May 31, 2015

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


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.”

 

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *


Related reading and viewing…


May 25, 2015

7 famous space-related quotes launched on the date May 25th…


By an odd coincidence, some famous space-related quotations from several different sources are linked to the date May 25th.

On May 25, 1977, Star Wars — a movie by the then little-known director George Lucas — was released in the United States.

Yeah, yeah…I know. It’s now technically referred to as Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.

But I saw it at my local movie theater when it first came out (several times) and I still think of it as the first Star Wars movie. I also still tend to think of it by its simple, original name.

As almost everyone on our planet knows, the opening crawl at the beginning starts with the famous words:

        “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...”

That same phrase was later used in the opening crawls in the five following movies in the Star Wars series.

Of course, Star Wars also coined the catchphrase “May the Force be with you” and various other quotes that are well known to science fiction fans.

Given the current fame of the words “May the Force be with you” it seems strange in retrospect that they are spoken only twice in the original film; first by the character General Dodonna (actor Alex McCrindle) and then, somewhat jokingly, by Han Solo (Harrison Ford).

Other popular quotes from that film include two lines by Obi-Wan Kenobi (actor Alec Guinness): “These are not the Droids you’re looking for” and “Use the Force, Luke!”

Another is the plea made by the holographic image of Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher): “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”

On May 25, 1979, exactly two years after Star Wars debuted nationwide, the movie
Alien was released in the U.S.

It was by directed by another director who was little-known at the time: Ridley Scott.

The tagline on the posters and ads for Alien launched another famous space quotation:

        “In space no one can hear you scream.”

Exactly 16 years before Star Wars debuted and 18 years before Alien hit American movie screens, President John F. Kennedy announced a vision for space travel that wasn’t science fiction.

On May 25, 1961, in a speech before a joint session of Congress, he famously announced:

I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

Kennedy didn’t live to see it, but America succeeded in achieving his goal in 1969, when NASA’s Apollo 11 astronauts landed on and returned from the moon.

The last of America’s six manned lunar landing missions was in 1972.

Ever since then, some of us have continued to hope that our government would pursue new manned trips to the moon.

It hasn’t. And, it won’t in the near future. President Barack Obama threw cold water on that hope in a speech on April 15, 2010.

Obama announced his support for “robotic exploration of the solar system” and kept open the option of future manned missions to Mars.

But he essentially told us to forget about new manned missions to the moon during his tenure in office.

“I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon,” said Obama. “But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before.”

Ironically, Obama gave this speech at the John F. Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Comments? Questions? Corrections? Post them on the Famous Quotations Facebook page.

Related reading and viewing…

May 15, 2015

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.” (A little knowledge, too, but that’s a misquote.)


Most people have heard the old line of poetry: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

It became a proverbial saying that has been — and is still is — used and repurposed in many ways.

The common variation is “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” However, that’s an misquote of the original line written by British poet Alexander Pope in his work An Essay on Criticism.

This famous “essay” is actually a book-length poem.

Pope first published it anonymously exactly three hundred years ago today on May 15, 1711.

It’s composed in iambic pentameter. That’s the poetic style with words that have an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, thus sounding like “da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM”.

There are two other famous lines in Pope’s An Essay on Criticism almost everyone knows, even they’ve never read the poem.

One is the “To err is human, to forgive divine.” The other is “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

If you have read Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, you know it’s not an easy task.

It’s composed in a flowery, antique style and full of obscure references that make it hard for modern readers to grasp.

For example, here’s a longer passage that includes the famed “little learning” quote:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take nor see the lengths behind
But more advanced behold with strange surprise,
New distant scenes of endless science rise!”

This type of poesy is a bit reminiscent of Shakespeare. And, Shakespeare wrote some of his famous sonnets and verses of his plays in iambic pentameter.

But, personally, I find Shakespeare’s work much more enjoyable to read or hear than Pope’s and generally easier to comprehend.

With apologies to my high school and college English teachers, Pope’s poem An Essay on Criticism sounds to me like:

“Blah-BLAH, blah-BLAH...A little learning is a dangerous thing...blah-BLAH, blah-BLAH...To err is human...blah-BLAH, blah-BLAH...fools rush in...blah-BLAH, blah-BLAH.”

Of course, I only absorbed a little learning back in those days. (Hey, it was the Sixties.)

I encourage you to read the entire poem for yourself and draw your own conclusions about its Pierian spring of poetic wisdom.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *    

Comments? Corrections? Post them on the Famous Quotations Facebook page.

Related reading…

Copyrights, Disclaimers & Privacy Policy


Copyright © Subtropic Productions LLC

All original text written for the This Day in Quotes quotations blog is copyrighted by the Subtropic Productions LLC and may not be used without permission, except for short "fair use" excerpts or quotes which, if used, must be attributed to ThisDayinQuotes.com and, if online, must include a link to http://www.ThisDayinQuotes.com/.

To the best of our knowledge, the non-original content posted here is used in a way that is allowed under the fair use doctrine. If you own the copyright to something posted here and believe we may have violated fair use standards, please let us know.

Subtropic Productions LLC and ThisDayinQuotes.com is committed to protecting your privacy. For more details, read this blog's full Privacy Policy.