Deathless Words

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On June 2 Mark Twain, perhaps America’s most original writer ever, gave American journalism one of its sturdiest clichés. Twain and his wife were in London, where they had quietly taken up residence following the death of their daughter Susy the previous August. In a rented house in Tedworth Square, Twain lay low, grieving for Susy and writing what would become Following the Equator . When months passed with no word from him, rumors about his fate started crossing the Atlantic.

On May 8 the Associated Press reported: “The canard circulated in the United States, saying that Samuel L. Clemens, ‘Mark Twain,’ was dead, had not the slightest foundation. Mr. Clemens is in London and in better health and spirits than for a long time past.” But the rumors refused to go away. William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal , sent another reporter to see whether Twain was really “dying in poverty.”

According to the resulting article, published on June 2, Twain “was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed” at such gossip. He explained that a cousin of his, James Ross Clemens, had been gravely ill in London (though he had since recovered), and that “the report of my illness grew out of his illness.” Twain went on: “The report of my health was an exaggeration. The report of my poverty is harder to deal with.” He said he was besieged with lecture offers but had chosen instead to finish his book.

A few days later a rival New York newspaper, the Herald , sent its own reporter. This time Twain, no doubt weary of the attention, came up with a mildly wry rejoinder: “Of course, I am dying. But I do not know that I am doing it any faster than anybody else.” The Herald solicited donations to relieve his supposed poverty until Twain asked it to stop. At this point the flurry of rumors came to an end, and Twain—who was, in fact, having severe money problems—found other ways to pay off his debts.

In 1912 Albert Bigelow Paine published a biography of the recently deceased Twain, based on Twain’s oral reminiscences. By this point his straightforward factual remark to the Journal correspondent had taken on a sardonic tone. Paine wrote: “A reporter ferreted him out and appeared at Ted-worth Square with cabled instructions from his paper… . His orders read:

“‘If Mark Twain very ill, five hundred words. If dead, send one thousand.’

“Clemens smiled grimly as he handed back the cable.

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

And in that form, with minor differences in wording, the anecdote has been passed down ever since. In 1925 the Clemenses’ maid, Katy Leary, included it in her memoirs with greatly substituted for grossly . Virtually every subsequent biography, along with dozens of quotation anthologies, recounts the line using one or the other of these adverbs, or sometimes none at all, with other minor variations from book to book.

Yet all these repetitions are unnecessary, because a typical American already encounters the quip at least once a week. Every time a politician rebounds from an electoral defeat, every time an entertainer returns to the public eye after six months’ absence, every time a sports team wins a game after losing two, deadline-plagued writers nationwide reach for Twain’s allpurpose, ready-made lead (second in popularity only, perhaps, to Rodney Dangerfield’s lament about receiving insufficient respect). In an irony that Twain himself would have had a hard time inventing, the name of this most thoughtful of writers is constantly invoked by reporters too busy to come up with anything fresh—and all because of a marginally funny wisecrack that he probably never made.