"A True Story" was MT's first sustained attempt to represent the experience of slavery and to employ an African American voice. ("Sociable Jimmy," a sketch MT wrote about the same time, also shows his interest in "black" speech.) MT of course claimed that a lot of preposterous tales were the petrified truth, but there is every reason to believe that this one time the "True Story" is true. In many ways, however, each time MT repeated it in collaboration with white publishers and illustrators, it got further away from the person he heard it from. "Aunt Rachel," the woman whose story it was, was actually named Mary Ann Cord, a former slave who worked as a servant at Quarry Farm, the Elmira house where MT's sister-in-law had built him a study.
MT heard her story while staying in Elmira in the summer of 1874, and apparently soon wrote it down. His 29-page manuscript, now in the Barrett Collection, shows how carefully he worked to get her dialect right. When he submitted the piece to his friend William Dean Howells, an editor at the prestigious Atlantic Monthly magazine, MT expressed some doubts about it: "it is rather out of my line," he wrote, because it "has no humor in it." Howells liked it very much, and when he published it in November it became MT's first Atlantic publication, though he later said that some of the magazine's readers suspected it must contain a joke they just weren't getting. In 1875 MT reprinted it in his Sketches, New and Old , where it was illustrated by True Williams, who almost certainly never saw Mary Ann Cord, but already had an image of what "Aunt Rachel" should look like.
All three of these original versions — the MS, the magazine text and the illustrated book publication — are available through the links below. In addition, the Atlantic pages provide continuous access to the manuscript pages, as does the first of the digitial transcriptions. There is also a plain digital version of the text.