Scholars clarify a quote attributed to Mark Twain

Web posted Wednesday, November 28, 2001

Courier-Post Staff Writer

Terrell Dempsey, a local attorney who has recently been recognized as a Mark Twain scholar due to his research for his upcoming book on slavery in the Hannibal area, has reported an error in the Frank Burns/Dayton Duncan "Mark Twain" documentary. It is scheduled to be broadcast in two-hour segments on PBS television in January. The dates are Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 14 and 15, 2002.

The quote, "I am not an American. I am the American," is on the cover of a CD: "The original soundtrack recording of Mark Twain."

Twain did write these words in a notebook but was not referring to himself, Dempsey said. He was instead quoting Frank Fuller about something he said in 1897.

Dempsey said he understands how the "Mark Twain" documentary authors made the mistake, because a Twain biographer had earlier made the error in believing Twain was talking about himself, and later Twain scholars believed this to be the truth.

Details about the error are found on Mark Twain Web sites, including This reports the man who actually said these lines was (former) Utah Gov. Frank Fuller, the subject of an article published Oct. 1, 1911, in the New York Times.

This article is posted on the twainquotes Web site, and it includes a photo of Fuller with the quote in the photo caption. The photo of Fuller is described: Once quoted by Twain, "I am not an American. I am the American."

The article contains numerous references to Twain, who was Fuller's friend of many years.

Dempsey said the notebook in which Twain quoted Fuller was Notebook 41, dated from January through June 1897, with "the relevant part while he was in Weggis, Switzerland."

This is the entire notebook entry, provided by Dempsey: "Fuller - "I'm not going to stay in this hotel. It is not safe. I saw suspicious men around; I think they are after my Waterbury."

"Are you an American?"

"No. I am not an American. I am the American."

Dempsey said there are several other entries in this notebook attributed to Fuller.

He added that the Duncan/Burns version of "Mark Twain" shows they are "scarcely to blame" because a 1990 John Lauber Twain biography states that Twain wrote this in his notebook, with no reference to Fuller saying it.

Also, Lou Budd's 1995 essay, "Mark Twain as an American Icon," states "he jotted (presumably thinking of himself): 'Are you an American? No, I am not an American. I am the American.' " In this he was quoting Lauber's book.

Shelley Fishkin also picked up Budd's reference and was quoting Budd, Dempsey said, illustrating how this error was continued.

"That's how we wind up with the now unstoppable 'fact' " that Mark Twain said it, Dempsey reported, although this quote is "something he simply did not believe about himself, let alone say about himself."

Dempsey appreciates the work of Barb Schmidt and Jim Zwick in clarifying the error.

He found out about this before Schmidt had posted it on her Web site, on

"I had been networking," Dempsey said, "running sources down on different books. I have obviously gotten involved in Clemens' life to a certain extent and have gotten involved with a network of people who do research on Sam Clemens' life."

He and Schmidt had communicated about the error before she posted it on her Web site, Dempsey said. "We felt it kinda mischaracterized Clemens' personality. He wasn't that crude."

Since this error has surfaced, he said, "Lou Budd has come forth and has admitted he made a mistake. That is a human thing to do, but it could have easily been avoided by looking at original documents. The way you do historical research is by going and looking at original source materials."

Dempsey's book on slavery in the Hannibal area is nearing completion. He has written 320 pages, with a goal of 400. "It is going very well," he said. "I think I may have the first draft done by the end of the year." He is under no deadline, but said "the important thing is to set yourself some deadlines."

No one is immune from making errors, he added. "I will make booboos, too. I am terribly human, but the important thing is to get them straightened out. We should all be striving for truth."

All contents © Copyright The Hannibal Courier-Post and GateHouse Media, Inc.
Contact us. | Privacy Policy.