Members of the Elmira College Community Perform A Revised Version of “A True Story”

Editor’s Note: In September 2019 members of the Elmira College community organized and performed a revised reading of Mark Twain’s “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It (1874). The following are thoughts and reactions from faculty and students. CMTS has included the script of the stage reading, a slide show, and Karen Johnson’s rehearsal video in the “Resources for Teachers and Students” section of

The Script of the Staged Reading of “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It”

Slide Show Accompanying the Performance

Karen Johnson’s Rehearsal Video

Facsimile of “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It” from Mark Twain. Sketches, New and Old. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Hannah Hammond, EC Assistant Professor of Theater (left); Karen Johnson, EC Vice President for Institutional Research, Planning, and Assessment/Title IX Coordinator (middle);
and EC student Sadie Kennett ’21 (right)

Jan Kather, Professor of Media Studies: Although we found Mark Twain’s 1874 “word for word” account of former slave and Quarry Farm cook, Mary Ann Cord, problematic because of the repeated inclusion of the N-word, colleagues Hannah Hammond and Karen Johnson, student Sadie Kennett ’21 and I decided to revise the story so that we could (with good conscience) host a staged reading of “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It” for several classes at Elmira College. We were not surprised to find that the students were unaware that Twain had written this story of a slave being miraculously rescued by her son, a story first told to Twain on the porch at Quarry Farm.  Many expressed appreciation that he gave voice to the illiterate Mary Ann Cord, who could not have written her story herself  (although we do know her descendants have their own, slightly different oral histories of this same incident).

The story of “Aunt Rachel,” as Twain renamed the character, was his first article published in the prestigious The Atlantic Monthly in 1874. Mark Twain scholar Shelly Fisher Fishkin notes that America would never be the same, nor would Twain, who later used this new and compelling emotional awareness of the brutality of slavery later (c. 1883) in the character of Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Aside from substituting the word “negro” for the N-word, we decided to make the reading an all woman production. Elmira College’s new Assistant Professor of Theatre Hannah Hammond suggested changing Mark Twain’s recollection to that of his daughter Susy as fondly remembering her father talk about the scene. Hannah explains this revision before the reading, a revision that allowed for theatre major Sadie Kennett ’21 to be part of the production. Luckily Elmira College’s VP for Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment/Title IX Coordinator, Karen Johnson was enthusiastic about reading Aunt Rachel’s story. It was important to us that this story be read by an African American woman, as well as having an African American be part of our guided question and answer discussion where we addressed the substitution of the N-word and the re-imagined all-female cast.

The production was well received, as evident in the following quotes from students who had learned that most often, white men read this story in the voice of Mark Twain:

Ryan Reid ’23A live performance of a work lets you visualize it so much better. You can put faces to characters and the performance tends to stick with you longer when you have that experience. Personally I enjoyed the performance over the Q/A. I feel like the performance of it just dove into the story so much better. You feel apart of it, like you were a character in the story. I honestly don’t have any quarrels against women acting in men’s roles or vice versa, as I think the women did a great job. Would it be a more true representation if Twain was a man? yes, but doing it this way has a nice creative twist to it. To me, the portrayal of Aunt Rachel by a woman of color keeps the story true like I’ve stated before. Personally it gives me a feeling that the actors are truly the characters they portray. Growing up all you know about Twain is that he was a brilliant writer and really not much else. You may have read a few stories of his as a child but this story from Twain really presents something not often seen by readers.

Elmira College students watch the performance of “A True Story”

Kharisma Blake ’23: If “A True Story” were read by a man, it would be read the way it was written and have the original meaning. The change to being read by Twain’s daughter gives the reading more of a window to show women and their voice and place in history that isn’t often shown. With that being said, it was very important that the character of Aunt Rachel was read by an African American woman. It gives authenticity to the character and makes you feel like you are Mark Twain sitting on the porch listening to her story.

Alexander Taylor ’23: My reaction to the live performance was being able to imagine listening to Aunt Rachel say these words directly to Mark Twain. There was a certain tone and vibe in her voice, and as she read it there was a sense of realism, almost as if it was truly Aunt Rachel sitting in that chair. The questions and answers were very informative because after hearing the reading, the information gave more life and meaning to what we just heard. If the reading was by a man, the realistic feeling might be gone, and hearing it through the voice of the women made it sound like it was really Aunt Rachel talking.

Gabby Smith ’23: This presentation was a retelling of Mark Twain’s “A True Story” based on the life of his cook, Mary Ann, who was a slave before being freed because of the Civil War. My reaction to the live performance was that I was able to visualize the story more when I was able to see it being acted out in front of me, compared to reading text. I think that the most informative part of the presentation was the reading itself because students were able to see the retelling of the story. I do not think that this presentation would have been effective if it was read by a man in the role of Twain as the storyteller. It was better with women performing all the roles. It was important to me that “Aunt Rachel” was performed by an African American because it led to more authenticity to the story rather than having a white woman (or man) reading the part.

Samantha Proseus ’23:  Personally, I really enjoyed the reading, and the live performance because it was more interesting and easier to understand what was going on. Also, I could see and feel the emotions of characters a lot more. In my opinion, if the presentation was read by a man in the role of Twain as a story teller, it would most likely not be as effective because hearing the story through an African American woman brought it to life, and seemed more authentic. Aside from the overall reading, I feel that the question and answer period was extra beneficial because I always get more out of discussion.  I enjoyed the way it was performed with the women, but I’m not exactly sure what it would be like if men were to perform it.  I feel like the performance came to life because “Aunt Rachel” was performed by an African American, and I feel like it definitely made the performance come to life. It also was really nice to see how passionate the lady who read it was, and how much it meant to her. I am extremely grateful to have been able to experience the reading and it meant a lot that the lady took time out of her day to learn how to speak as “Aunt Rachel” did in the past because I know how difficult it must’ve been. 

Elijah Jordan ’23:  The story told during our seminar is very comparable to our reading of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in one major way. In both stories the trepidation of slave mothers trying to reconnect with their children is shown. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass recounts that his mother would work a full day in the field, then proceed to walk an exhausting distance to see him for a few moments before heading back to the fields before sunrise. Mary Ann Cord was separated from all of her children as well as her husband, but through both her and her son’s initiative, they were able to come together after thirteen years.  

To me the most informative part of the reenactment was the story being told. Hearing it in such an authentic fashion really made the story resonate with me, and it gave me a whole new respect for Karen. I don’t believe that it would’ve been as effective if it were a man (who presumably is white as well) who read the story of an African American woman who survived slavery. There would be a major disconnect. To me it was extremely important that Aunt Rachel was played by an African American woman. Manybstories of minorities are being told/taught by cis, white men so there’s no real authenticity.  

Jordan Holt ’23: Both the presentation of the reading and the question and answer period were informative, however, I believe that the actual presentation presented more ideas for consideration. This is due to the fact that is presented an accurate depiction of the challenging and heartbreaking life of a slave woman. In addition, it was more informative because it could be related to other notions and topics discussed in class. As a result, people in the audience begin to think about other aspects of slave life. After listening to this presentation, individuals may be able to obtain a better understanding of what it was like to be a slave and the terrible things in which these people had to endure. 

The presentation would have been less effective if it was read by a man in the role of Twain as a storyteller. This is due to the fact that it is better with women performing all of the roles. This is because it allowed the presentation to have a deeper and more effective portrayal. Furthermore, it allowed the audience to connect with the slave woman and understand her story in a more effective manner. 

It is immensely important that Aunt Rachel was performed by an African American woman. This story is one that many people should hear, as it is both informative and necessary to convey this story and this part of history to people. 

Brianna Costley ’23When watching the performance of Mark Twain’s “A True Story” you can compare it to the “Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass” in many ways. Both of the stories show just how cruel slavery was and depict how children were forcibly taken from their mothers at an early age. When reading and watching the two you get similar feelings. Both make you see just how wrong it was but also when listening to a woman of color read it, it seems all the more personal. The question and answer part of the presentation was very informative because it helped bring some things up from the presentation that we might not have noticed or thought about. An example is the impact of the presentation being read by all women instead of a man. The reading would not have been as effective if it was read by a man because it is regarding slave children being taken away from their mother; a white man has no idea what this might have been like. Having women readers makes the presentation more genuine. I think it was important that the role of Aunt Rachel was played by an African American woman because there is more power behind an African American woman reading the story than a white reader who has never been oppressed. I think this performance will affect the way I see things like the Mark Twain Study because, before I might have thought of some of his other more famous pieces, but now I might think of this one first because of its powerful message.

Twain for Teachers: 88 Days In The Mother Lode Documentary

It is safe to say that most secondary school students know Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn from their novels. But they do know less of the enormous variety in Mark Twain’s literary output and the extraordinary triumphs and tragedies of his life. If using class time to show a film, teachers must have precise learning objectives, making certain to engage students’ attention and prompt them to respond with fuller appreciation of the subject matter.

There are several fine documentaries on Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ life, some of which give special attention to his meteoric rise to fame following the publication of “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” in 1865. This n’ That Films’ 2015 documentary 88 Days in the Mother Lode: Mark Twain Finds His Voice provides a superior exploration of this vitally fascinating genesis to Clemens’ budding career. Director John C. Brown and his co-Producer Bern Simonis show how in eighty-eight days Clemens went from “local newspaper reporter to eventually becoming an international celebrity” in the words of the very passionately enthusiastic Calaveras storyteller and author James Fletcher, one of the film’s narrators. The 70-minute film shows the significance of Clemens’ California stay at Jackass Hill in Tuolomne County and Angels Camp in Calaveras County from December 1864 to February 1865. To say that Clemens heard the jumping frog story in an old mining camp and set down a few brief lines does neither justice to the story nor, more importantly, to this highly formative time in his life.

Fletcher is accompanied in his commentary by five authoritative narrators: Victor Fischer, Principal Editor of the Mark Twain Papers and Project at the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley; James Caron, Professor of English at the University of Hawaii; Michelle Gordon, Assistant Professor of English at USC Los Angeles; and Rob Gordon of the Tuolumne County Historical Society. They are extremely engaging about this area in Mark Twain Studies. Their insightful and pertinent viewpoints are interwoven with a great variety of period photographs of Twain and his contemporaries, the Nevada territory, and California. Students’ attention is pleasingly held by the voice of Thomas McGuire as Mark Twain.

In addition, 88 Days features actors in period dress and locale moving and talking in voiceover in key scenes that capture the different atmosphere and emotional tones experienced by Clemens. The music is uplifting and many sweeping, aerial shots are used to give bird’s-eye views of Jackass Hill.

The film shows that the Civil War ended Clemens’ river piloting career and so he traveled with his brother Orion to the new Nevada territory. He tried his hand at silver mining without success, but his letters to the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise earned him a job offer as its city editor. Here he would meet Steve Gillis, the newspaper’s managing compositor – a task Clemens knew from the “printer’s devil” apprenticing days of his youth in Hannibal. Their friendship was “instant,” says Fletcher. In fact, Rob Gordon notes that eventually the entire Gillis family was instrumental in the development of Clemens during his time in the West.

From Clemens’ reporting mixed with fictionalizing characters and dialogue emerged “tales” which are recognizable, like Caron says, as “really Mark Twain!” But after telling lies with no apology, it was safer for Clemens to leave for San Francisco. Many students experience repeated failures in trying to find their talents in academics, sports, and extracurricular activities. They can connect with Clemens who, in his time as a reporter for The Morning Call and The Californian, is unhappy. Though he wrote important articles, they did not satisfy the talents he didn’t yet know he had.  His life in late 1864 is very sad and desperate. He was destitute and may have even considered suicide.

A barroom brawl involving Gillis cost Clemens $500 in bond money he didn’t have, after which he left San Francisco. He joined Gillis’s quartz-mining brother on Jackass Hill, where he waited for things to blow over.  There he meets Dick Stoker, Jim Gillis’s mining partner, who gives Clemens an impression that will last him a lifetime. Jim tells elaborate stories about Dick with “voracious history,” soberly pretending that they are true. As Fischer says, Jim’s “brilliant ability to spin these yarns and mesmerize his audience” gets into Clemens’s books later on. Michelle Gordon adds that Clemens “has a real ear for the pacing, the humor, the narrator’s posture or pose and how all this can shape how a story is told.”

One year earlier, he was influenced by Artemus Ward, the era’s greatest stage performer and the first to burlesque the serious lecture. These two exposures coincided with his time at Angels Camp in Calaveras County. Bartender Ben Coon’s serious tale of a rigged jumping frog contest awakened him to sharpening his gift for storytelling. As Rob Gordon argues, Ward’s successful lecturing style and willingness to help Clemens get started coalesce in “a spoken voice” for the platform which builds on the Mark Twain persona.

Fischer sees this as a time during which Clemens was inspired to try writing again. He buys a journal to record memories and observations which he feels could someday be useful either for tales or lectures, much like we require of our own students. Journaling is a great way to motivate students to practice writing with low-stakes, while also developing useful building blocks and a long-range plan for formal writing assignments.

Clemens realizes he cannot stay away from San Francisco forever and must earn money, so he travels back in February of 1865. He finds letters from Ward asking for a sketch. He revises and sends him the “jumping frog” story for publication, which becomes his vehicle to national fame.

The film also follows Twain’s trip to the Sandwich Islands to write travel letters for the Sacramento Union. Upon his return, theatre owner Thomas Maguire urges him to give a lecture. As Caron remarks, Clemens’s “natural conversational style drew in the audience with perfect timing, as though he is yarning back at the cabin again!” He is made “aware of ‘Mark Twain’ as a commercial brand and runs with it.”

Fletcher concludes the film with Clemens’s rising estimation of his written and oral talents, motivating him to leave the West, go back East, and sign up for the Holy Land Tour, which Twain aficionados know will result in his first long-form literary success, The Innocents Abroad.


Manzanita Writers Press has an accompanying book Mark Twain’s 88 Days in the Mother Lode & Stories of the Gold Rush (2015) written and compiled by Fletcher. In addition to studying many fine photographs, students will relate to reading about the annual four-day Calaveras County Fair & Jumping Frog Jubilee. also has a fifteen-minute interview of Director Brown and “Miner Jim” Fletcher prepared and conducted by the Calaveras County Visitors Bureau.

What my students said they gained from watching and discussing this film was foremost a reminder that their education involves the constant sharpening of critical listening skills. Samuel Clemens was not merely born with an innate understanding of the rhythms and structure of good storytelling. He developed that talent by carefully listening and analyzing the storytelling techniques of both professionals (like Ward) and skilled amateurs (like Coons). Furthermore, they respect that Twain’s literature and lectures only came to fruition through a laborious process of drafting and revising.

What is useful for teachers is that this film shows the early and persevering efforts of Mark Twain. Students see that in order to speak confidently and effectively in front of a classroom, a boardroom, or even an audience-filled theater, whether for entertainment or persuasion, they must devote themselves to methodical and deliberate preparation and rehearsed delivery.

They witness that his final work products in journalism, storytelling, and lecturing certainly did not come easy. Clemens persevered through hard work, determination, self-examination (including bouts of insecurity), resilience, and finally a recognition, acceptance, and development of his peculiar style as a writer and lecturer. His climb to success was not rapid.

Indeed, Fischer says that Clemens “had so much time to absorb all he saw for sketches, books, and memoirs all his life.” This reminds students to appreciate the vast amount of time given to them by virtue of their youth. They can relate to Mark Twain as a young person with ambition who had to overcome failures and reinvent himself before he found success.

Ultimately, I believe my students gain a fuller appreciation of the timeless gift of storytelling that is so vital to have in today’s complex world. Fischer comments that the Old West had its own culture and Clemens drew from it. This film challenges students to mine the ore of their own cultures and so understand and report to those around them.


John Pascal is an English teacher at Seton Hall Prep. He is a contributor to Mark Twain & Youth and a friend of CMTS who has been a Trouble Begins lecturer and Quarry Farm Fellow.  

Twain For Teachers: Market Your Own Patent Medicine

Editor’s Note: This is the first in what we hope will be an ongoing series focused on adapting Twain to the classroom. If you have an assignment, activity, lesson plan, syllabus design, or pedagogical narrative which you would like to share with other teachers, please consider writing it up (500-1200 words) and sending it [email protected]

Now approaching its third year, the English elective “Writings of Mark Twain” at Seton Hall Preparatory School in West Orange, New Jersey explores the life, works, and world of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. This is one of very few secondary school courses that focus on a single author for an entire year, and apparently the only one in the United States devoted to Mark Twain, which is a shame, since, in the words of Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “Mark Twain connects with everything!”

The course is open to juniors and seniors and this past year, in addition to studying a wide range of his sketches, essays, letters, and short stories, we took a class trip to the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford and Skyped with several noted Mark Twain scholars. The novel I selected for this year was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Obviously Twain’s literary output is enormously varied and the choice of a novel is a delightful challenge. The junior year English requirement focuses on American literature and has featured Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for decades, so most students have heard of Tom Sawyer, but never read it. When we teach Huckleberry Finn, there is a noticeable frustration with the opening pages, as students realize they are reading a sequel without knowing what happened in the first installment. They are excited to read Tom Sawyer, especially for Huck’s first appearance, and to see how much the characters have changed.

I ask the students if they were ever jealous of another individual. Did they ever feel a teacher was personally determined to lower their grade? Did they have Saturday plans ruined by their parents who had daylong chores set aside for them? Did they ever get bored in Sunday school or by sermons in their houses of worship? Did they ever dig up their mothers’ rose beds looking for buried treasure? Were they ever told to stay away from a friend in their neighborhood or an abandoned house at the end of the street? Did they ever have to take a horribly foul-tasting medicine? Perhaps most of all, do they remember their first crush?

The answers are enthusiastically “Yes!” every year. They are ready to read and appreciate Tom Sawyer’s sense of lost freedom, his desire for adventure, outdoors and away from parents and teachers, and, most interestingly, they appreciate the seductive, but potentially deceptive allure of unfamiliar people and products.

In conjunction with the novel, students do a project called Market Your Own Patent Medicine using information given in Dr. R. Kent Rasmussen’s Mark Twain for Kids: His Life & Times (Chicago Review Press, 2004).

Even though students wish they could have spent their younger years outside with Tom and his friends, they are surprised to learn that there were not the medicines and antibiotics that we take for granted today. Indeed, Dr. Rasmussen emphasizes the continual threat of little known diseases when Clemens was young, as well as their origins, preventions, and treatments. 21st-century students are astonished that there was no Food and Drug Administration to test and approve medicines with names like “Perry Davis’s Pain-Killer,” “Hamlin’s Wizard Oil,” and “Dr. Parmenter’s Magnetic Oil.” Rasmussen explains that most of these so-called “patent medicines” had harmless ingredients. Because an otherwise healthy body has the ability to recover from most common illnesses on its own, “people who took the patent medicines thought that the medicine had cured them” and were “happy to write glowing endorsements” that were used by salesmen to “sell more of their useless ‘medicine’”.

To give the students a true hands-on approach to creating and marketing a patent medicine, I wanted them to support Aunt Polly’s steadfast conviction when she tries to get Tom out of his depression in Chapter 12.

Per Rasmussen, a more authoritative “doctor,” the young men had to prepare their medicines with mixing bowls, sugar, water, food coloring, clean bottles with lids, felt-tip pens, plain adhesive labels, and writing paper.

The key was then to think of an appealing name for their “cure-alls” and to write a one-page advertisement listing “the ailments that the medicine can ‘cure’ (such as colds, rheumatism, dandruff, or backaches).” The advertisement “should also include endorsements, which they can write as if they had come from satisfied users, that rave about the good things that the medicine has done for them.”

My class of 24 students was broken into six groups. Each group was expected to “sell” their patent medicine to the rest of the class, with every member required to contribute something to the sales pitch. No digital technology was to be used. They were to draw with their hands and use their most powerful tool: imagination.

When they began working, the boys were quietly reluctant and asked very few clarifying questions.

But, I think that what they said when it came time to “sell” would have caused Mark Twain’s eyes to twinkle with satisfaction. The boys surpassed my expectations. They gave speeches about what the medicines cured and created poster-size endorsements, many from Twain’s literary characters and, amusingly, from the Mark Twain scholars whom they had Skyped with earlier in the term. Several groups uniquely personalized their modern “ailments.” Instead of curing a cold, they focused on shyness, ugliness, or laziness, sometimes at the expense of other members of the group, who laughed heartedly and returned the favor.

From this academic activity students connect more directly with some of Tom Sawyer’s actions. They worked with their hands as well as their minds, conspired like a band of robbers, used humor as a persuasive tool, as Twain so often does, and were able to appreciate aspects of this period in their country’s history that they otherwise wouldn’t think about at all. If nothing else, they have a fuller appreciation of the healthcare that they benefit from today.

 John Pascal is an English teacher at Seton Hall Prep. He is a contributor to Mark Twain & Youth and a friend of CMTS who has been a Trouble Begins lecturer and Quarry Farm Fellow.