History’s Wildest Literary Rumors

When French author Michel Houellebecq was promoting his 2010 novel The Map and the Territory, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, and failed to show for several appearances, the media flew into a frenzy. Some even speculated that he was kidnapped. This rumor inspired Guillaume Nicloux’s The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, starring the writer as a version of himself. The film’s official US trailer debuted this week, reminding us of the many literary rumors that have plagued some of literature’s finest. Here are just a few. Feel free to add to the list or muse about what these rumors mean about our culture, below.

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Mark Twain

In his 2006 book The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, author W. Joseph Campbell recounted the story behind the Mark Twain death rumor and the novelist’s famous quote: “The news of my death has been greatly exaggerated.” Campbell writes on his website Media Myth Alert:

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.