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.
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:—