EDITOR’S NOTE: The following reflections by Lawrence Howe feature analysis of Mark Twain’s “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It.” Following the post, you can find links to the story as it was original published, as well as a live reading of the story by Jocelyn Chadwick on the porch at Quarry Farm, from the 2019 Summer Teachers Institute hosted by CMTS. Enrollment for the 2020 STI is now open.
My wife, Judy, and I just spent a blissful week at Quarry Farm. Early June in New York’s Finger Lakes region is a beautiful time—wildflowers add splashes of color to the landscape, bird songs add a soundtrack, and soothing breezes waft up from the Chemung Valley. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the globe, the privilege of staying at Quarry Farm is especially welcome, and we didn’t take our social distancing there for granted. I imagined that our respite was something like how the characters in Bocaccio’s Decameron felt as they retreated from the plague in Florence to a hilltop villa in Fiesole in the middle of the 14th century.
As often happens when I sit on the porch—and I know I’m not the only one—I think about Mark Twain’s iconic tale, “A True Story,” which takes place on that very spot where Twain and his family enjoyed the peace and quiet during the twenty summers he spent at the home of his in-laws Susan and Theodore Crane.
The COVID-19 plague is, of course, not the only event unsettling the nation these days. The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has disrupted any pretense of peace and quiet, bringing millions into the streets of cities around the world, including Chicago where we live. Two nights earlier, when we approached Union Station to board a train east, Chicago was in lockdown, the streets deserted, and the drawbridges raised as if protecting the gates of a medieval city under siege. So I felt a little embarrassed to be so comfortably settled in Elmira at a moment when injustice has raised the conscience and the temperature of the nation.
On further thought, as strange as it might sound, “A True Story” has added meaning at this moment of social reckoning because it opens with Mark Twain’s ignorance of what the life of an African-American woman involved. Many white people, like myself, having watched the disturbing video of Floyd, handcuffed, prostrate on the pavement, with a knee to his neck until life ebbed away, are now struck with how little we’ve known about what it means to be black in America. The oppression of being repeatedly suspected of wrongdoing, of being subjected to violence, of being perceived as a problem, as W.E.B. DuBois noted in The Souls of Black Folks, are not part of my white middle-class experience.
On a summer evening in 1874, with the Quarry Farm household gathered on the porch, Twain did not perceive “Aunt Rachel” as a threat, but she was a “servant, and colored,” and therefore seated “respectfully below” him (202). Observing Aunt Rachel’s laughter when teased by the children, Twain asks her how she could have lived so long without ever having any “trouble?” to which she responds, “Misto C—–, is you in ‘arnest?” (202-03). This brief opening exchange is suggestive of our times: the racial cluelessness that Twain exhibits resonates with our contemporary awakening. He deserves credit for dramatizing this admission in a story that marks his debut in the Atlantic Monthly, an opportunity to gain prestige.
Although Twain’s humor was often fueled by self-deprecation, he takes a risk by displaying his humiliating ignorance. In daring to present himself in an unflattering light, he showed how insulated a white person—like many readers of the Atlantic, no doubt—can be from understanding the life circumstances of someone like Aunt Rachel. And in the name by which Aunt Rachel addresses him—Misto C——-, a respectful abbreviation of “Mr. Clemens,” we can detect a very unusual move on Twain’s part. As far as I can tell, and I’ve looked, there is no other piece published under his pseudonym in which he signaled his actual name. So it seems reasonable to infer that this slippage of the mask is a gesture of sincerity and authenticity. The allusion to his true identity in the story assures us that “A True Story” is what the title claims it to be, and recorded “word for word.”
The full impact of the story emanates from the personal narrative of Aunt Rachel. Born into slavery, she recalls her love for her husband and their seven children and underscores that their love for each other was comparable to the love that “Misto C—-” and his wife and children have for each other. This is an important point that we might easily overlook in our day. Slavery propaganda in the nineteenth century had persuaded white people that the otherness of black folk included their inability to develop bonds of affection. And that myth, which excused the disintegration of slave families, destroys Aunt Rachel’s family: she, her husband, and all seven children are sold off separately in the cruel economics of the peculiar institution. She recalls that just before her youngest son, Henry, is pulled from her arms, he whispers a promise to escape and to return to free her. The story’s emotional climax is the scene of that fulfilled promise. Henry had, indeed, escaped slavery and made his way to Elmira, a city that wore its abolitionist sentiments proudly. Joining a black regiment of the Union army, Henry was among the troops that liberated New Bern, North Carolina. There, he and his mother are tearfully reunited, and Henry brings her home to Elmira where she lives the remaining three decades of her life.
As others have noted, the vigor of Aunt Rachel’s narrative disrupts the literary form. Like other examples of Twain’s short fiction, “A True Story” is a frame tale, or at least it starts off as one. This colloquial form begins with the writer of the piece introducing an encounter with a storyteller who proceeds to occupy the majority of the narrative space. The frame narrator represents the social center through standard diction and usage, and the internal storyteller is usually a socially marginalized, vernacular speaker that challenges the social center. These conventions are present in “A True Story” as well. However, Twain breaks the form. As frame narrator, he does not re-enter the story at the end, and thus the frame is incomplete. His silence is the result of Aunt Rachel’s personal story; he can say nothing that would provide a container or a gloss for her emotionally riveting account of her “trouble” and “joy” (207). In fact, Twain’s last words come in the middle of the story, when Aunt Rachel is about to recount the selling of her family members on the auction block. At this moment, Twain describes how Aunt Rachel alters the social positions that he noted at the start of the story. Instead of remaining below him, she rises up from her seat and “warmed to her subject, and now . . . towered above us black against the stars” (204). Flipping the rungs of the social ladder, she also reorients the narrative authority—asserting hers and extinguishing his. Twain can do nothing but listen.
Aunt Rachel’s telling of that story is powerful. But I’ve come to think of it not as a story but as testimony, viewing it in the context that I gleaned from an unexpected source. During the week, Judy and I listened to historian Jill Lepore’s podcast The Last Archive, a new favorite of ours. The latest episode was about the history of black testimony. Lepore explained that in the antebellum period, a black person could not give legal testimony. An exception was made if a black witness was testifying against another black person alleged to have committed a crime. In these instances, witnesses faced extraordinary draconian threats to provide the proof sought in these hasty proceedings. The exclusion or discounting of black testimony persisted after the Civil War in various states, and especially in the Jim Crow South.
Lepore also points out that even many of the oral histories of former slaves collected during the Depression under the auspices of the Federal Writers Project were compromised by the unequal positions of white interviewers and black subjects. In one recorded oral history featured in the podcast, Harriet Smith, an 80-year-old African American woman who had been a slave until the age of thirteen, was interviewed by John Faulk, a young, white Southern man. As in “A True Story,” the forms of address signal the social disparity: Faulk calls her “Aunt Harriet,” while she refers to him as “Mr. Faulk.” Unlike “A True Story,” though, Faulk steers the interview, coaxing her into agreeing that “[t]he white folks did treat you good,” and “Some folks were awful good to their slaves, weren’t they?” So with the insights Lepore’s history on the status of black speech, and especially that speech framed by white interlocutors, I’ve begun to see “A True Story” in a slightly new light: I had long viewed this sentimental memoir about a black mother’s sorrows and joys as Twain’s enlightened act of granting agency to a black vernacular; now I see his act as resisting the official exclusion or conditioning of those voices.
But there is another aspect of the story that distinguishes Aunt Rachel’s testimony from the purely verbal kind that Lepore mentions. Her towering presence in the middle of the story is a prelude to her physical performance of the climax of the story. Describing the scene in the kitchen where she cooked for the Union officers, she recalls, “I was a-stoopin’ down by de stove, –jist so, same as if yo’ foot was de stove,–and I’d opened de stove do’ wid my right han’,–so, pushin’ it back, jist as I pushes yo’ foot” (207, emphasis added). Aunt Rachel is not simply telling the story, but acting it out with “Misto C—-” as a stand-in for the stove. Then, when she re-enacts the electric moment of her reunion with Henry, Aunt Rachel recasts Twain in a personal role. As she reached down to the oven, Aunt Rachel recalls,
“I see a black face come aroun’ under mine, and de eyes a-lookin up into mine, jist as I’s a-lookin’ up clost under yo’face now; . . . an’ all of a sudden I knowed! . . . . an’ I grab his lef’ han’ and shove back his sleeve, – jist so, as I’s doin’ to you, – an’ den I goes for his forehead an’ push de hair back, so, an’ “Boy!” I says, “if you ain’t my Henry, what is you doin’ wid dis welt on yo’ wris’ and dat sk-yar on you’ forehead? De Lord God ob heaven be praise’, I got my own ag’in!”(207, emphasis added)
Aunt Rachel’s words tell the story, but her gestures elevate the story from a narration to a dramatization of this life-altering episode—her eyes become Henry’s looking up into Twain’s, encouraging him to imagine her emotions at the time. Then Aunt Rachel has them switch roles, casting Twain as Henry whose scars she detects by pushing back Twain’s sleeve and lifting his hair off his forehead. Her personal proximity to him and her unsolicited touch transgress the boundaries that he noted her initial place on the porch “below” him. The contact of her black hand with his white arm and forehead is a bold familiarity that ignores their racially defined positions in order to physically convey the story’s emotional experience in a manner that her words alone cannot. Rather than simply listening passively to her story, Twain unexpectedly shares in her memory; for a moment, Aunt Rachel has pulled back the veil on the facts of black family life.
Numerous commentators, black and white, have reminded us that whites in America cannot fully understand what African Americans face in their daily lives. That was as true for Mark Twain as it is for any white person living today. Sam Clemens was the son of a slaveholder who admitted that slavery was simply the world he knew without questioning it. Then his head was turned not simply by falling in love with Olivia Langdon but also by becoming a member of a family that had worked actively for abolition. As Mark Twain, his encounter with Mary Ann Cord—the real-life Aunt Rachel—took him a step farther. Although he doesn’t say it in the story, his silence suggests that Aunt Rachel’s performance of her true story and her casting him within it have given him a glimpse of how black lives matter.
Larry Howe is an Emeritus Professor of English at Roosevelt University, as well as current President of the Mark Twain Circle of America and current Editor of Studies in American Humor. His most recent book, co-edited with Henry Wonham, is Mark Twain & Money (2017). He is also author of Mark Twain & The Novel (1998).
The page citations in the above text are to the Oxford Mark Twain edition of Sketches New & Old, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin.