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Mark Twain, 1835-1910
A True Story, Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It. From The Atlantic Monthly. Nov. 1874: 591-594
Boston: Atlantic Monthly Co., November 1874.


Mark Twain's tale of an enslaved mother's suffering originally appeared in the November 1874 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, between S.W. Rossie's poem "Nocturne" and George Cary Eggleston's "A Rebel's Recollections." Published nine years and seven months after Lee's surrender at Appomatox, Twain's piece—like those that accompanied it—told of sorrow and heartbreak during the Civil War era. Twain's title is all we have in the way of a preface, so it is not clear who originally told this story. Indeed, given Twain's frequent quips about honesty and deceit—"all men are liars, partial or hiders of facts, half tellers of truths"—we cannot rule out the possibility that the story is a product of his own imagination. Whatever the case may be, Twain's "true story" illustrates the toll that slavery took on families, particularly on mothers whose children were snatched away from them.

The story begins by introducing "Aunt Rachel," a sixty-year-old "colored" servant who is described as "a cheerful hearty soul" (p. 591). The narrator, identified only as "Misto C----," recalls unintentionally incurring Rachel's wrath by asking, "Aunt Rachel, how is it that you've lived sixty years and never had any trouble?" This question prompts Rachel's story—in Twain's characteristic dialect—about watching as her entire family is sold at a slave auction: "An' dey sole my ole man, an' took him away, an' dey began to sell my chil'en an' take dem away, an' I begin to cry; an' de man say, 'Shet up yo' dam blubberin', an' hit me on de mouf wid his han'" (p. 592). Rachel goes on to lament that of her seven children, she has seen only one since that day.

Sometime later, during or immediately after the Civil War, Rachel comes to work as a cook for a group of Union Army officers in New Bern, North Carolina. One Friday night, a platoon of black Union soldiers enters her kitchen "a-waltzin' an a-dancin'!" Shortly thereafter, she sees a familiar face: "an' de pan begin to tremble, an' all of a sudden I knowed!" Rachel is reunited with her son Henry, which inspires her to praise the "Lord God ob heaven" (p. 594). Rachel ends by answering with a double irony the question that prompted her tale: "'Oh, no, Misto C----, I hain't had no trouble. An' no joy!'"

Works Consulted: Paine, Albert B., Mark Twain's Notebook, New York: Harper & Brothers, 2006 (p. 181); Twain, Mark, "A True Story, Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It," The Atlantic Monthly 34:205 (Nov 1874): 591- 594.

Patrick E. Horn

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