Friday, November 4, 2016

My First Lie and How I Got Out of It

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1891–1910

Editorial cartoon by American illustrator Leon Barritt (1852–1938), published in Vim Magazine, June 1898, mocking the role of the Pulitzer and Hearst newspapers in drumming up public support to go to war with Spain. Newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst are each dressed as the Yellow Kid. Pulitzer’s caption mocks both his Hungarian accent and the location of his office in the dome (“tome”) at the top of the recently built New York World Building. (Wikimedia Commons)
At the end of the nineteenth century Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were engaged in a battle to attract readers to their respective newspaper empires. In 1893 Pulitzer purchased a four-color press with the idea that the Sunday New York World would include reproductions of famous paintings and architecture. But the results were unsatisfactory; the technology and expertise required for matching printed color to original art were still in the future. An editor then convinced Pulitzer to use the press for the comics supplement, including Richard Outcault’s popular “Hogan’s Alley.” One of Outcault’s minor characters was a street urchin and, when the paper began printing the comic strip in color in May 1895, an ambitious press operator who had been unhappy with the previous attempts at yellow used a solid wash of ink for the boy’s shirt. “The Yellow Kid” immediately became the strip’s most recognizable—and most popular—character.

In 1896 Hearst, who had purchased a color press for his own company, lured away Outcault, along with a good number of the World’s employees, to the New York Journal, in order to publish a competing full-color Sunday supplement, billed as “eight pages of iridescent polychromous effulgence that makes the rainbow look like a piece of lead pipe.” Although Hearst had won the cartoonist, Pulitzer still owned the copyright to “Hogan’s Alley”—and so both papers carried their own versions of the Yellow Kid. The two publications became known as the Yellow Kid papers, soon shortened to the “yellow papers.” And thus was born “yellow journalism”—the term coined by New York Press editor Erwin Wardman for the sensationalistic news and headlines featured in the World and the Journal.

The battle of the Sunday supplements continued through the remainder of the century, with the colors becoming more vibrant and the features and illustrations moving well beyond comic strips. Both papers commissioned poster-sized artwork and recruited celebrity authors—and this is where Mark Twain enters the picture. In 1899 the Sunday World began publishing “Life’s Great Problems—How to Solve Them: A Series of Special Articles by America’s Most Famous Funny Men,” and for a special Christmas supplement Pulitzer solicited a piece from the legendary author himself, then living with his family in England. The “problem” posed to Twain by the editors became the essay’s title, and “My First Lie and How I Got Out of It” was featured with a color illustration of the author on the cover (see image at right). The section also included three new Huckleberry Finn drawings by Edward W. Kemble, who had illustrated the original edition in 1884. There is a special irony here: when Huckleberry Finn initially appeared, an unsigned review in the same newspaper trashed the novel as “cheap and pernicious stuff” and “a piece of careless hackwork,” the story “of a wretchedly low, vulgar, sneaking and lying Southern country boy. . . . That such stuff should be considered humor is more than a pity.”

“My First Lie” became one of Twain’s better-known essays. When it was reprinted in the collection The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, a reviewer called it “an excellent example of the ridendo dicere verum [tell the truth while laughing] method.” The critic in the London Morning Post was even more effusive: “The whole question of the possible virtue of a lie, which has puzzled so many heads, and been so easily solved by so many to their own immediate comfort, is brightly considered in this lively little sketch, with just a glimpse of that low opinion of human nature which so often peeps out among the author’s jests.”

Notes: Twain makes passing reference to the Dreyfus case (page 440), which had dominated headlines for several years. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish staff officer assigned to the French ministry of war, was convicted in December 1894 of spying and sentenced to life in prison—a verdict widely supported by the anti-Semitic elements of society. Over the next five years, in a series of events too complicated to summarize here, evidence clearing Dreyfus came to light but was suppressed by the war ministry, a letter incriminating him was forged, and the forger later confessed—yet Dreyfus was convicted again at a second trial. He received a presidential pardon shortly before Twain wrote this essay. Twain also refers to Joseph Chamberlain, who had been accused in involvement in the unsuccessful attempt in 1895 to overthrow the Boer government in South Africa. The House of Commons cleared Chamberlain in 1897.

The quote by William Cullen Bryant on page 444 is from “The Battle-Field”; the Thomas Carlyle quote is from The French Revolution. “Lay of the Last Minstrel” (page 445) is a poem by Walter Scott (not Milton), and George Washington’s brother Edward is a figment of Twain’s imagination. The mention of Chicago is shorthand for the World's Columbian Exposition (or World’s Fair) of 1893.

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