27 pages 54 minutes read

Mark Twain

A True Story

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1874

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “A True Story, Word for Word as I Heard It”

“A True Story, Word for Word as I Heard It” is a short story by Mark Twain, first published in 1874 in the Atlantic Monthly. Mark Twain was an American writer known for such classics as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In its critique of slavery and racism, the story anticipates Huck Finn; it also explores themes of The Possibility of Human Connection, Black Women Defying Racism and Sexism, and The Complexity of Joy in an Unjust World.

This guide references the original text, which is available through Mark Twain Studies.

Content Warning: The source material contains elements that readers may find objectionable, including racism, enslavement, racial slurs (including the n-word), and violence.

Taking place outside the farmhouse of the story’s narrator, “A True Story” is mostly told by Aunt Rachel, a 60-year-old Black woman who works for a white family. She tells her story to the narrator, who is only referred to as “Misto C—,” potentially the redacted name of Mark Twain’s real name, Samuel Clemens.

One summer evening, Misto C is sitting on the porch of his farmhouse. Aunt Rachel is sitting “respectfully below” him and his family. The narrator describes Aunt Rachel as strong, especially for her age, and a “cheerful, hearty soul” (591). At the end of each day, she laughs.

Reflecting on the joy that Aunt Rachel exudes, the narrator asks her a question:

how she can have avoided all “trouble” in her 60 years of life. Aunt Rachel considers and then asks the narrator whether he’s being serious. Surprised, the narrator stammers and rephrases his question, noting that he has never heard Aunt Rachel sigh or seen her without a laugh in her eye. Aunt Rachel turns fully around and tells the narrator that she will answer the question and let him judge for himself.

Aunt Rachel explains that she was formerly enslaved and describes her husband and their affection for one another. They had seven children, about whom Aunt Rachel comments that “de Lord can’t make no children so black but what dey mother loves ’em” (591). She herself was raised in Virginia by a mother from Maryland, who could be “terrible” in certain moods. Aunt Rachel recounts a particular phrase her mother said at such times: “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” (592). Aunt Rachel will never forget those words, which her mother even said when Rachel’s son Henry was badly injured, sustaining scars to his wrists and head.

Later, Aunt Rachel’s enslaver sold her at an auction in Richmond. There, Aunt Rachel and others were put in chains and set on a platform in front of a crowd. The planters inspected the enslaved people, commenting on their age and ability. Rachel began to cry when her husband and six of her children were sold, prompting an enslaver to hit her on the mouth and tell her to be quiet. When the same man grabbed her son Henry, Aunt Rachel seized the man and threatened to kill anyone who touched him. Henry whispered to Rachel that he would run away and then purchase his mother’s freedom. However, the enslavers seized him, causing Aunt Rachel to beat them over the head with her chain.

A Confederate general bought Aunt Rachel and brought her to Newbern to work as a cook. During the Civil War, the Union army took over the town and the general ran away, leaving Rachel and the other enslaved people in “dat mons’us big house” (592). The Union soldiers asked if Rachel would cook for them, and she agreed happily. The soldiers were high ranking, and one of the generals told her that she was now safe and could scold anyone who gave her trouble.

Aunt Rachel reflects on Henry, who she was confident would have made it to the North if he ran away. She talked with the Union soldiers and asked them if they had seen him, mentioning the scars on his left wrist and head. They asked when she lost him, and she said it was 13 years prior. The general commented that Henry would be a man by now, a thought that hadn’t occurred to Aunt Rachel. The men hadn’t seen her son, who she later learned had escaped to the North and became a barber. When the Civil War started, Henry quit his job, resolving to find his mother. He joined the army as an officer’s servant and fought throughout the South, all without Rachel knowing anything about it.

When the Union Army had a soldier’s ball at Newbern, a lot of soldiers were making noise in the kitchen. On a Friday night, a Black regiment of soldiers was guarding the house, dancing and having a good time. The soldiers were making fun of Aunt Rachel’s “red turban” and playing music too loud. Aunt Rachel got so upset that she upbraided them with her mother’s saying. When she did, a young man looked at the ceiling as if in thought. The young man told another soldier that he had something on his mind and couldn’t sleep.

At seven o’clock in the morning, Aunt Rachel was still working over the stove when she saw a Black man approaching her. They locked eyes, and Aunt Rachel trembled. She dropped her pan of biscuits and grabbed his sleeve to see his scar and forehead. After seeing the scars, she recognized him as Henry. Aunt Rachel concludes her story, saying, “Oh, no, Misto C—, I hain’t had no trouble. An’ no joy!” (594).

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