Or Slouching Toward Dusty Anonymity

There is a quote that appears near the St. Clair Street entrance to the Indianapolis Central Library.  The other day I received a note from Charles Chigna a celebrated writer of children’s and young adult literature saying “great quote.” It was with trepidation that I accepted the compliment.  I’ve seen the quote before in various places credited to me. I was puzzled, but  I wasn’t concerned. I went on about my business,figuring it was a fluke on the Internet. It was no big deal until someone, a real person, complimented me. Suddenly I wondered if I were a scoundrel and plagiarist.  Or, did I write it?  That might seem strange to you. How could I not know if I wrote it.

Periodically, I Google myself. (And the truth is, it can be painful.)  I check to see if my novels still appear and what, if anything, is being said about the sixteen or so in print. This is how I first discovered the above quote was attributed to me and why, until now, I considered it no big deal. The reason was maybe, just maybe, I wrote it. I have periodically written the lyrics of a fictional song in order to avoid going through the bureaucratic rigamarole of getting permissions to use a real one.  I have also written poetry to put in a fictional character’s diary.  I’ve written fictional news stories to be read by fictional characters over a fictional breakfast — all to establish character or move the plot along. A quote with the above sentiment is consistent with stories of my aging private eye who regularly finds the things he loves disappearing from his life. But, did I write these quotable and surprisingly popular lines?

Not likely.

Indianapolis Central Library
Mr. Ghigna sent along a photo of that quote. It was carved in stone.  I asked him where the photo was taken.  He replied that it was the Indianapolis Central Library.  Made sense in a tangential way.  The library was a hangout of mine. I lived behind the library in the Ambassador apartments for a few years. The library was my second home. In fact, I used the grand old library as a setting for scenes in various books. But a quote of mine carved in stone? Again, not likely. First, even as a Hoosier writer, I don’t come close to having the literary stature. Second, that area of the library was constructed in 1917, the year of my father’s birth. That means I couldn’t have written it.  How did I end up with the credit? The truth had to be that the verse appeared in one of my novels.  Which one? Did I take it and not give credit? I don’t have all my early books in digital format. Searching therefore was a boring, manual task. I could narrow it to one of the Shanahan private eye novels because of the Indianapolis connection. So all I had to do was sort through 600,000 words.

I thought for sure it had to be in Nickel-plated Soul.  The book is about those things that slowly, sneakily disappear before we do. Homes, family, careers, friends, loves, optimism. Little things too.  A favorite restaurant, maybe. A movie theater. A magazine, a tree, even a candy bar, not to mention memory itself. And Nickel-Plated Soul is about a man’s heroic or foolish refusal to accept a loss.

I was right that it was in a Shanahan book.  Going through them one by one, I finally found the passage in Concrete Pillow.

“…. She had to see him, but she was frightened just the same.  This meeting would be anything but casual.  She looked back to the doors she had just gone through as if to make sure they hadn’t closed behind her.  Above the entrance was a poem chiseled into the base of a huge clock:


There was no credit line in the actual inscription. If there were I would have used it. In my novel, written 20 years ago, I merely described what was there, apparently.  And also, apparently, someone gave me the credit because I wrote the book in which the poem was printed. Repeated searches using the lines of the poem yielded nothing that would lead to the real author of it. Instead, my name kept popping up.

My guess is that those aggregating quotes for their web sites were content to copy from one another. Someone mistakenly credited the lines to me and the misappropriation was multiplied through the ubiquity of the Net. As Tolstoy said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”
All this is timely: The poem comes back to haunt me now when it has deeper relevance, when so much is slipping away and as I spend endless hours sorting through old letters, photographs and other papers.

Now for the obvious — perhaps the first call a good private eye would have made given this question would have been to the library. When that finally dawned on me, I contacted the friendly librarians in Indianapolis. They didn’t know. After some scurrying, huddling and laughter, they found it.  This quote, immortalized by chisel below a large clock at the beautiful and now exquisitely expanded downtown Indianapolis library, is from a 1779 hymn by John Newton, who also wrote “Amazing Grace.”  Incidentally, John Newton’s personal story is extraordinary and alone well worth the effort I took to solve the mystery.

 I’ll do my best to contact the various quote-oriented web sites to see if I can correct the self-perpetuating error. Meanwhile, any thought that in the reference books full of eloquent quotes the name Tierney will not appear between Thoreau and Tolstoy.  Drat!

1 comment:

Teri-on-the-sandbar said...

While that's a mighty profound quote, I'm not sure I'd get all excited about its origins. I mean really. It's kind of ho-hum poetry with questionable meter. If you're going to lay claim to a quote, make it a good one! For me, I've always liked "At 45, you can't just decide to start calling yourself 'Skippy'." And no, that's not my utterance. It's just!
Love you. Miss you!