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.

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Stephen King

With a penchant for horror, it’s not surprising that The Shining author Stephen King has been the subject of numerous weird rumors. The author responds to a few of these on his website:

Is it true that you’re going blind?

No, I’m not. I have a predisposition–and it’s a genetic thing–to macular degeneration and that’s a disease you can read about on the internet. It eventually results in blind spots and a loss of vision but I don’t have any of the symptoms yet-just that predisposition and I think it’s something that I may have to face in the future, but, no, I’m not going blind.

Do you really have a haunted house at your home on Halloween?

Absolutely not — don’t come to my house on Halloween. We’ve done trick-or-treat a few times and we had 600 or 800 – one time we had 1,400 people show up for candy and treats and it’s fun, it’s great to see everyone, but it wears everybody out and it plays hell with the law so we’re not doing that anymore.

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Edgar Allan Poe

The most popular Poe rumor is that the godfather of gothic fiction was a hopeless drug addict. But as Huffington Post’s Matthew Pearl points out, the only evidence of drug use involved a suicide attempt and some laudanum. Poe did enjoy his booze, although that seems to be up for debate in some circles. Still, Poe’s reputation as an opiate-obsessed madman comes from decades of rumors and a damning article by author Rufus Griswold (a rival of Poe’s).

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Oscar Wilde

In The Modern Art of Influence and the Spectacle of Oscar Wilde, author S. I. Salamensky discusses the widespread rumors surrounding the Irish author’s sexuality — and therefore otherness. The press described him in various grotesque ways, writing bout his “feminine” features. Salamensky even states that one source described him as being “half of man and half of woman.” Another newspaper depicted Wilde as a Chinese man, while others believed he was “erotically linked to a Sioux chief.”

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Sylvia Plath

In 1963, Sylvia Plath’s obituary in the Townsman stated that the Bell Jar author died of “virus pneumonia.” This was not an error, but a decision by the family to save the Plath’s children from learning the truth about her death — which occurred after Plath placed her head in an oven, with the gas turned on. But the rumors about the end of her life spread as various papers printed different stories — even though one newspaper published the coroner’s findings that her death was a suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.

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J.D. Salinger

The famously reclusive author is a familiar topic of conversation in the literary rumor mill, especially now while we wait for the release of several unpublished books. But it was Salinger’s heritage (pertaining to his mother who was not Jewish, but considered herself so) that was often the subject of rumors:

It was rumored that J.D. Salinger’s mother Miriam was born in County Cork, Ireland, likely fueled by an erroneous assertion in a 1963 “Life Magazine” article that she was Scotch-Irish. This led to a further rumor that Miriam’s Irish Catholic parents shunned her and refused to speak to her after marrying the Jew Solomon Salinger. Salinger’s sister Doris actually believed that their mother had been born in Ireland. In actuality, Miriam’s parents were dead by the time she married. She was born Marie Jillich (she took the name Miriam when she converted to Judaism upon her marriage) in Atlantic, Iowa on May 11, 1891. Miriam’s paternal grandfather George Lester Jillich, Sr. was the son of German immigrants, and her paternal grandmother Mary Jane Bennett was Anglo-Saxon. George, Sr. was a successful grain merchant whose son George, Jr. (Miriam’s father) worked in the family business. Miriam’s mother, Nellie McMahon, a Kansas City native, was the daughter of immigrants from Ireland. Miriam’s father died in 1909, the year before she met Solomon Salinger (a Chicago movie theater manager). Miriam’s mother Nellie died before J.D. Salinger was born in 1919. Solomon Salinger’s parents thought that the fair-skinned, red-haired Marie (as she was then known before her conversion) resembled a “little Irisher”.

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Lewis Carroll

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll continues to be the subject of gossip (namely surrounding potentially inappropriate feelings for young children) 117 years after his death. One big rumor often bandied about is that Carroll’s trippy book was the result of heavy drug use. “The notion that the surreal aspects of the text are the consequence of drug-fuelled dreams resonates with a culture, particularly perhaps in the 60s, 70s and 80s when LSD was widely-circulated and even now where recreational drugs are commonplace,” Dr. Heather Worthington, children’s literature lecturer at Cardiff University, told the BBC. The Lewis Carroll Society of North America also weighed in on the matter:

Based on all evidence unearthed to date, unless you count the occasional use of an over-the counter homeopathic remedy, Lewis Carroll was not a drug user. This may disappoint lazy media hounds and Miley Cyrus, but that’s the truth as we currently know it, and given Carroll’s abstemious personality and conduct, that particular finding is unlikely to change. Similarly, while he had a couple of seizures of one kind or another in later years, and wondered if one of them might be “epileptiform” in his diary, he also recorded afterward that his own doctor told him that it was not, and there was no history of it in his immediate family line. And while he records that he occasionally had a very bad headache, including some descriptions that sound like migraine symptoms, we have no hard facts that could lead one to say uncontestably that he suffered from migraines. Seizures and severe headaches can be caused by any number of things, and providing a medical diagnosis more than 100 years after the fact is not advisable. It’s fascinating what people since Carroll’s time have tried to read into his life after reading his remarkably inventive works. Our explanation for how the Alice books, the Snark, and all Carroll’s other writings came to be is simple: the man was extremely talented.

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JT LeRoy

Read New York Magazine’s fascinating history of author JT LeRoy, a persona invented by writer Laura Albert, whose identity and disturbing back story was the subject of numerous rumors (most of them spread by the author).