Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XCV

An “Atlantic” Story and a Play

The reference to “Auntie Cord” in the letter to Dr. Brown brings us to Mark Twain’s first contribution to the Atlantic Monthly. Howells in his Recollections of his Atlantic editorship, after referring to certain Western contributors, says:

Later came Mark Twain, originally of Missouri, but then provisionally of Hartford, and now ultimately of the solar system, not to say the universe. He came first with “A True Story,” one of those noble pieces of humanity with which the South has atoned chiefly, if not solely, through him for all its despite to the negro.

Clemens had long aspired to appear in the Atlantic, but such was his own rating of his literature that he hardly hoped to qualify for its pages. Twichell remembers his “mingled astonishment and triumph” when he was invited to send something to the magazine.

He was obliged to “send something” once or twice before the acceptance of “A True Story,” the narrative of Auntie Cord, and even this acceptance brought with it the return of a fable which had accompanied it, with the explanation that a fable like that would disqualify the magazine for every denominational reader, though Howells hastened to express his own joy in it, having been particularly touched by the author’s reference to Sisyphus and Atlas as ancestors of the tumble-bug. The “True Story,” he said, with its “realest king of black talk,” won him, and a few days later he wrote again: “This little story delights me more and more. I wish you had about forty of ’em.”

And so, modestly enough, as became him, for the story was of the simplest, most unpretentious sort, Mark Twain entered into the school of the elect.

In his letter to Howells, accompanying the MS., the author said:

I inclose also “A True Story,” which has no humor in it. You can pay as lightly as you choose for that if you want it, for it is rather out of my line. I have not altered the old colored woman’s story, except to begin it at the beginning, instead of the middle, as she did — and traveled both ways.

Howells in his Recollections tells of the business anxiety in the Atlantic office in the effort to estimate the story’s pecuniary value. Clemens and Harte had raised literary rates enormously; the latter was reputed to have received as much as five cents a word from affluent newspapers! But the Atlantic was poor, and when sixty dollars was finally decided upon for the three pages (about two and a half cents a word) the rate was regarded as handsome — without precedent in Atlantic history. Howells adds that as much as forty times this amount was sometimes offered to Mark Twain in later years. Even in ’74 he had received a much higher rate than that offered by the Atlantic — but no acceptance, then, or later, ever made him happier, or seemed more richly rewarded.

“A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It” was precisely what it claimed to be. 84 Auntie Cord, the Auntie Rachel of that tale, cook at Quarry Farm, was a Virginia negress who had been twice sold as a slave, and was proud of the fact; particularly proud that she had brought $1,000 on the block. All her children had been sold away from her, but it was a long time ago, and now at sixty she was fat and seemingly without care. She had told her story to Mrs. Crane, who had more than once tried to persuade her to tell it to Clemens; but Auntie Cord was reluctant. One evening, however, when the family sat on the front veranda in the moonlight, looking down on the picture city, as was their habit, Auntie Cord came around to say good night, and Clemens engaged her in conversation. He led up to her story, and almost before she knew it she was seated at his feet telling the strange tale in almost the exact words in which it was set down by him next morning. It gave Mark Twain a chance to exercise two of his chief gifts — transcription and portrayal. He was always greater at these things than at invention. Auntie Cord’s story is a little masterpiece.

84 [Atlantic Monthly for November, 1874; also included in Sketches New and Old.]

He wished to do more with Auntie Cord and her associates of the farm, for they were extraordinarily interesting. Two other negroes on the place, John Lewis and his wife (we shall hear notably of Lewis later), were not always on terms of amity with Auntie Cord. They disagreed on religion, and there were frequent battles in the kitchen. These depressed the mistress of the house, but they gave only joy to Mark Twain. His Southern raising had given him an understanding of their humors, their native emotions which made these riots a spiritual gratification. He would slip around among the shrubbery and listen to the noise and strife of battle, and hug himself with delight. Sometimes they resorted to missiles — stones, tinware — even dressed poultry which Auntie Cord was preparing for the oven. Lewis was very black, Auntie Cord was a bright mulatto, Lewis’s’ wife several shades lighter. Wherever the discussion began it promptly shaded off toward the color-line and insult. Auntie Cord was a Methodist; Lewis was a Dunkard. Auntie Cord was ignorant and dogmatic; Lewis could read and was intelligent. Theology invariably led to personality, and eventually to epithets, crockery, geology, and victuals. How the greatest joker of the age did enjoy that summer warfare!

The fun was not all one-sided. An incident of that summer probably furnished more enjoyment for the colored members of the household than it did for Mark Twain. Lewis had some fowls, and among them was a particularly pestiferous guinea-hen that used to get up at three in the morning and go around making the kind of a noise that a guinea-hen must like and is willing to get up early to hear. Mark Twain did not care for it. He stood it as long as he could one morning, then crept softly from the house to stop it.

It was a clear, bright night; locating the guinea-hen, he slipped up stealthily with a stout stick. The bird was pouring out its heart, tearing the moonlight to tatters. Stealing up close, Clemens made a vicious swing with his bludgeon, but just then the guinea stepped forward a little, and he missed. The stroke and his explosion frightened the fowl, and it started to run. Clemens, with his mind now on the single purpose of revenge, started after it. Around the trees, along the paths, up and down the lawn, through gates and across the garden, out over the fields, they raced, “pursuer and pursued.” The guinea nor longer sang, and Clemens was presently too exhausted to swear. Hour after hour the silent, deadly hunt continued, both stopping to rest at intervals; then up again and away. It was like something in a dream. It was nearly breakfast-time when he dragged himself into the house at last, and the guinea was resting and panting under a currant-bush. Later in the day Clemens gave orders to Lewis to “kill and eat that guinea-hen,” which Lewis did. Clemens himself had then never eaten a guinea, but some years later, in Paris, when the delicious breast of one of those fowls was served him, he remembered and said:

“And to think, after chasing that creature all night, John Lewis got to eat him instead of me.”

The interest in Tom and Huck, or the inspiration for their adventures, gave out at last, or was superseded by a more immediate demand. As early as May, Goodman, in San Francisco, had seen a play announced there, presenting the character of Colonel Sellers, dramatized by Gilbert S. Densmore and played by John T. Raymond. Goodman immediately wrote Clemens; also a letter came from Warner, in Hartford, who had noticed in San Francisco papers announcements of the play. Of course Clemens would take action immediately; he telegraphed, enjoining the performance. Then began a correspondence with the dramatist and actor. This in time resulted in an amicable arrangement, by which the dramatist agreed to dispose of his version to Clemens. Clemens did not wait for it to arrive, but began immediately a version of his own. Just how much or how little of Densmore’s work found its way into the completed play, as presented by Raymond later, cannot be known now. Howells conveys the impression that Clemens had no hand in its authorship beyond the character of Sellers as taken from the book. But in a letter still extant, which Clemens wrote to Howells at the time, he says:

I worked a month on my play, and launched it in New York last Wednesday. I believe it will go. The newspapers have been complimentary. It is simply a setting for one character, Colonel Sellers. As a play I guess it will not bear critical assault in force.

The Warners are as charming as ever. They go shortly to the devil for a year — that is, to Egypt.

Raymond, in a letter which he wrote to the Sun, November 3, 1874, declared that “not one line” of Densmore’s dramatization was used, “except that which was taken bodily from The Gilded Age.” During the newspaper discussion of the matter, Clemens himself prepared a letter for the Hartford Post. This letter was suppressed, but it still exists. In it he says:

I entirely rewrote the play three separate and distinct times. I had expected to use little of his [Densmore’s] language and but little of his plot. I do not think there are now twenty sentences of Mr. Densmore’s in the play, but I used so much of his plot that I wrote and told him that I should pay him about as much more as I had already paid him in case the play proved a success. I shall keep my word.

This letter, written while the matter was fresh in his mind, is undoubtedly in accordance with the facts. That Densmore was fully satisfied may be gathered from an acknowledgment, in which he says: “Your letter reached me on the ad, with check. In this place permit me to thank you for the very handsome manner in which you have acted in this matter.”

Warner, meantime, realizing that the play was constructed almost entirely of the Mark Twain chapters of the book, agreed that his collaborator should undertake the work and financial responsibilities of the dramatic venture and reap such rewards as might result. Various stories have been told of this matter, most of them untrue. There was no bitterness between the friends, no semblance of an estrangement of any sort. Warner very generously and promptly admitted that he was not concerned with the play, its authorship, or its profits, whatever the latter might amount to. Moreover, Warner was going to Egypt very soon, and his labors and responsibilities were doubly sufficient as they stood.

Clemens’s estimate of the play as a dramatic composition was correct enough, but the public liked it, and it was a financial success from the start. He employed a representative to travel with Raymond, to assist in the management and in the division of spoil. The agent had instructions to mail a card every day, stating the amount of his share in the profits. Howells once arrived in Hartford just when this postal tide of fortune was at its flood:

One hundred and fifty dollars — two hundred dollars — three hundred dollars were the gay figures which they bore, and which he flaunted in the air, before he sat down at the table, or rose from it to brandish, and then, flinging his napkin in the chair, walked up and down to exult in.

Once, in later years, referring to the matter, Howells said “He was never a man who cared anything about money except as a dream, and he wanted more and more of it to fill out the spaces of this dream.” Which was a true word. Mark Twain with money was like a child with a heap of bright pebbles, ready to pile up more and still more, then presently to throw them all away and begin gathering anew.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00