I ushered at church a few weeks ago. I wear a suit and tie for that. A friend came in and noted that I had my Mark Twain tie on. He said Twain was noted for his funny quotes and stories. Could I think of any?
To that question, my mind turned blank. It was as blank as the driven snow was pure. I had nothing. One word came to me – death. But whose death? Mark Twain’s? Tom Sawyer’s, Huckleberry Finn’s?
All through the sermon I thought about his death quote, unable to grasp the smallest straw of memory. So, this is what an old fart’s memory is like I thought dismally. First, the mind goes, then the body follows. It’s not pretty.
As the final hymn began, my brain conjured up, “The rumor of his death was greatly exaggerated”. With that in my ancient brain, I rushed home and did what any good reference librarian would do.
I booted up Wikipedia. Sure enough, that was a Twain quote, sort of. During a later period in his life, he toured Europe and gave presentations. He quoted from his books and offered up Twaine-sian humor. While on this tour, a cousin of Twain’s became ill. Of course, that news crossed the Atlantic and was translated, “Mark Twain was dead”.
The news re-crossed the Atlantic to Twain’s ear. Well, of course he wasn’t dead. He was alive and well, that’s how he heard the news of his death.
An American journalist inquired of Twain’s health and Twain said, “The report of my death was an exaggeration”. So, I had my quote and I was quite satisfied. I still had a modicum of reference librarian skills.
That brings up another Mark Twain story that most librarians worth their bookmarks know. Mark Twain wrote an autobiography, but he required that it not be published until 100 years after his death. He wanted to make sure that he and all the people affected in his book would be dead and thus not injured by what he said. Well, 2010 marked the 100th year and the University of California Press published it as a publication of the Mark Twain Project of the Bancroft Library. The plan is to publish the autobiography in three volumes. Volume one is 736 pages.
I have a copy of volume one. My wife picked it up at the Goodwill store for $3.99. Apparently, Mark Twain doesn’t have the popularity he once had. Or we’ve become a nation of illiterates. You decide.