January 15, 2013

I am not in the imitation business

Mark Twain was not too happy to be accused of writing "a feeble imitation" of Bret Harte's poem "The Heathen Chinee" (published as "Plain Language from Truthful James" the previous year). He addressed his accuser, Thomas Bailey Aldrich of the Every Saturday in Boston, with a letter dated January 15, 1871. The actual parody poem, "The Three Aces: Jim Todd's Episode in Social Euchre," was about "a euchre game that was turned into a poker & a victim betrayed into betting his all on three aces when there was a 'flush' out against him," according to Twain. The poem had recently been published in a Buffalo newspaper, immediately drawing attention in New York and beyond. To Aldrich, he admitted he would never have written the "echo" of Harte, as he was accused:

I have had several applications from responsible publishing houses to furnish a volume of poems after the style of 'Truthful James' rhymes. I burned the letters without answering them, for I am not in the imitation business.

In fact, said Twain, the actual poet was "Hy Slocum" or "Carl Byng," both pseudonyms of Frank M. Thorn, who had been contributing to the Buffalo Express. Twain had been a part owner of that newspaper since 1869. After calling him a "plagiarist," Twain also vowed to make sure neither Byng nor Slocum (nor Thorn) was ever published in the Buffalo Express again.

Twain had second thoughts about sending such a cranky letter to Aldrich and only a few days later wrote him again, begging him not to publish the letter. By the time that request reached Aldrich, it was too late. 42,000 copies of the next issue of Every Saturday were already printed — including Twain's letter under the headline "Twain says he didn't do it." More than that, other newspapers began reprinting the works of "Hy Slocum" and "Carl Byng" as other pen names of Mark Twain. He was not bothered by it, however, and he and Aldrich continued their correspondence and, eventually, became good friends.

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