QOTD (2013-04-15); or, Oxoniana

Arthur Sidgwick, writing in Corpus Christi College’s newsletter, the Pelican Record, vol. ii no. 4 (June 1894):


It has been mentioned above that a curious question has arisen about this famous tale; and as I have been unwillingly mixed up in it, I have been asked to put down a plain statement of the matter as far as it has gone.

It appears that in 1865 Mark Twain heard this story from a Californian gold-miner who had witnessed the incident in 1849. How the tale was given by Mark to a paper—how the paper perished immediately afterwards—how fatal the Frog was to all who undertook to tell of it—Mark Twain sorrowfully informs us in the North American Review for last April. The story finally was translated into French; and that the Revue de Deux Mondes (in which it appeared) still continues to drag on a precarious existence, can only be accounted for (says M.T.) by the badness of the translation.

Anyhow, the story was included in Mark Twain’s works about twenty-five years ago; and when I was collecting simple tales for Greek prose exercises in the year 1876, I borrowed this tale, aong others, for the purpose. A Greek version of the same was printed in the ‘Teacher’s Key’ to the work.

Last year, however, a certain Professor Van Dyke, of Princeton, told M.T. that his story was not new, but was related by a Greek writer at least two thousand years ago: that he, Van Dyke, had seen both the original and a translation thereof, and offered to send him either. M.T. preferred the translation, because ‘Greek makes him tired.’ Accordingly he received from the Professor—a copy of the exercise in my Greek Prose Composition!

Hereupon M.T. writes his article for the North American Review, musing sadly on the hollowness of all earthly things, and especially on the impossibility of getting hold of a story which has not been told before. He sorrowfully compares the stories point by point, and gloomily admits that they are the same.

The English newspapers—it is the slack season at the end of the Easter Vac. [yes, it is—ER.]—follow suit, and most of them accept M.T.’s view, commenting (in the tone of weary anthropologists) on the oldness of everything. But the Daily Chronicle, in an amusing leader, suggests that the professor has been playing it very low down on his friend; and indicates the true character of the Greek original.

At that point it became my duty to intervene. I wrote to the D.C., confirming their divination about the Greek original, confessing my gross plagiarism, and protesting against the high antiquity attributed to me. When one is getting on in years, one grows testy about the question of age, and objects to being thought older than one is, even if it be only a trifling difference of 1946 years.

The points still to be cleared up may be put briefly in the form of questions, as follows:—
(a) Is the Professor a real person, or did M.T. invent him?
(b) If he is real,
1. Did he take M.T. in?
2. Was he himself deluded?
3. Did he and M.T. make up the jest together?
If (b 1) or (b 2) is the truth, the next move is M.T.’s.

Update: A Facebook correspondent has pointed out that there is a certain consonance between this and a riveting academic detective story in this week’s TLS, to which I commend my readers’ attention.

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