W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Mark Twain’

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

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<!–[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.

Recalling Mark Twain and the ‘calamity of calamities’

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Reviews, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on December 21, 2010 at 10:18 am

The first volume of Autobiography of Mark Twain–published 100 years after his death–has been a best-seller for the University of California Press, the publisher that brought out my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

The Twain volume has received largely favorable reviews, although the New York Times did say, in a critique the other day by the insufferable Garrison Keillor, that “there’s precious little frankness and freedom here and plenty of proof that Mark Twain, in the hands of academics, can be just as tedious as anybody else when he is under the burden of his own reputation.”

A more generous review, posted online yesterday by the North County Times in California, caught my eye–mostly for its reference to Twain (Samuel Clemens) and yellow journalism. The review quoted this passage from Twain’s autobiography:

“I was converted to a no-party independence by the wisdom of a rabid Republican. This was a man who was afterward a United States Senator, and upon whose character rests no blemish that I know of, except that he was the father of the William R. Hearst of to-day, and therefore grandfather of Yellow Journalism–that calamity of calamities.”

The reference was to George Hearst, an adventurer-miner who struck it rich in the silver fields of the 19th century American West. After securing his fortune, George Hearst became a U.S. senator from California, serving from 1886-1891.

Twain’s reference to “a rabid Republican” is puzzling, though, because George Hearst was a committed Democrat, as was his son, William Randolph Hearst.

More interesting was Twain’s characterization of yellow journalism as “that calamity of calamities.”

It’s an amusing line, but it ignores the generosity young Hearst extended to Twain in 1897, when the writer was down on his luck in London.

Hearst by then was running the provocative and activist-oriented New York Journal — the newspaper that helped give rise in 1897 to the sneer, “yellow journalism.”

The Journal preferred the term “journalism of action” and asserted that a newspaper had an obligation to inject itself routinely and conspicuously into civic life, to address the ills that government wouldn’t or couldn’t.

As I wrote in my 2006 year-study, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Hearst arranged for Twain, then 51, to report for the Journal on Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in June 1897.

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

In Twain, though, Hearst must have been disappointed.

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 at or near its height. But Twain found the celebration overwhelming—’a spectacle for the kodak [camera], not the pen,’” as he wrote in a dispatch published June 23, 1897.

Twain’s dispatch to the Journal included this odd 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.”

Twain’s association with the Journal in 1897 did give rise to one of his most memorable lines–and allowed the newspaper to puncture rumors about the writer’s health.

In early June 1897, the New York Herald reported that Twain was “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.”

The Journal promptly exposed the Herald report as erroneous, and published Twain famous, if often-misquoted, denial:

“The report of my death was an exaggeration,” Twain said.

He lived until 1910.

WJC

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