For Twain, a humorist from the West, breaking into The Atlantic was an accomplishment he had aspired to for some time. As the author Ron Powers wrote in his biography of Twain, without the friendship and help of the magazine’s editor, William Dean Howells, “Twain might have flared for a while, a regional curiosity among many, and then faded, forgotten.” Ten years after this tale of slavery, Twain would create a literary icon in the escaped slave Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Above, Twain is pictured with John T. Lewis, who lived near him in Elmira, New York. “I have not known a honester man or a more respect-worthy one,” the author once said of his friend. (Library of Congress)
A fruitful relationship between Samuel Clemens and The Atlantic began in 1869, when William Dean Howells, then an assistant editor, wrote a favorable review of Clemens’s first book, Innocents Abroad. Clemens, who wrote under the name Mark Twain, was so pleased with the review that he stopped by The Atlantic’s offices to meet Howells. The two became friends, and after this first story was published in 1874, Twain’s work began to appear regularly in the magazine.
Twain submitted the manuscript for this piece with the following note: “I enclose … a ‘True Story,’ which has no humor in it … I have not altered the old colored woman’s story except to begin at the beginning, instead of the middle, as she did—and traveled both ways.” The woman in question was Mary Ann Cord (rechristened “Aunt Rachel” here), the cook at his sister-in-law’s farm in Elmira, New York.
Twain’s straightforward writing style marked a dramatic departure from the stilted language and rarefied tastes of the New England literary establishment, and through its embrace of Twain, The Atlantic helped chart a new direction in American literature.—Sage Stossel
It was summer time, and twilight. We were sitting on the porch of the farm-house, on the summit of the hill, and “Aunt Rachel” was sitting respectfully below our level, on the steps,—for she was our servant, and colored. She was of mighty frame and stature; she was sixty years old, but her eye was undimmed and her strength unabated. She was a cheerful, hearty soul, and it was no more trouble for her to laugh than it is for a bird to sing. She was under fire, now, as usual when the day was done. That is to say, she was being chaffed without mercy, and was enjoying it. She would let off peal after peal of laughter, and then sit with her face in her hands and shake with throes of enjoyment which she could no longer get breath enough to express. At such a moment as this a thought occurred to me, and I said:—
“Aunt Rachel, how is it that you ’ve lived sixty years and never had any trouble?”
She stopped quaking. She paused, and there was a moment of silence. She turned her face over her shoulder toward me, and said, without even a smile in her voice:—
“Misto C , is you in ’arnest?”
It surprised me a good deal; and it sobered my manner and my speech, too. I said:—
“Why, I thought—that is, I meant—why, you can’t have had any trouble. I’ve never heard you sigh, and never seen your eye when there wasn’t a laugh in it.”
She faced fairly around, now, and was full of earnestness.
“Has I had any trouble? Misto C , I’s gwyne to tell you, den I leave it to you. I was bawn down ’mongst de slaves; I knows all ’bout slavery, ’case I ben one of ’em my own se’f. Well, sah, my ole man—dat’s my husban’—he was lovin’ an’ kind to me, jist as kind as you is to yo’ own wife. An’ we had chil’en—seven chil’en—an’ we loved dem chil’en jist de same as you loves yo’ chil’en. Dey was black, but de Lord can’t make no chil’en so black but what dey mother loves ’em an’ wouldn’t give ’em up, no, not for anything dat’s in dis whole world.
“Well, sah, I was raised in Ole Fo’-ginny, but my mother she was raised in Maryland; an’ my souls! she was turrible when she’d git started! My lan’! but she’d make de fur fly! When she’d git into dem tantrums, she always had one word dat she said. She’d straighten herse’f up an’ put her fists in her hips an’ say, ‘I want you to understan’ dat I wa’ n’t bawn in de mash to be fool’ by trash! I’s one o’ de ole Blue Hen’s Chickens, I is!’ ’Ca’se, you see, dat’s what folks dat’s bawn in Maryland calls deyselves, an’ dey’s proud of it. Well, dat was her word. I don’t ever forgit it, beca’se she said it so much, an’ beca’se she said it one day when my little Henry tore his wris’ awful, an’ most busted his head, right up at de top of his forehead, an’ de niggers did n’t fly aroun’ fas’ enough to ’tend to him. An’ when dey talk’ back at her, she up an’ she says, ‘Look-a-heah!’ she says, ‘I want you niggers to understan’ dat I wa’ n’t bawn in de mash to be fool’ by trash! I’s one o’ de ole Blue Hen’s Chickens, I is!’ an’ den she clar’ dat kitchen an’ bandage’ up de chile herse’f. So I says dat word, too, when I’s riled.
“Well, bymeby my ole mistis say she’s broke, an’ she got to sell all de niggers on de place. An’ when I heah dat dey gwyne to sell us all off at oction in Richmon’, oh de good gracious! I know what dat mean!”
Aunt Rachel had gradually risen, while she warmed to her subject, and now she towered above us, black against the stars.
“Dey put chains on us an’ put us on a stan’ as high as dis po’ch,—twenty foot high,—an’ all de people stood aroun’, crowds an’ crowds. An’ dey’d come up dah an’ look at us all roun’, an’ squeeze our arm, an’ make us git up an’ walk, an’ den say, ‘Dis one too ole,’ or ‘Dis one lame,’ or ‘Dis one don’t ’mount to much.’ An’ dey sole my ole man, an’ took him away, an’ dey begin 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’. An’ when de las’ one was gone but my little Henry, I grab’ him clost up to my breas’ so, an’ I ris up an’ says, ‘You shan’t take him away,’ I says; ‘I’ll kill de man dat tetches him!’ I says. But my little Henry whisper an’ say, ‘I gwyne to run away, an’ den I work an’ buy yo’ freedom.’ Oh, bless de chile, he always so good! But dey got him—dey got him, de men did; but I took and tear de clo’es mos’ off of ’em, an’ beat ’em over de head wid my chain; an’ dey give it to me, too, but I did n’t mine dat.