W. Joseph Campbell

Noting the anniversary of Twain’s ‘report of my death’ comment

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Yellow Journalism on June 1, 2011 at 7:02 am

Tomorrow marks the 114th anniversary of Mark Twain‘s well-known, much-quoted, often-distorted observation: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

As is discussed in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism, Twain’s remark was prompted by an article published June 1, 1897, in the New York Herald.

Mark Twain, 1907

The Herald, which then was regarded as one of the top daily newspapers in America, reported Twain, then 61, to be “grievously ill and possibly dying. Worse still, we are told that his brilliant intellect is shattered and that he is sorely in need of money.”

Twain was in London then, preparing to cover Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee for William Randolph Hearst’s flamboyant New York Journal. That association allowed the Journal to puncture the Herald’s account as false.

In an article published June 2, 1897, beneath the headline, “Mark Twain Amused,” the Journal skewered the Herald’s story and offered Twain’s timeless denial: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Twain’s line is often quoted as “the news of my death has been greatly exaggerated” and, sometimes, the Journal is said to have been the source for the erroneous report rather than the agent of its swift debunking.

According to the Journal, Twain said the likely source of the Herald’s error was the serious illness of his cousin, J.R. Clemens, who had been in London a few weeks before.

Ever eager to indulge in self-promotion, Hearst’s Journal enthusiastically embraced its brief association with Twain. Even so, it couldn’t have been much pleased with what the humorist filed about Victoria’s Jubilee.

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, “Twain’s reporting about Victoria’s jubilee seemed half-hearted and hardly inspired. The spectacle was easily the most regal international story of 1897, and came at a time when the British empire was at or near its height. But Twain found the celebration overwhelming,” calling it “a spectacle for the kodak [camera], not the pen.”

Twain’s dispatch to the Journal also included this strange observation:

“I was not dreaming of so stunning a show. All the nations seemed to be filing by. They all seemed to be represented. It was a sort of allegorical suggestion of the Last Day, and some who live to see that day will probably recall this one if they are not too much disturbed in the mind at the time.”

Lining up Twain to cover the Jubilee was emblematic of Hearst’s inclination to spend lavishly to recruit big-name talent, if only for spot assignments.

Hearst was the leading practitioner of yellow journalism, or what he called the “journalism of action,” which embraced an activist vision for American newspapering.

His Journal argued that “a newspaper may fitly render any public service within its power. Acting on this principle, it has fed the hungry, brought criminals to justice and enforced by legal methods the responsibility of public officials.”

Not everyone was comfortable with or admired such an activist vision, especially as it came with such heavy and frequent doses of acute self-promotion.

Twain didn’t much like it, either. In his autobiography, he likened Hearstian yellow journalism to “that calamity of calamities.”

WJC

Related:

<!–[if !mso]> –> Twain’s reporting about Victoria’s jubilee seemed half-hearted and hardly inspired. The spectacle was easily the most regal international story of 1897, and came at a time when the British empire at or near its height. But Twain found the celebration overwhelming—“a spectacle for the kodak [camera], not the pen.”[i] His dispatch included this strange observation: “I was not dreaming of so stunning a show. All the nations seemed to be filing by. They all seemed to be represented. It was a sort of allegorical suggestion of the Last Day, and some who live to see that day will probably recall this one if they are not too much disturbed in mind at the time.”


[i]. Mark Twain, “The Great Jubilee As Described by the Journal’s Special Writers: Mark Twain’s Pen Picture of the Great Pageant in Honor of Victoria’s Sixtieth Anniversary,” New York Journal (23 June 1897): 1.

About these ads
  1. […] . . have been greatly exaggerated. Cancel […]

  2. […] Noting the anniversary of Twain’s ‘report of my death’ comment […]

  3. […] to get the news. He, much more so than Pulitzer, was inclined to tap prominent writers, such as Mark Twain, and pay them well to cover important events for his New York […]

  4. […] Mark Twain might have said, the reports of football’s impending demise have been greatly […]

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,794 other followers

%d bloggers like this: