W. Joseph Campbell

Twain’s famous 1897 quote: The back story

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths on June 1, 2010 at 5:26 am

Tomorrow is the anniversary of Mark Twain’s famous and often-distorted observation, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

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

Mark Twain, 1907

The Herald, which at the time was one of the best newspapers in America, reported Twain 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 then was in London, about to cover Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. That association allowed the Journal to promptly puncture the Herald‘s story.

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

Twain’s line is often and erroneously 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, not its swift and thorough debunking.

Twain told the Journal that the likely source of the Herald‘s mistake was the serious illness a few weeks before of a cousin, J.R. Clemens, who had been in London.

Ever eager to indulge in self-promotion, the Journal enthusiastically embraced its brief association with Twain. Still, it could not have been terribly pleased with what the humorist filed about the Diamond 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 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.”

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.

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