June 02, 2018

Reports of Mark Twain’s quip about his death are greatly misquoted…

Mark Twain, the report of my death

In May 1897, the great American humorist, novelist and social critic Samuel Clemens — best known by his pen name, Mark Twain — was in London. It was one of the stops on a round-the-world speaking tour he’d embarked on in 1895.

He hoped to use the fees from speaking engagements to pay off the considerable debts he owed in the United States, due to a series of unsuccessful investments and publishing ventures.

While Twain was in London, someone started a rumor that he was gravely ill. It was followed by a rumor that he had died.


According to a widely-repeated legend , one major American newspaper actually printed his obituary and, when Twain was told about this by a reporter, he quipped:


      “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

 
Another common variation of the line uses the words “…have been greatly exaggerated.” 

Sometimes the quip is given as “Reports of my death are grossly exaggerated.”
 
In point of fact, all such commonly-heard versions using “greatly exaggerated” and “grossly exaggerated” are misquotes.


It is true that in late May of 1897 the English correspondent for the New York Journal, Frank Marshall White, contacted Twain in London to inquire about his health.


The editors of the newspaper had sent a cable White on May 28 , asking him to get Twain’s response to reports that he was on his deathbed in England.


White relayed this request to Twain. On May 31, 1897, Twain wrote down his response and sent it to White.

The next day, White wrote an article that quoted from Twain’s letter. On June 2, 1897, the article was published in the New York Journal . It said, in part:

     Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a Journal representative informed him today of the report in New York that he was dying in poverty in London…
     The great humorist, while not perhaps very robust, is in the best of health. He said:
     “I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness.
     The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

The origin of the more familiar misquote versions of Twain’s response seems to be the popular biography of Twain written by Albert Bigelow Paine .

Paine’s book was published in 1912, two years after Twain’s death. It includes what is apparently Paine’s own embellished variation of the story about Twain’s death quip.


In Chapter 197 of the biography , Paine said a young reporter had “ferreted out” Twain in London after being assigned to follow up on rumors that the famed humorist was “lying at the point of death.”


According to Paine, the newspaper had sent a cable to the reporter ordering him to send back a five hundred 500-word story if Twain was ill, or a thousand word story if Twain was dead.


Paine claimed that upon being shown the cable, Twain “smiled grimly” and told the young reporter:


      “You don’t need as much as that. Just say the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.”

 
Most scholarly books of quotations now use or include the quote recorded in the New York Journal article, taken from Twain’s letter to Frank Marshall White.


However, Paine’s “grossly exaggerated” version and “The report of my death has been greatly exaggerated,” which seems to be a colloquial variation of Paine’s line, are better known and commonly assumed to be actual quotes by Twain.


Of course, as Twain wrote in his book Following the Equator, published in November 1897:


       “It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive.”

 

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

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Mark Twain (author)

Rumors

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Why did Mark Twain say "The rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated?"

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5 Answers

Patti Charron

Patti Charron , MFA, writer/editor

Mark Twain was in London in 1897 as part of a speaking tour around the world. He had considerable debt in the US and hoped to earn enough money to pay it off.

While he was in London, a rumor started that he was seriously ill. This was followed by a rumor that he was dead.  The story goes that an American newspaper printed Twains obituary. Supposedly after that, when asked about all this by a reporter, Twain said:

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.

Another version of the quote is:

The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

The fact is this whole matter was greatly exaggerated. The truth is Frank Marshall White, an American journalist, contacted Twain by cable in London to ask about Twains health.

In point of fact, all such commonly-heard versions using “greatly exaggerated” and “grossly exaggerated” are misquotes.

It is true that in late May of 1897 the English correspondent for the New York Journal, Frank Marshall White, contacted Twain in London to inquire about his health, and then later, to ask for comment about reports that Twain was on his deathbed.

Twain responded:

I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. [A cousin] was ill in London two or three weeks ago, but is well now. The report of my illness great out of his illness,. The report of my death was an exaggeration.

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Mark Twain (author)

Rumors

Writers and Authors

Why did Mark Twain say "The rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated?"

Learn something new in just 5 minutes a day.
Get smarter with 5-minute lessons delivered to your inbox every morning. Get started for free!
Learn More at gohighbrow.com
5 Answers

Patti Charron

Patti Charron , MFA, writer/editor

Mark Twain was in London in 1897 as part of a speaking tour around the world. He had considerable debt in the US and hoped to earn enough money to pay it off.

While he was in London, a rumor started that he was seriously ill. This was followed by a rumor that he was dead.  The story goes that an American newspaper printed Twains obituary. Supposedly after that, when asked about all this by a reporter, Twain said:

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.

Another version of the quote is:

The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

The fact is this whole matter was greatly exaggerated. The truth is Frank Marshall White, an American journalist, contacted Twain by cable in London to ask about Twains health.

In point of fact, all such commonly-heard versions using “greatly exaggerated” and “grossly exaggerated” are misquotes.

It is true that in late May of 1897 the English correspondent for the New York Journal, Frank Marshall White, contacted Twain in London to inquire about his health, and then later, to ask for comment about reports that Twain was on his deathbed.

Twain responded:

I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. [A cousin] was ill in London two or three weeks ago, but is well now. The report of my illness great out of his illness,. The report of my death was an exaggeration.

Your feedback is private.
Is this answer still relevant and up to date?

sponsored by Forge of Empires

The must-play city building game of the year.
Develop and advance an empire through historical ages and into the future.
Learn More at forgeofempires.com
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To Misquote Mark Twain “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

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edinburgh
people
strategy

Murray Calder, Strategy Director
12 Oct 2017
5 Min read

It seems that every day we hear breathless chatter from people who really should know better that this or that, TV or Big Brands, are dying. They’re not. And neither am I.

November 30th 2015. St. Andrews Day. The 8th anniversary of my wife Emma and I getting together.
And the day I found out I had cancer. Specifically, Stage 4 Follicular Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. One of the roughly 1,900 people in the UK each year who are diagnosed with this form of cancer.
This was a rather unpleasant surprise.
It came at a time when I was under enormous pressure at work. I didn’t cope with it very well.
I broke down over Christmas Dinner with my family. Then I spent a most unpleasant train journey home from Kings Cross, after a particularly fraught client meeting, having panic attacks in the toilet.
So I was signed off with stress for a couple of months. Then, after several sessions with my excellent NHS psychologist, I came back to work.
Until the cancer progressed to the point where I couldn’t walk without severe pain from the swollen lymph nodes in my groin (every bit as unpleasant as it sounds).
In February this year I started a 6 month course of R-CVP Chemotherapy.
And it’s knocked the cancer right back. So I’m happy to say that I appear to be on the road to managing my disease in a way that will let me live a full life.
That’s not to say that I’m back to 100% Murray just yet. But, with the support of family, friends, colleagues, and my NHS cancer team (who I really can’t thank enough) I know I can cope.
I’m not entirely sure what I’ve learnt from this experience (you’re supposed to learn things from this sort of thing, right?) and everyone’s experience will be different but a few observations I’ve made on the journey that might help when you next find yourself in a fix:
• If I’ve learnt anything at all on this journey it’s that we are all, yes even you, on a spectrum of mental health and that it’s not weakness to ask for help. It’s perfectly normal to react to traumatic situations in your life with a flood of emotions, uncertainty and, yes, even mental health problems.  Give yourself permission to have those feelings and know that there is help there if only you ask for it. You don’t have struggle through it alone.
• You are more resilient than you can imagine but friends, family, colleagues, even strangers on the internet can all give you the support you will need to make it through to the other side.
• As well as leaning into your situation, if you’re able to, and taking action to deal with your problems so you can get on with the demands of continuing to live your life you must also lean back and take the time you need, to rest, recuperate, and reenergize yourself. Rushing into the heat of the action again does nobody any favours.
• Spending quality time with loved ones is an infinite well of support and encouragement but you also need some time to yourself to process and reflect upon what you’re experiencing. Just don’t overdo the reflection bit (maybe that’s just me – it’s what I do)

edinburgh
people
strategy

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