Monday, February 22, 2021

"Homecoming"

It was almost six years ago that I wrote a long piece on John D MacDonald’s 1958 novel Clemmie, a non-crime paperback original that was third in a series of books that explored middle-class standards and social mores “in the jungle of the suburban backyard.” Like its two predecessor novels -- Cancel All Our Vows and The Deceivers -- Clemmie’s plot revolves around marital infidelity, here a suburban husband alone at home for the summer who falls for a younger woman. It’s one of MacDonald’s better efforts.

The end of that posting was taken up with a lengthy discussion on a 1964 short story titled “Homecoming”. I learned about this story while studying the finding guide for the University of Florida’s John D MacDonald Collection -- it was listed thusly: 

Clemmie (Author's title: "Homecoming") - Knight Article (tear sheets, 5 pages). Vol 4 Issue 6

This was a complete mystery to me: I had never heard of any part of Clemmie being published in a magazine and there was no listing for “Homecoming” in Walter Shine’s Bibliography/Biography. I eventually obtained a copy of that issue of Knight -- a west coast men’s magazine -- and discovered that “Homecoming” was not credited to MacDonald but to one Richard Maxwell. But when I read the story it was clear to me that it definitely came from Clemmie, although altered throughout and, in places,  in a decidedly different writing style. Here’s an example I cited, first a paragraph from “Homecoming”:

He could hear grunts and thuds, and the rhythmic meaty splat of fists on flesh… A wide, heavy young man had wedged a taller man into the angle formed by the brick walls. The taller man’s arms flopped and dangled. His face was a bloody smear. The shorter man stood in close, his head lowered, his shoulders rolling in an almost sexual rhythm as he slammed sickening, murderous blows into the tall man’s middle.. Mike stepped in and put his arms through the man’s elbows, bringing his hands up and locking the fingers... The beaten man sagged into the corner.

Compare this to the original passage in Clemmie:

He could hear grunts and thuds and, in remorseless rhythm, the meaty splat of fists on flesh. He moved gingerly toward the sound... A short, wide man had wedged a taller man into the angle formed by a fence and the side of the bar. The taller man's arms flopped and dangled. His face was a darkened smear. The short man worked on him with the rhythmic tenacity of someone chopping wood... Craig locked his arms through the man's elbows... The beaten man, no longer supported by the tempo of the blows, had sagged into the corner.

This fight scene, where protagonist Craig Fitz first meets Clemmie in the novel, is followed by a scene that is a reworking of the county fair outing where another fight (of sorts) occurs. “Homecoming” then ends abruptly with the couple leaving for Mexico.

I didn’t know what to make of this. This was either JDM writing under a never-before-revealed pen name or it was an act of plagiarism by Maxwell, a writer who had a few other credits in men’s magazines of that era. The pen name possibility was not out of the question: this period of MacDonald’s career -- just as he was about to launch the Travis McGee series -- was a time of economic uncertainty for the author, described in his September 1964 essay for The Writer, “How to Live With a Hero”. Not only had the creation of a series hero been something he’d vowed never to do, the year before had seen him stooping to doing a novelization of a Judy Garland film, I Could Go On Singing. Perhaps rewriting a few scenes from an old novel under a pen name was needed to pay some bills.

But the style of “Homecoming” was all wrong: flat, clumsy in places, and completely unnecessary unless JDM was trying to disguise his source. But I had no way of knowing.

Recently, however, I’ve gained access to the Clemmie file from the JDM Collection and can now report that “Homecoming” is most definitely an act of plagiarism. Here’s the story:

“Homecoming” was published in the April 1964 issue of Knight, a periodical which began life in 1958 as Sir Knight. A glossy that featured nudity in much the same vein as most of its contemporaries, Sir Knight -- edited by Steve Madden and Richard L. Sargent for Sirkay Publishing -- also published fiction, but the authors’ names are unrecognizable and are probably pseudonyms.  Of the names in the premiere issue, only one of seven ever appeared in a different magazine, and that was Adam, another men’s magazine probably published by the same outfit. Sir Knight lasted until 1962 or 1963, when it became simply Knight, increased its shelf size (10 ½ x 13) and began purchasing work from some name writers, including Henry Slesar, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, William F. Nolan, Norman Spinrad, and even Tennessee Williams. But no-names still abounded, and Richard Maxwell had stories in many early issues of Knight.

On April 15, 1964 a JDM fan living in Macon, Georgia wrote the author a one page letter and included “Homecoming,” torn from the magazine. It read:

Dear Mr. MacDonald,

For some time I have been one of your most eager readers... I became "hooked" on your stories six years ago when I read Clemmie. Since then I have read more than thirty of your books and have regretted that I couldn't find more.

Because of this interest I suppose it was predictable that the enclosed story, "Homecoming", sounded so familiar when I read it. I decided that the similarities between this story and Clemmie were too obvious to be coincidence. There was the same fight scene broken up in the same way, the same girl dressed in the basque shirt..., the same love scene in her apartment, and the same fight at the carnival. Aside from the plot, the dialogue and descriptions were so similar that they were clearly recognizable.

It occurred to me that "Homecoming" might  be a story which you had written under a pen name. Now that I have compared the two in detail I don't think so. It seems to me that the portions of the story which were not related  to Clemmie were written in a distinctly different style.

I am sending you the clippings of this story because I know that you will be interested if you are not Richard Maxwell. If I'm wrong and the story is yours, please forgive my interference. In any event, I am extremely curious and would consider it a great favor if you would let me know.

The following week MacDonald received a second letter, this time from a fan in Van Nuys, California, alerting him to the same story. This reader had no doubt about the legality of “Homecoming”:

Last month I picked up a copy of Knight Magazine, a big magazine out here, and one of the stories is clearly pirated from your novel Clemmie. Hell, some of the scenes, especially the carnival scene are practically word for word. So, I figured you might want to see it. Maybe a thing like that wouldn't bother you, but, if it was me, I'd get so damned sore I'd want to sue everybody in sight. In any case, I tore out the sheets containing the story and am sending it along...

Before receiving the second letter MacDonald forwarded the first to his editor at Fawcett, Knox Burger, along with this cover letter:

Dear Knox,

I am enclosing a letter just received from a [reader] in Macon, Georgia, with which he forwarded to me tear sheets of a story called "Homecoming" by one Richard Maxwell published in the April 1964 issue of Knight.

It looks to me as if the gentleman is right. This does seem like a little more than the sincerest form of flattery.

However, to get an independent opinion, could you please have one of your folks make the comparison test.

How we proceed from there, if it is as flagrant as it seems to be, I would not know. The last time it happened it was with Manhunt, I believe, a rewrite of a story that was in Cosmopolitan, and a fellow named St. John or some such wrote us that he had been taken in by the plagiarist, and would buy no further from him, and regretted the incident.

If you agree, that would be ample in this case too.


He also responded to the letter writers, and both responses contain some interesting detail of that period in the author’s career. To the Macon fan he wrote:

No, that was not mine and I am very grateful to you for sending it along.

It certainly looks like a lot more than coincidence. To give the guy every benefit of the doubt, sometimes these things happen as a result of a photographic memory disguising itself as inspiration...

As long as you are an Eager Reader (God, how I cherish the clan!) I am taking advantage of you by inserting herein an advertisement. On your local stands by now should be the first two novels of my Travis McGee series titled The Deep Blue Goodby and Nightmare in Pink. There are more to follow, and we have high pitiful hopes for the success of the series. If you happen to like them, take note that we need every tub-thumper we can get.

He included a different “advertisement” in his letter to the Van Nuys reader:

Last week somebody up in Georgia sent me that thing, and I sent it along to Knox Burger. I think it plagiarism. Here is perhaps a lousy rule of thumb for these things, but, if the guy could have maintained the "style" in the uncribbed portions, then it could have been a case of photographic memory at work, inadvertently lifting things that went along with his own persuasions. But it is so damned leaden in between the thieving I must assume he was aware of exactly how he was jazzing it up...

I am doing a long novel for Doubleday, and I am right in the middle of it, and it covers three highly improbable areas -- the automobile industry, the resort convention and the pro gold tour. I have a cast of thousands. I think they will have to put a detachable program in the front of the book. I hope DD will stick with my title, because it fits all three endeavors. The Blood Game. Thanks.

Knox Burger

The final letter in the file is one from Knox Burger to MacDonald’s agent Max Wilkinson. It is both amusing and revealing of just who Richard Maxwell may have been.

I enclose tearsheets from the April issue of Knight, together with a copy of Clemmie. Author Richard Maxwell has cribbed MacDonald's story from pages 48 to 80, and tailored his plot and some of his actual prose into a short story.

A tough letter to them asking payment in the amount they paid Maxwell would seem indicated; we have caused marks to be made showing actual correspondences between book and story. If you want, I'll stop in and see them or call them while I'm out there. They publish on Melrose Avenue, which has strip joints, awning wholesalers and high colonic irrigation parlors. It would be nice if you could find out who Maxwell is, and if it's his square monicker.

I have just talked to Scott Meredith, who knows this operation, and tells me that the whole masthead is largely a bunch of pseudonyms, and the actual editor is Richard L. Sargent, apparently a real name; Meredith also suspects that Maxwell may be a pseudonym for Sargent, which is sort of a cute situation, isn't it?

Maybe you ought to send a carbon of the letter to the business manager. The magazine apparently stemmed from a printing operation.

Unfortunately there are no follow-up letters in the file, so I don’t know how or even if Knight responded. It’s telling, however, that according to FictionMags, there were no further stories by Richard Maxwell after April 1964, either in Knight or in Adam, both of whom continued publishing well into the 1970’s. (Granted, FictionMags’ publication histories for both magazines are quite spotty). So perhaps getting caught led to retiring the name Richard Maxwell. I wonder how many of his earlier stories were cribbed from others, perhaps including more MacDonald.

The correspondence also brings to mind two other mysteries surrounding JDM. First, the plagiarized story or stories that appeared in Manhunt. Talk of this incident has been going around for years, and writer Ed Gorman often wondered just who it was that had been guilty. I’ve never been able to find out, but now knowing that it was a Cosmopolitan story that was stolen narrows it down somewhat. Still,  MacDonald wrote 17 stories for the magazine, so it’s going to take some work.

The other mystery revolves around The Blood Game, the “big” novel MacDonald spent years writing, from 1958 to 1972, only to have it remain unpublished. It’s not as if the author quit in the middle of it or was unable to come up with a version the publisher would accept. The JDM Collection’s finding guide reveals that the project went as far as having galleys produced, indicating that the publisher was ready to go ahead. But it never happened. Hopefully the answer is to be found in the Collection; I’ll need to do some more digging.

Letters quoted are courtesy of the John D. MacDonald Collection, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

1 comment:

  1. Remarkable story, sir. Great detective work, too. (Salvage hunting?)

    Thanks for digging in and reporting on this episode!

    ReplyDelete