Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, was a formidable presence in American letters for most of his adult life. He was known for his stiletto-sharp wit, his tectonic temper, and his incapacity to suffer fools. It would take, in other words, a complete buffoon to heckle Mark Twain.
That would be the Cincinnati Enquirer.
In 1870, the Enquirer or, rather, an anonymous columnist writing for the Cincinnati Enquirer, called Mark Twain a liar and, son, them’s fightin’ words.
It all began when the English Saturday Review got hold of a copy of Twain’s humorous travelogue, “Innocents Abroad” and published a review on October 8, 1870. The critic, although apparently open to the idea that Twain is pulling his leg, ultimately reviews the book as if it was written in dead earnest. For example:
In presence of the ancients he generally indulges in facetiousness of a rather low order. He goes, for example, to some amphitheatre and tries to realize the scene which it once presented. His most vivid picture is that of a Roman youth, who took ‘some other fellow’s young lady’ to a gladiatorial show and amused her and himself during the acts by ‘approaching the cage and stirring up the martyrs with his whalebone cane.’ But, to say the truth, Mr. Twain here verges upon buffoonery.
Twain did not subscribe to the London magazine, but a squib about this review, published in the Boston Daily Advertiser [October 22, 1870], including the line:
We can imagine the delight of the humorist in reading this tribute to his power, and indeed it is so amusing in itself that he can hardly do better than reproduce the article in full in his next monthly Memoranda.
“Memoranda” was the name of a column Twain contributed to The Galaxy, a Boston literary magazine edited by Twain himself. Based only on the brief article in the Boston Advertiser, Twain did exactly that. However, instead of reprinting the original Saturday Review article, Twain recreated it out of whole cloth, imagining a review that took “Innocents Abroad” even more seriously than the British reviewer. Here is Twain himself, imitating an English critic, in the December 1870 issue of The Galaxy:
To say that the Innocents Abroad is a curious book, would be to use the faintest language—would be to speak of the Matterhorn as a neat elevation or of Niagara as being ‘nice’ or ‘pretty.’ ‘Curious’ is too tame a word wherewith to describe the imposing insanity of this work.
The fake English critic (i.e. Twain) tilted at all of Twain’s comic windmills, with almost audible tut-tuts popping from his prose:
In Florence, he was so annoyed by beggars that he pretends to have seized and eaten one in a frantic spirit of revenge. There is, of course, no truth in this. He gives at full length a theatrical programme seventeen or eighteen hundred years old, which he professes to have found in the ruins of the Coliseum, among the dirt and mould and rubbish. It is a sufficient comment upon this statement to remark that even a cast-iron programme would not have lasted so long under such circumstances.
In the very next issue of The Galaxy, Twain confessed in full, admitting that he, himself, had written the alleged review:
I stand guilty of the authorship of the article, but I did not mean any harm. I saw by an item in the Boston Advertiser that a solemn, serious critique on the English edition of my book had appeared in the London Saturday Review, and the idea of such a literary breakfast by a stolid, ponderous British ogre of the quill was too much for a naturally weak virtue, and I went home and burlesqued it—revelled in it, I may say. I never saw a copy of the real Saturday Review criticism until after my burlesque was written and mailed to the printer.
Here is where the Cincinnati Enquirer enters the picture. On Saturday, December 17, 1870, an anonymous columnist in the Enquirer accused Mark Twain of lying about his parody review:
Mark Twain at last sees that the Saturday Review’s criticism of his Innocents Abroad was not serious, and he is intensely mortified at the thought of having been so badly sold. He takes the only course left him, and in the last Galaxy claims that he wrote the criticism himself, and published it in The Galaxy to sell the public. This is ingenious, but unfortunately it is not true. If any of our readers will take the trouble to call at this office we will show them the original article in the Saturday Review of October 8th, which, on comparison, will be found to be identical with the one published in The Galaxy. The best thing for Mark to do will be to admit that he was sold, and say no more about it.
Anyone familiar with Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, will understand that the man was constitutionally incapable of saying no more about it. Twain fired back:
If any man doubts my word now, I will kill him. No, I will not kill him; I will win his money. I will bet him twenty to one, and let any New York publisher hold the stakes, that the statements I have above made as to the authorship of the article in question are entirely true.
If the Cincinnati Enquirer did not get the message, Twain itemized the magnitude of his wager and established the rules for claiming the winnings:
If the Enquirer people, through any agent, will produce at The Galaxy office a London Saturday Review of October 8th, containing an article which, on comparison, will be found to be identical with the one published in The Galaxy, I will pay to that agent five hundred dollars cash. Moreover, if at any specified time I fail to produce at the same place a copy of the London Saturday Review of October 8th, containing a lengthy criticism upon the Innocents Abroad, entirely different, in every paragraph and sentence, from the one I published in The Galaxy, I will pay to the Enquirer agent another five hundred dollars cash.
It was time to put up or shut up and the Enquirer wisely decided to shut up. Not a word about Mark Twain’s veracity ever appeared again on the pages of the Grey Lady of Vine Street.
Twain eventually published his version of the whole kerfuffle in an essay titled “An Entertaining Article.” Thanks to the Internet Archive, Google Books, the Library of Congress, and the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County you, yourself, can access all of the original source materials to decide for yourself. In the end, you may or may not agree with Twain’s conclusion:
“I think the Cincinnati Enquirer must be edited by children.”