“…an' dat's twenty-two year ago las’ Easter”:
Personal Meditations on “A True Story”
Article first published online: 3 NOV 2010
© 2010 The Mark Twain Circle of America/Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
The Mark Twain Annual
Volume 8, Issue 1, pages 99–102, November 2010
How to Cite
SNEDECOR, B. (2010), “…an' dat's twenty-two year ago las’ Easter”:. The Mark Twain Annual, 8: 99–102. doi: 10.1111/j.1756-2597.2010.00045.x
- Issue published online: 3 NOV 2010
- Article first published online: 3 NOV 2010
As Director of the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies, I regularly inhabit airspace rich in literary history. Every spring, summer, and fall, I stand in the proximate spot where Mary Ann Cord stood on that summer's evening in 1874 when Samuel Clemens’ provoking comment, “Mary Ann, how is it that you’ve lived sixty years and never had any trouble?” elicited her chiding response, “Misto C –, is you in 'arnest?” Often enough, as I read selected paragraphs from Mary Ann's account to the schoolchildren, adults, teachers, and students who gather on the front porch before me, the power of Clemens’ rendering of Mary Ann's voice overtakes my speech, and her cadence – with its broken grammar, accents, and musicality – silences even restless listeners to attention. My rendering of Mary Ann's account often ends at the phrase, “an’ dat's twenty-two year ago las’ Easter.”
How did it happen, I often wonder, that Mark Twain invokes this image of Easter in his “A True Story, repeated word for word As I heard It”? The manuscript – a copy of the first and last page hang in my office – shows a triple strikeout indicating Clemens’ removal of the word Perfectly from his working title. This elimination has caused me to wonder just how perfectly – or imperfectly – Mark Twain captured Mary Ann's account. What caused this self-edit? How much of the text reflects accurate duplication of Mary Ann's story? How much shows authorial and creative intervention? What does it mean to perfectly repeat a story, anyway? Does this refer only to the sound of the voice or to every detail of the story? Were the references to scripture insertions by Clemens or part of Mary Ann's original account?
There are, to be sure, several plainly religious connotations in the story in addition to the mention of “las’ Easter,” and my repeated readings have caused me to consider its many references to Old and New Testament stories. Mary Ann's name change to Aunt Rachel would likely have been the conscious choice of Samuel Clemens. Young Samuel's Calvinistic childhood would have taught him well of the account of Rachel and Jacob and Leah and Joseph. The Old Testament tells us that Rachel was Jacob's second wife, his beloved, for whom he had to first marry her sister, Leah. After their eventual marriage, Rachel remains barren for many years, while Leah produces seed. Rachel finally conceives a child – a son, Joseph – who becomes Jacob's favorite child and keeper of the birth rite. Much later, in Old Testament Jeremiah 31:15, Jeremiah refers to “Rachel weeping for her children.” This reference is often interpreted as Rachel crying for an end to her descendants’ sufferings and exile following the destruction by the Babylonians of the first temple in ancient Jerusalem at Rama. Rama is the place where the Babylonians assembled those from Jerusalem and Judah for deportation into slavery in Babylon. Similarly, in New Testament Matthew 2:18, the name of Rachel is again invoked, this time as a comment on Herod the Great’s massacre of the male babies under two years of age in his attempt to kill the young Jesus. The following plaintive verse refers to Rachel, specifically, but seems also to refer to the sounds of all the suffering mothers: “In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.” For many reasons, then, the selection of the name of Rachel multiplies the pathos in the story.
Clemens’ choice of Rachel as the name for Mary Ann Cord may have had additional biographically rich catalysts. June was possibly a time of remembrance for Sam and Livy, for their firstborn and only son, Langdon Clemens, had died two years earlier, on June 2nd, 1872, of pneumonia, and had been buried in nearby Woodlawn Cemetery, his small stone set in the dirt near his recently deceased grandpa and namesake, Jervis Langdon. This very summer, just twenty days earlier, in fact, on June 8th, 1874, Samuel and Livy had welcomed the birth of their third child, a daughter, Clara, born at Quarry Farm. Seated on East Hill in the June twilight – just at the moment when light turns to darkness and the black sky begins its illumination with twinkling starlight – Clemens’ may have pondered, with pain, the death of his little boy two years earlier and, with joy, the births of his two beautiful daughters, one so recently newborn. Perhaps, too, his thoughts turned to his own younger brother, Henry, as he listened to Mary Ann's account of her Henry. Perhaps during her telling, or possibly in creative reflection afterwards as he thought of Mary Ann's sorrow and his own and Livy's sorrows – and joys – Clemens’ mind may have found natural resonance in the lamentations of Rachel. Selection of name infuses the story with connotations that enhance Mary Ann's account.
The specific reference to Easter builds upon the Old Testament thread. Aunt Rachel, after recounting her family's separation and the sale of her husband and seven children into slavery, shares with her Quarry Farm audience, “Well, dah was my ole man gone, an’ all my chil’en, all my seven chil’en – an’ six of ’em I hain't set eyes on ag’in to dis day, an’ dat's twenty-two year ago las’ Easter.” Did Mary Ann talk of Easter? Did she invoke that central moment in Christianity, that morning of reunion and resurrection after the separation of the grave – or did Clemens’ brilliant and meditative mind, at work alone in his newly gifted hilltop study – summon this image of Easter morning to Mary Ann's story? The latent images of death and resurrection – of anger and confusion on a Friday night in Aunt Rachel's kitchen and of an early-morning recognition based on scars – did these images originate from an imagination responsive to biblical stories, or were they part of Mary Ann's original account? It may be impossible to know for certain, but for me, at least, the mere mention of Easter elicits greater meaning and also a bit of temporal uncertainty.
My ambiguity lies in my inability to pinpoint exactly what happened twenty-two years ago on Easter. Was that the last time Mary Ann saw her children? Was Easter the very day they were sold into slavery? Or was that the morning when Mary Ann was reunited with her son – twenty-two years ago? If her family was sold and separated on Easter, the condemnation of those involved in that sale would be huge, and Clemens may well have been suggesting that awful indictment. If, however, Easter Sunday was the moment of Aunt Rachel's reunion with her son, Henry, a much different set of inferences take hold. One could imagine that the big “sojer ball” might have been held on an Easter Weekend, “twenty-two year ago.” If that were the case, the event of the mother-son reunion happening on Easter would enhance the beauty of the account. Regardless of the exact timeframe, Easter is part of the story, and the Friday evening dismissal by Mary Ann of the irreverent “platoon f’m a nigger ridgment”–“Git along wid you!– rubbage!”– smacks just a bit of the Friday evening abandonment central to the New Testament account; the reunion of mother and son, although here occurring on a Saturday morning, takes on elements of the Easter sunrise in the New Testament.
There is in the story, at first, as in the biblical account, a lack of recognition at daybreak:
“Well, ’bout seven, I was up an’ on hand’, gittin’ de officers’ breakfast. I was a-stoopin’ down by de stove, … an’ I’d jist got de pan o’ hot biscuits in my han’ an’ was ’bout to raise up, when I see a black face come aroun’ under mine, an’ de eyes a-lookin’ up into mine, … and I just stopped right dah, an’ never budged! Jist gazed, an’ gazed, so; …
As seconds pass, Mary Ann experiences a revelatory understanding much like others in the scriptural Easter morning account:
“an’ all of a sudden I knowed! De pan drop’ on de flo’ an’ I grab his lef’ han’ an’ shove back his sleeve, –…– an’ den I goes for his forehead an’ push de hair back, so, an’‘Boy!’ I says, ‘if you an't my Henry, what is you doin’ wid dis welt on yo’ wris’ and dat sk-yar on yo’ forehead? De Lord God ob heaven be praise’, I got my own ag’in!”
This is clearly an exultant reunion – an unexpected resurrection of a son never expected to be seen again. The scar is central to recognition as in the New Testament account. Of course, one cannot declare with certainty how Mary Ann's telling of her story compares with Clemens’ rendering. Were the scars a part of Mary Ann's account? Did Clemens perceive the power in the convergence of death, separation, scars, and reunion – or resurrection – when he first heard this telling?
Something powerful happened on the porch at Quarry Farm on that June evening – something that had the natural energy to initiate a shift in Clemens’ writing, a movement from humor and travel to notions of larger import. A letter written by Olivia Langdon Clemens to her husband on Monday, June 29, 1874, from Quarry Farm – the evening following Mary Ann's account – underscores the sense that, on a personal level, something of truth and tenderness had reverberated on the porch that night. Livy writes to her husband:
Allie and Theodore have come and had their tea and now we are sitting much as we did last night. I am sitting inside the window, Sue & Allie outside but darling I do miss you as night comes. Allie sits just where you did when Aunty Cord was telling us of her son but I don't hold her hand as I did yours, Oh how I love you, & long for your return when you are absent. Livy. (MS: CtHMTH, #01094)
Livy's voice is one of a wife who has shared deep tenderness amidst grief and now longs for her husband's return. Her prose suggests that the emotions of the previous evening linger in her memory, too. Livy's letter allows us to better imagine this emerging moment in the development of Samuel Clemens’ prose.
Despite Clemens’ self-edited strikethrough, his “A True Story, repeated word for word as I heard it” offers flawless connections with both Old and New Testament stories that enhance the beauty of Mary Ann's account. To an appreciative reader, these allusions – to Rachel, to scars, and to Easter – offer rich connections to loss and reunion, death and resurrection, and mesh scripture with personal narrative.